Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Our Favorite Moments in Horror Movies

In celebration of #ScaryMovieMonth, we all confront the demons of our past and remember some of the scariest, funniest, most moving and most entertaining moments in horror movies, with special appearances by the clown from Poltergeist, Captain Howdy from The Exorcist and Don Knotts.

Don't forget to keep kicking ass with the F This Movie! F Scary Movies! Challenge II!

1. Mike: I was 13 or 14 years old and at my friends house for a sleepover when his older uncle asked if we wanted to watch The Exorcist III with him and his friends. We, of course, said ‘yes.' It was shortly before this day that I fell in love with horror movies, so my thirst for anything remotely scary or bloody was strong. I had seen The Exorcist, loved it, and was ready for another round of demonic scares.

There were six or seven of us watching The Exorcist III late that night (with all of the lights off, of course). From the beginning, it’s filled with enough bleeding religious statues and soundtrack stingers to make everyone jumpy and on edge. We were all having a good time and feeding off of one another's fear. Then, a little more than an hour into it, I was about to get more scared than I have ever been watching a movie before or since.

The scene is simple enough: the camera is perfectly still looking down a long hallway of a hospital. At the end of the hallway, we see a nurse on duty. It’s late at night so she’s alone, save for a lone security guard. The nurse hears a weird noise (of course) and investigates. The camera doesn’t move and the only soundtrack is her footsteps and the noise. She takes her time trying to locate the sound. The tension is grueling. Eventually, she comes to a patient's room and opens the door. For the first time, the shot changes and we’re with her inside the room. She realizes that the noise is coming from ice melting in a glass, and then a patient pops up in his bed yelling at her to leave. It’s the equivalent of the cat running out from behind the door. The nurse leaves and we’re back to the original static shot of the hallway. She goes back to her desk while a security guard sits nearby. She hears another noise. She investigates again. The security guard leaves. Again, no music, no camera moves. She’s once more alone, looking for the sound. She finally decides the noise was nothing, and she walks across the hall from left to right. As she walks calmly, the camera zooms in and the soundtrack screams as we see a figure covered head to toe in a white, flowing sheet, walking FAST behind the unsuspecting nurse with lawn shears open and at neck level. Cut to next scene.

I realize that what I just described has about 88 or 89 horror movie clich├ęs in it, but, my God, it scared the piss out of me and the room. Everyone screamed. On top of that, it scared me so bad that my wrists, for some fucking reason, tingled. I know that sounds so stupid, but I had a physical reaction to what I had just seen. The whole scene lasts a little over four minutes, proving that tension is a beautiful thing. You don’t need quick cuts or a spooky soundtrack. Sometimes silence and stillness is much more effective. The Exorcist III is not a great movie, probably not even a very good one, but to this day it holds a special place in my heart. And my wrists.

2. JB: The Fly (1958)

When I was a kid, horror movies were hard to come by. My friends and I would wait in frenzied anticipation for the 3:30 Movie’s annual Horror Movie Week.

The 3:30 Movie was perfectly scheduled; it started just as we all got home from school. Oh, joy!  What could be better than horror movies in the afternoon? (Nothing could be better.)

One year they showed The Fly, the story of a scientist who invents a matter transporter. Put an object in the transport chamber, zip zip zip, the machine breaks the object into subatomic particles, and transmits it over a distance to another transporter chamber somewhere else. Neato! The scientist eventually sends himself through the machine, but a common housefly winds up in the transporter chamber with him.

Uh-oh. The machine accidently gives the scientist the fly’s head (now huge) and gives the fly the scientist’s head (now tiny). This leads to the film’s most famous scene: the scientist’s wife rips a cloth from his head and (Whammo!)  reveals her husband with a big fly head. Cool! We see her frenzied, shrieking reaction from a kaleidoscopic “fly’s-eye-view” cam. This scene is in the trailer. 

But the shot that most scared me was at the end of the film. The scientist’s son discovers a strange-looking fly caught in a spider web. Adults investigate and discover the fly with the scientist’s head as it is about to be devoured by a spider:
That was the scariest thing I had ever seen up to that point in my life. Did I mention that the little head pathetically warbles, “Help Me. Heeeeelp Meeee.” in a high-pitched creepy voice?

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

At the end of the film, as Frankenstein’s monster is about to blow up the lab, having been spurned by the female creature that had been created to be his mate, the monster looks at her pleadingly.  She rebukes him.  He famously intones, “We belong dead.”  We cut to the Bride… and she hisses at him!
It looks like this:
Wow! That shot always struck me. How odd. How indelible. How creepy.

Much later I learned that Elsa Lanchester, who played the Bride, had based that bit of loopiness on the swans she had observed in Regent’s Park. Whenever one got too close to them, they would hiss too. It is the single greatest moment in the single greatest horror film ever made.

Psycho (1960)

The shower murder in this film is so famous that other shots and sequences get short shrift. For twenty-seven years I screened this film two or three times a year in the Film Studies class I teach; I think Psycho is the film I have seen the greatest number of times. I could perform it for you from memory.

The shot that still gets me is late in the film. Norman Bates’s mother has just stabbed an insurance investigator to death on the stairs of her home. Norman is sinking his car into the swamp behind the house to hide all the evidence. Sam, another victim’s boyfriend, drives up to investigate. He calls out the name of the insurance investigator. We hear his repeated cries as Hitchcock circles his camera around Norman. The twilight plays across his face. The camera eventually comes to a halt, framing Norman’s face, half in light and half in shadow, a harrowing mask of confusion and loneliness and fear.

The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)

This was yet another film that I originally saw on the 3:30 Movie with a sequence that (at ten years old) FREAKED ME THE FUCK OUT.

Don Knotts plays the title character, Henry Limpet, who longs to be a fish. One day he falls into the ocean at Coney Island. As he falls through the water in silhouette, he transforms into a fish. Lightning strikes repeatedly, which illuminates his skeleton at various stages of change. Scary music plays. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Actually, if you must know, the scariest moment of my life involved a movie, but only tangentially. I was five, sitting in our basement, watching King Kong on the aforementioned Channel 7 3:30 Movie on our old, battered, portable B/W television. I was transfixed by the movie, but then the sound dropped out.  Silence.  I thought it was the television; it was actually the station. I puttered around with the set, banging its side and spinning knobs the way I had seen my parents do. What did I know?  I was a five year old! I ran to the bottom of the steps and began to yell to my Mom to help me.

Suddenly, the sound roared back to life AND LOUDLY.  (When I was fiddling with knobs and dials, I had accidently turned the volume all the way up). That rush of sound startled me so badly, I opened my mouth to scream… and nothing came out. I choked and sputtered silently; I was scared both shitless… and speechless. Looking back, I must have resembled a tiny Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, yelling for his partner Bud Abbott, but being so damn frightened that nothing would come out of my mouth.


Erich: In the fall of 2000, I was between jobs. Which is to say, I had two jobs and traveled between them, spending half the week in Corning, New York, where I was an apprentice to a portrait painter, and the other half developing a website for a camp/conference center in rural Pennsylvania. I'd worked for the camp that summer, and stayed on to earn some extra cash. Although I worked in the well-populated conference center at the north end of the lake, I lived in a staff apartment on the south end of the lake, above the empty staff lounge and among the abandoned cabins. I spent a lot of those nights by myself, watching TV or rented VHS tapes, occasionally driving the 30 minutes to the nearest multiplex.

That October, The Exorcist was re-released into theaters as the "Version You've Never Seen." At that time, I hadn't seen any version of the film. Going in fresh and not knowing what to expect, it was one of the spookiest experiences I've ever had at the movies. The scene that really got me was the infamous "spider walk" sequence, in which a possessed Regan does a creepy backwards-and-upside-down crawl down the stairs. It's a quick shot, but man did it freak me out. I've gone back and rewatched the scene since. It's still scary, but not nearly as scary as it was in that darkened theater.

I left that camp not too long after. Some say it was because I finished the website and had planned to move to Corning all along, but I'm not so sure. It might just as well be because, on the drive home from the theater that cool October night, out in the middle of nowhere, I saw a black dog standing by the side of the road. It was gone in a flash of headlights, and but even now, as I doubt the words that I'm typing into this computer, there's one thing of which I'm deadly sure: it looked right at me.

Erika: There is a shot in The Shining in which a man (I think) wearing a pig nose poses in front of a butler. If I had read the book, this would probably make more sense, right? It’s a quick and strange shot, which makes it unsettling. It was so long ago when I saw the film, but the creepiness of that shot still haunts me. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? creeped me out as a young girl (but I’m thankful to my mom for introducing me to the classics!). Dead bird served on a dish. Bette Davis’s make-up. Done.

Since I am incredibly afraid of getting lost in the deep south, where someone will pick up my liberal northerner scent and want to harm me, The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1,000 Corpses are  films that actually incite true terror in my gut. I know, from growing up in and around Chicago, that Chicagoans are not all gangsters (You are from Chicago? Al Capone!). Also, we can’t all play basketball (You are from Chicago? Michael Jordan! Swoon.). Still, I worry that if I get lost in the backwoods of Texas, or any southern state, Captain Spaulding will lure me into the Museum of the Strange. And I’m a goner.

Alex: I saw a midnight showing of The Shining last Halloween at a theater in Washington, DC. I don't know if I just happened to be in a theater full of people who had managed to not see the film before, or if this moment just has a tremendous shelf-life among repeat viewers, but when this moment played out on the screen, you really would have thought had just lit the theater and fire and locked the doors. Popcorn went flying. Drinks were overturned onto the floor. I think maybe a woman went into labor. It was chaotic and thoroughly enjoyable.

My own reaction was somewhat tempered because I, like all dutiful horror consumers, knew precisely what was coming. What still makes this hold up, though is that The Shining has the nerve/balls/sheer audacity to allow the audience to follow one affable and mystical chef's journey through three time zones and a frozen tundra of nightmares to save the livelihood of one family, only to have him wander through a hotel lobby aimlessly and take a fire ax to the chest from a homicidal caretaker. It made me question everything I thought I knew about storytelling and character development. Furthermore, I heard that the notably demanding Stanley Kubrick insist that Jack Nicholson use a REAL axe on Scatman Crothers, who was protected only by a parka. AND they had to do it like 180 times.

Macready saying "You gotta be fucking kidding me" in The Thing (1982). The tennis ball bouncing off the roof of the mall in the original Dawn of the Dead (1978). Rudy saying "I'm in the goddamn club, aren't I?" before shooting arrows into the hearts of female vampires in The Monster Squad. Geena Davis reacts to Jeff Goldblum moving the shotgun in David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly (1986). The circus people descend on Venus in Freaks. Peter Vincent finds his faith in Fright Night (1985). Chris listens to the tape recording left by J.C. in Night of the Creeps. Vincent Price and Peter Lorre debate wine in Tales of Terror. Shaun slipping just a little on his way to get a Coke in Shaun of the Dead. The subway stalking in American Werewolf in London. Ivy meets with Mr. Hyde one last time in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Nancy can't get up the stairs in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The Shape cocks his head to one side like a confused dog after claiming a victim in Halloween (1978). The blood gets off the elevator in The Shining. Larry Talbot returns from the grave at the opening of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Jeremy Sisto saying he "likes weird" to Angela Bettis in May, having no idea just how much of an understatement that will turn out to be. And, of course, Zelda running towards the camera in Pet Sematary, which isn't so much my favorite moment in horror as it is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen and will ever see in my entire life.

Poltergeist (1982) - That clown. That F'ing clown. I've already said all I need to say about this movie during our podcast last year, but here's a little known fact: did you know that the clown from Poltergeist hid in my laundry basket the VERY SAME NIGHT I saw the movie for the first time? Crazy, right?

Jaws (1975) - I wouldn't call my mom and dad bad parents, but what were they thinking when they let me watch Jaws at age eight? It wasn't so much "scary" as it was "disturbing" to a boy who, before that time, really liked to go swimming. The severed-head-popping-out-of-the-hole-in-the-sunken-boat scene sealed the deal -- I would quit swim lessons altogether, thereby remaining a "minnow" (much to the chagrin of my "shark" sister, Alison). Here's a little known fact: did you know that a shark -- from a salt-water ocean thousands of miles away -- snuck into my closet the VERY SAME NIGHT I saw Jaws for the first time? I even made my parents check, but he (assuming it was a dude) escaped. I can only surmise that he slipped down the bathroom drain while I hid under the sheets. Sharks are wily.

The Descent (2005) - This one is all me. I blind-bought this movie on Patrick's recommendation (thanks?), and it is scary as heck. The scene that did it? During a moment of chaos, the camera whip-pans back-and-forth amongst panicking women in a near-pitch black cave. It finally settles on one lady, and behind her appears a crooked mix of Voldemort and Gollum. A super-loud music sting lets you know that it's OK to crap your pants, as the creepy, pale, hairless, vampiric cave dweller steals your soul. Little known fact: I will never spelunk again!

Mark Ahn: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - Confession 1: I do not watch any horror movies. Because they're terrifying, duh. I don't need to try and fall asleep in a dark room with my overactive and overvisual imagination slicing me into pieces.

Confession 2: If there is a monster that scares me, it would be vampires. I had a nightmare as a 8 year old where Dracula teamed up with Destro (of GI Joe fame) to take over my parochial school, and I had to defend it with the two cleaning ladies, and Dracula was snapping the brooms we had for weapons with his fangs, and... I'm sweating just rewriting this.

I watched Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula because sometimes it's delightfully, toe-curlingly good to feel that electric charge that turns threatens to empty your bladder. It makes no sense, but whatever, I had a Destro dream. I watched it because I felt like I could trust Coppola with something as absurdly grandiose as Dracula, and it was going to at least look great, which I never got the sense was the norm for horror or suspense movies.

The moment, which isn't a major one, is where Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) await Arthur's wife Lucy (Sadie Frost), who has been turned into a vampire, to return to her grave. The undead Lucy walks down the steps, tenderly holding her infant (non-vampire daughter), and the borderline eerie/hokey music, the make-up, the costume, and my vampiric fear seared that image into my brain:


  1. A couple of mine:

    1. That damn arm wrestling scene in Cronenberg's The Fly. It STILL makes me cringe and sometimes yell something when I see it, and I KNOW IT'S COMING!

    2. The last shot of Kaufman's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That look that Donald Sutherland gives just gave me chills.

    3. Not sure it counts as a horror movie, but everything that is implied during the interrogation following the Lust murder in Seven is downright horrifying.

    4. And because it's an underrated series, IMO, three moments from Rod Serling's Night Gallery: Joan Crawford and Richard Kiley's comeuppances in Eyes and Escape Route, respectively (from the pilot), and the entire episode of The Caterpiller, which is some of the creepiest stuff I've ever seen in classic television.

  2. Good picks, Carl. Cronenberg's version of THE FLY is one of those movies with a BUNCH of standout moments. I could have easily said the arm wrestling scene; ditto for the scene where Brundlefly spits up on Jon Getz's arm (OMG). Good call on BODY SNATCHERS, too. The shot in that movie that jumps out at me is the DOG WITH THE PERSON FACE. Which, as I understand it, was the original title for that movie.

  3. 1. ALIEN - This is probably my all around favorite horror movie ever. It's a photo finish with John Carpenter's THE THING. The first time I saw ALIEN, I was ten. I rented it from the Des Plaines public library on VHS and watched it about five times in one week. The "Chestbuster" scene is indeed spinetingling, but Veronica Cartwright's death scene affected me more. After Parker is killed, Lambert (Cartwright) stands frozen in fear as the Alien approaches her. We get the first close up of the creature, followed by Lambert crying and a monstrous limb wrapping around her foot. If I had a dollar for every nightmare I had about ALIEN, I could afford therapy. Alas I'm Irish and I'm impervious to psychoanalysis. A timeless horror masterpiece.

    2. PINOCCHIO - Joe Dante, in the horror film documentary NIGHTMARE: RED, WHITE, AND BLUE (streaming on NETFLIX): "A lot of the childhood attraction to horror movies starts with Disney. Because the scares were always a huge part. That was what was so appealing about Disney movies." Yes I know this is not a horror film, but it's scarier than Naked Gun and 77% of the horror movies currently streaming on Netflix. To a six year old witnessing Lampwick's transformation at the Randhurst cinema in 1992, it was traumatizing beyond belief. Lampwick panicking and crying for help, watching his hands turn into hooves, and finally the last words he'll ever utter in his entire life "Momma, Mommmm-maaaaa." If Joe Dante, the Director of THE HOWLING, states that this transformation scene is one of the best ever made on film, that's saying something. More so than any other movie in my lifetime, PINOCCHIO terrified the living crap out of me.

    Also the dark figures that aid the Coachmen and only have yellow slits for eyes are quite disturbing. I imagined as a child that these were half-children, half-donkey hybrids too grotesque to be shown in true form.

  4. Good call on Alien, Ross. I think each death scene in that film is strong in its own way. My favorite though has to be Brett's because of the way yet, it still startled the heck out of me when the alien finally drops down behind him. "Here, kitty kitty...Here, Jonsie"