Many filmgoers have come to realize that just because a film is classified as a horror film doesn’t mean that the movie will actually be scary. These days, you’re more likely to sit down and watch a horror film and laugh or feel incredibly safe as opposed to screaming or feeling uncontrollably vulnerable. Some classic horror films have even lost their touch. Yet, what makes film interesting is that other genres of movies find a way to incorporate moments of genuine horror and scariness into their films, many times better than any full-fledged horror film can. Moments like this are usually personal, for one very affecting moment may scare one viewer and create little to no emotional response in another. But that is the beauty of filmmaking and in watching films, for no two people react the exact same way to any moment, scene, act, or total film. In honor of Halloween and all the ‘scary’ tendencies that are attached to the holiday, I share with you a list of ten on-screen moments in non-horror films that resonate with me as ‘scary.’ They range in their ability to still scare me and in the type of fear I felt/feel when I watch/watched them, but these ten moments display how a movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a horror film to plant a feeling of absolute dread and despair in audience members.
In no particular order:
Film Title: Memento
Director: Christopher Nolan
Release Year: 2000
The Moment: “NEVER ANSWER THE PHONE”
Why It’s Scary: Leonard has been speaking with someone on the phone for sometime now chronicling the devastating recent events of his life in vivid detail, an entire interaction he won’t remember in a few minutes because of his severe short term memory loss, until he suddenly tears off a piece of paper taped to his thigh that reveals a recent addition to his repertoire of body tattoos that reads, in bold capital letters, “NEVER ANSWER THE PHONE.” Realizing the error he’s made, Leonard finally asks who he has been speaking to for so long, but the caller hangs up the phone and Leonard is left with nothing but a dial tone ringing from the receiver. Having become so involved in Leonard’s plight by this point in the film, this moment causes the relatively slow moving plot of the first half (meaning the black and white segments) to suddenly leap forward. However, it leaps forward with such spontaneity that it’s immediately chilling for the viewers. Plus, with the crisp black and white photography, the stunning appearance of the tattoo and realization of what it reads is perfectly executed; the insecurity that takes over Leonard’s entire composure affects us transitively as well. In this mindbending thriller, this moment is easily one of the most tense and unexpected and is where the two distant halves of the film begin to converge toward the climactic reveal. It’s a phenomenal moment that had me reeling in fear on my initial viewing many years ago. In Nolan we trust, showing so early on in his filmmaking career that he could weave fear into his intellectual thrillers.
Film Title: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Director: Victor Fleming
Release Year: 1968
The Moment: The Vulgarian Child Catcher
Why It’s Scary: How many times have your parents told you to stay away from strangers, and how many times have you heard that strangers use candy to lure naïve children to them? I guess Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) never imparted that important information to his two children, Jeremy and Jemima, for they are seduced by the goodies provided by the Cyrano de Bergerac-inspired Child Catcher of Vulgaria. The prancing and sashaying man of indubitable politeness traps children in the cage of his horse drawn carriage and imprisons them per the request of Baron and Baroness Bomburst. If there was ever a more blatant thematic implication about kidnapping and child disappearances, it would be laughably overt because the Child Catcher is already an antagonist with obvious intentions, but it’s all in his performance and his appearance that make him particularly creepy. “Come along my little dears, come here my little mice, come to me,” the Child Catcher prods as he lowers the latter leading the young Britons into captivity. It’s unsettling and discomforting, but I will say it taught me to never, ever talk to strangers.
Film Title: Zodiac
Director: David Fincher
Release Year: 2007
The Moment: “Before I kill you, I’m going to throw your baby out the window.”
Why It’s Scary: By this point in David Fincher’s biographical period piece thriller about the Zodiac killer who fed fear to the hearts of San Francisco civilians for many years, we have seen approximately five on screen murders (or attempted murders). When this specified sequence begins, we know how the cards are going to be dealt and how the scenes will unfold. However, it’s Fincher’s frustrating, though purposeful, pace of the scene that makes the premeditated doom so much more harrowing for we can see it coming miles away but the poor character, a woman with a young baby who accepts help from a ‘Good Samaritan’ after her car breaks down, is seemingly oblivious. Her skepticism begins to grow until she is faced with a frightening revelation instigated by the Zodiac killer uttering the highlighted line in a direct manner and reserved delivery. It’s a very chilling scene that ends with an abrupt cut to black and single piano note. Expertly sewn together, the scene is grueling to endure and heart stopping when it concludes providing the most tense scene within Fincher’s highly suspenseful, and underrated, thriller.
Film Title: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Director: Mel Stuart
Release Year: 1971
The Moment: The Psychedelic Boat Ride Down the Chocolate River
Why It’s Scary: Mostly because it comes completely out of nowhere. Very little about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is ‘normal,’ in the traditional sense, and by this point we’ve already seen gluttonous Augustus Gloop get filtered out of a chocolate river and small, orange faced Oompa-Loompa’s dressed like yodelers appear to sing an ethically and morally motivated tune condescending the fat child’s selfishness. If one thought very little could top what already has been seen, this boat ride makes the scenes previous seem like common cinematic moments. This LSD-infused boar trip is the kind of amusement park ride that force any child under the age of 12 to have regular nightmares, and this scene alone is twisted enough to offput any young viewer. It’s the little additions to the sequence that make it especially alarming like Wonka’s rhyme of doom, containing phrases like “the fires of hell are blowing,” “the danger must be growing,” “is the grisly reaper mowing?” while each of the tourists and their parents shout for Wonka to stop the boat, and the fact that Grandpa Joe finds the experience to be rousing and fun while the others are gripping their seats for dear life. Wonka eventually does stop the boat, but only once his verse of terror is complete.
Film Title: Trainspotting
Director: Danny Boyle
Release Year: 1996
The Moment: Baby Crawling on the Ceiling
Why It’s Scared: During withdrawal from heroin following a near overdose, Renton (Ewan McGregor) encounters strange and hair-raising hallucinations. One involves a baby, presumably the offspring of Renton’s friend Allison whose baby perished from neglect, crawling across the ceiling of Renton’s room from the doorway to right above his bed. Renton screams out of complete fear as the baby inches closer and closer before stopping right above Renton’s bed only to spin her head completely around (a la The Exorcist) and start blabbering baby language at the spooked withdrawing addict. Renton’s frantic spine-chilling screams would be enough, but the baby adds a whole new layer of horror to this scene. Uniquely crafted visually by director Danny Boyle, this mid 90s British black comedy is filled with flaring, nauseating sequences but the ‘baby scene’ is just as disturbing and terrifying now, myself nearly twenty years old and after numerous viewings, as it was on viewing #1 back in middle school. McGregor owns the scene as he tosses and turns in bed only to be faced with a brand new agonizing hallucination. The entire scene is short lived, but the presence of the ceiling crawling toddler makes it feel endless. The obvious animatronic appearance of the baby is a trenchant touch.
Film Title: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Year: 1981
The Moment: The Ark’s Power to Melt Faces
Why It’s Scary: It still ranks as one of the most jaw-dropping climaxes of any action adventure with staggering gore that would be featured in any shunned torture-porn film today. When René Belloq, Colonel Dietrich, and Arnold Toht open the ark and the angels of death descend upon the Nazis electrocuting them with lightning bolts, the trio of bypassers on highly sacred property face an excruciating death: Having their faces melted completely off and then exploding. It’s unexpected, morbid, and monstrous; a lurid ‘oh my god’ moment that opened the door for the levels of violence that could be shown not only in this series, but in cinema altogether. It is because of this exact scene that the PG-13 rating exists in the MPAA, even though the nature of this infamous cinematic moment could be enough to brand certain films with an R. There’s little left to say about this scene since it’s so renown (who hasn’t seen Raiders?), but I’m sure that this scene has frightened every single watcher on their first, and maybe even their most recent, viewing.
Film Title: Oliver!
Director: Carol Reed
Release Year: 1968
The Moment: Bill Sikes’ entrance
Why It’s Scary: Pickpocketing master and educator, Fagin (Ron Moody), sneaks off into the night to make deals with the dangerous thief, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). When Bill Sikes first appears on screen, the brilliance of Carol Reed’s directorial skill is showcased exceptionally as Sikes and his dog, Bullseye, weave through the shadows as only silhouettes and shadows themselves until they appear in person ready to deal with Fagin. It’s like watching a shadow personify in a fluid take and Sikes’ physical appearance is that of an unkempt, greasy, no-nonsense British underworld icon. For over two minutes, Sikes says not a word to Fagin, simply listening to the elder thief speak. His eyelids hang heavy masking the upper parts of his eyes, his mouth doesn’t move or quiver; he just stands confidently and carefully, premeditating the actions he will take during this meeting. The only thing he ‘says’ is a quick snap of his fingers that is enough for Fagin to understand his meanings. While Oliver Reed’s performance is eerie and intimidating on its own, his silent entrance is an entrancing moment that makes us realize immediately that this man is an embodiment of pure horror and violence, which he demonstrates as Dickens’ original tale continues. While charting as one of the best character entrances in all cinema, this is a definite scary moment in an otherwise mesmerizing musical adaptation.
Film Title: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Director: Tim Burton
Release Year: 1985
The Moment: Large Marge Terrifying Tale
Why It’s Scary: Our manchild hero, Pee Wee, hitchhikes a ride from truck driver, Large Marge, who tells Pee-Wee a dark tale about ‘the worst accident [she] ever seen. There was this sound, like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building… And when they pulled the driver’s body from the twisted, burning wreck. It looked like this,” to which Large Marge’s face contorts into a claymation, with eyes literally popping out and hair turning into pipe cleaner pieces of spaghetti and a long snake-like tongue whisking about while a cackle is heard that puts Pee-Wee into a state of fear. He requests to get dropped off, and thank god, because this is one of the most unprecedented moments of horror I remember seeing at a young age. Like most of the moments on this list, Large Marge’s story comes completely out of the left field and concludes the way it does for no particular reason. But, it was here that the off kilter mind of Tim Burton was first revealed, and this scene shows a great deal of inspiration for Burton’s future film, Mars Attacks! While the shock here may have dissipated over the years and after some viewings, it’s one of those unexpected jump scare scenes in a PG kids-oriented film. Still, there was a time when Large Marge’s tale of terror haunted my own dreams.
Film Title: A Clockwork Orange
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Release Year: 1971
The Moment: The final scene, “I was cured alright.”
Why It’s Scary: Following the tremendous ordeal that disrupts Alex DeLarge’s life, turning him into the half man, half mechanical tool of abstinent, non-violent mentally warped civil disobedience; Alex lands in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Apologizing for what they did to him, the factions of the government backing the Ludivico Treatment ask for Alex to stand with them instead of against them allowing him to return to his original mental state, reinstalling all the twisted and sexually charged thoughts that ravaged his mind at the film’s beginning. As press people enter the room to take photographs and ask questions, Alex’s face slants into a blank look of emptiness as he imagines himself raping a young woman in the snow as formally dressed onlookers applaud. In a complete turn around, Alex has become the degraded and degenerate teenager that he was at the start, destined to return to his terribly inhuman ways. Kubrick’s depiction of a dying society with a destructive future personified by young people like Alex is a frightening portrayal of the future. While many will argue that scenes in A Clockwork Orange, like the actual treatment sessions where Alex’s eyes are strapped open and he is forced to watch nauseating films to correct his behavior, may qualify Kubrick’s psychological cult film as horror to some degree, but I’ve never viewed it as outright horror. It has sickening moments, but that’s because of Kubrick’s no-holds-barred style and the content from Anthony Burgess’ original novel. I always viewed the grim outlook that will take place long past the film’s ending to be one of the most frightening components of the overall film, and Malcolm McDowell’s calm uttering of the film’s final line, “I was cured alright,” is disconcerting and highly perturbing.
Film Title: Pinocchio
Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Year: 1940
The Moment: “What do I look like, a jackass?”
Why It’s Scary: One of the many moments that, as a child, I begged my mom, behind streams of tears, to fast forward through, even now this scene is one of the most horrifying throughout all film history and it was first seen over seventy years ago and created by the dark minds of Hollywood’s biggest empire, Walt Disney Studios. Upon Pleasure Island, a pen of nonstop fun and intoxicating excitement for young boys who desire to leave their families, the adults who preside over Pleasure Island have discovered a formula that turns these young boys into donkeys worthy of breeding. Jiminy Cricket first spots the surplus of donkeys from afar and notices that some still have the ability to talk, every one of them begging for their mothers and requesting to go home. When Jiminy realizes what is happening, that these young boys are being transformed into donkeys, we cut to Pinocchio who watches a friend of his change, appendage by appendage, into a ‘jackass.’ He grabs Pinocchio and pleads for help, but Pinocchio can do nothing but back away in horror as we see a shadow of the young boy morph into a screaming animal, his last word being one great yell for his mother. The sound of his transformation is reminiscent of later horror films like An American Werewolf in London or The Fly, but this is a 1940s Disney cartoon! Based on the tone of this scene alone, you would never suspect this to be a movie intended for young children. This sequence is beyond disturbing and hair-raising to all hell. If you’re ever looking for a small dosage of striking and convincing horror, look no further than the Disney classic, Pinocchio.
What are your picks for scariest moments in non-horror films?
Article by Mike Murphy