Movies are made up of scenes and when you think of horror films, it’s usually key scenes that stay with you: “Here’s Johnny!”, “He has his father’s eyes”, “It’s alive!”, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
But some scenes turn out to be far more significant and effective than we ever thought they would upon first viewing. So here’s a run-down of the top 5 unlikely horror scenes that just won’t leave me alone at night…
05. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) – Leatherface laments
It’s undoubtedly a bad day when you and your friends happen across a seemingly deserted house, only to discover a collection of human bones and a terrifying masked killer. But spare a thought for poor Leatherface. That’s what director Tobe Hooper demands of us in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Not two kills into his massacre, Leatherface panics when Jerry discovers Pam inside a freezer. Things were fine until those meddling kids poked their noses in. What can Leatherface do? He can’t let them get away! So more killing is called for. After which, he runs in circles and collapses onto a chair. He holds his head in hands like a man who knows he’s got himself in deep trouble. This very human reaction tells us that Leatherface is not some unstoppable monster or a crazed psychopath – this is a man, nothing more. It’s a very sobering scene that ultimately brings the film back to reality. A very bad day for Leatherface!
04. THE SHINING (1980) – premonition
It’s easy to get bogged down in Jack Nicholson’s haunting performance in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining, but it’s little Danny’s psychic ability that creates such a high level of suspense. “Tony, why don’t you want to go to the hotel?” Danny asks his alter ego (his finger, naturally). After some convincing, “Tony” folds and Danny has a harrowing vision of what’s to come: the iconic blood-fall elevator scene, followed by the terrifying hallway twins. Not only does it create suspense, but it means that when the foretold scenes actually take place, the payoff it off the charts!
03. HALLOWEEN (1978) – “he was standing right there”
John Carpenter practically defined a genre with his 1978 horror classic Halloween. The first half of the film takes its time to establish suspense and one other key ingredient – that Michael Myers can be anywhere, at any time, and then disappear. No more is this emphasised than when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) – and Laurie alone – sees Michael standing next to a hedge. And then he’s gone – one step and he’s nowhere to be seen. By establishing for a good hour that Michael can come and go as he pleases, with no obstructions – and in the daytime, no less! – when the violence kicks off, Carpenter is able to really bring the scares.
By the first major kill, it’s already implanted in our minds that our masked murderer can be anywhere – no-one is safe, no matter where they are or when. And so key is this establishing technique that every slasher movie since has taken such audience expectation for granted. There’s no need for Wes Craven to show Ghostface popping up and disappearing in Scream – Carpenter has already done the work for him.
02. THE OMEN (1976) – say cheese!
Evil wins – a scary thought. The Omen’s third act climaxes with Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) bringing a knife crashing down on his son, despite Damien’s pleas of desperation. A police gunshot leaves us confused as to what happens. Cut to Thorn’s funeral, and son of the devil Damien is still alive and now in the company of the President of the United States. With a turn to the camera, Damien breaks the fourth wall, and stares directly at us. As if that’s not enough, he smiles – a moment unscripted and a result of Harvey Stephens breaking character and trying not to laugh (on the DVD commentary, director Richard Donner recounts shouting at Stephens “Harvey, don’t you dare smile!”). So not only is the son of the devil watching you, but he is also aware that you are watching him! And he doesn’t care! Yikes!
01. THE EXORCIST (1973) – “can you help an old altar boy, father?”
Omniscient Evil is about as depressing as you can get in a film – the idea that Evil is everywhere, always watching, always playing the game. Roughly 20 minutes into William Friedkin’s slow-burn horror The Exorcist, Father Karras (Jason Miller) is stopped by a beggar, who asks “Father, could you help an old altar boy?” It seems like a throwaway, trivial moment. But that’s until almost exactly an hour later when Karras is talking to the possessed Regan. It’s a verbal game of chess, Karras taking the upper hand by demanding that whatever’s inside Regan break free. But the check-mate comes when Regan utters, in perfect beggar voice, “Can you help an old altar boy, father?”
Much like The Omen’s final moment, this line makes a very clear statement – Evil is watching you. All the time. No matter where you are or what you’re doing. No matter how trivial you think something is, Evil is there and it’s taking notes. And if there’s a more unsettling thought in any horror film, I’d love (or rather hate) to hear it!