The only hard and fast rule here is that, in order to be considered, the film must have been released theatrically. That means no made for television movies or direct to video cheapies. These are the scenes that will shock you, make you scream or hold your hands in front of your eyes while reminding yourself “it’s only a movie.”
NOTE: This post contains plot details and, in some cases, spoilers. In each installment of this three part series, films are listed alphabetically. Rather than cluttering the post with tons of video players, a link to a clip of each scariest movie moment is included. Some of these clips are particularly graphic. You have been warned.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
SCARIEST MOMENT: MIKE IN THE CORNER
Made for less than $25,000, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT grossed almost $250,000,000 at the North American box office. Not only is it one of the most successful independent films of all time, it also started the “found footage” genre and remains one of the most intensely debated modern horror films. I’m in the camp that loved the movie. It does a terrific job of building terror and suspense over the course of a tight 81 minutes with no gore and no fancy special effects.
The mock documentary focuses on Mike, Josh and Heather, three young filmmakers who venture into the Maryland woods in search of the legendary Blair Witch. They are never heard from again. Only the videos of their shoot survive. Using little more than sound effects and psychological suggestion, the film builds to a climax in a old, abandoned house. The final shot of Mike facing the corner, a chilling visual reference to a child killer that is part of the film’s mythology, still gives me the heebie jeebies.
SCARIEST MOMENT: BOB BECOMES A WALL HANGING
It’s really hard to pick just one scary scene from a horror movie like HALLOWEEN. It’s a genre classic that has survived multiple bad sequels and numerous pale imitators. Even after 35 years, it still packs a punch. HALLOWEEN may have launched a thousand awful slasher films but it is the original and still the best.
The first time I saw HALLOWEEN, the scene that gave me the biggest scare was Bob’s murder. You know something bad is going to happen because the lights are out and our poor victim just bonked his girlfriend Lynda (sex typically led to a gory death in the first wave of modern “maniac on the loose” films). What works so well here is director John Carpenter’s use of classic misdirection and that final moment, when Michael Myers pauses to look at his deadly handiwork as Bob hangs on the wall like a 3D painting (physics be damned).
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
SCARIEST MOMENT: THAT ENDING
Philip Kaufman’s take on the 1956 classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is that rare re-make that can stand alongside the original. Both are among my all time favorite sci-fi horror movies.
Shot using desaturated color, in a cold, almost cinéma vérité style, Kaufman sets the film in then present day San Francisco. The gray and drizzly environs make a perfect setting for a tale of creeping alien terror. Unlike Don Siegel, director of the original, Kaufman was not forced to tack on a happy ending. That final moment, when we realize our hero Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is no longer human, has become an iconic cinematic coda.
SCARIEST MOMENT: THE UNDERWATER CORPSE
Apparently, my dad liked to scare the crap out of me because he took me to see JAWS in 1975, ten days before my ninth birthday. I still have vivid memories of what would become one of my favorite movie going experiences.
While the opening attack on poor Chrissie and Quint’s (Robert Shaw) bloody death get all the attention, the one moment in JAWS that still makes me jump is Ben Gardner’s corpse pulling off a shocking peek-a-boo. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Brodie (Roy Scheider) go on a nighttime hunt for our finny killer after discovering the stomach contents of one shark contained zero human nuggets. They come across Gardner’s half submerged boat. Hooper takes a dive, discovers a big tooth embedded in the hull and then, without warning, old Ben pops out of a hole, sans eyeball. The scene never fails to get me.
THE OMEN (1976)
SCARIEST MOMENT: MRS. BAYLOCK VISITS THE HOSPITAL
It’s the film that made the name “Damien” synonymous with the devil. THE OMEN is a satanic tour-de-force. A first-rate cast, an uncompromisingly serious script and a series of now iconic set-pieces are just a few of the reasons this film has become an enduring horror classic. Watch it today and it still works magnificently.
While a casual observer might pick the scene when nanny takes a neck swing at Damien’s birthday party or the horrifying decapitation of Jennings (David Warner) by a wayward sheet of plate glass, for my money, any time Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) is on screen, my skin crawls.
Whitelaw inhabits the role of Damien’s protector like nobody else could. Of all her creep-tastic moments, the one that really stands out is Baylock’s visit to the hospital where she kills Katherine (Lee Remick). What makes the scene work so well (aside from Whitelaw’s nightmarishly scary face) is how helpless poor Katherine is. Plus, she already survived Damien’s attempt to off her earlier in the film. In a lesser movie, living through a near-death experience would mean you’d make it to closing credits. Here, it sends you out a window head first into the roof of an ambulance. It’s a spectacular sequence made even more memorable because Mrs. Baylock came a-calling.
SCARIEST MOMENT: ARBOGAST MEETS “MOTHER”
Just about everyone remembers the first time they saw PSYCHO. If you don’t, it’s probably because you haven’t seen it. Alfred Hitchcock directed his follow-up to NORTH BY NORTHWEST on a comparatively tiny budget using a TV crew and shooting in black and white. Not only is PSYCHO a genre classic, it’s considered one of the best movies of all time. It's a well-deserved distinction.
Everyone knows about the shower scene where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is julienned. It’s probably the single most dissected three minutes in movie history. Yes, it’s a stunner but I’ve always thought the scariest moment comes later in the film. That’s when Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a detective looking for the missing Crane, has the misfortune of meeting “Mother.”
The sequence is exquisitely shot. There’s the gorgeous deep focus background as Arbogast climbs the stairs and that disorienting overhead view just before “Mother” makes “her” murderous entrance. Unlike the shower scene, here there is no warning of the bloodletting to come. Before you know what’s happening, the detective is slashed across the face and “Mother” has claimed another victim. Classic.
Stay tuned for part two, coming soon. In the meantime, enjoy a peek at the original promotional teaser for PSYCHO featuring Hitchcock at his macabre best!