Fear is one of our most subjective and flexible emotions; what one person finds horrifying, another may find humorous, and we’re often afraid of different things depending on our age. Therefore, there are numerous ways that horror films can try to rattle viewers, such as by placing them in terrifying situations, challenging their sense of ethics and reality, or merely jolting them with a good jump scare.
Yet, the easiest way to do it is with striking make-up effects. Be they early examples like 1910's Frankenstein and 1922's Nosferatu, or recent shockers like this year’s Colored Out of Space and Relic, countless pieces of cinema have gotten our hearts racing with unsettling practical imagery both grotesque and subtle. Even if every other element falls short, one or two alarming depictions can be enough to make a movie memorable.
Of course, some films do it better than others, as the following ten selections prove. Whether chosen for their continual chills or one-off moments of visual fright, these entries—however obvious—undoubtedly pack portrayals that are pure nightmare fuel. (So, be sure to have the lights on as you read.)
10. Sarah Attacks Suzy – Suspiria (1977)
When it comes to combining vibrant colour schemes, hip prog rock soundtracks, enigmatic plots, and outrageous acts of violence, few did it better than Giallo master Dario Argento. 1977’s Suspiria is perhaps the best example of that.
The cryptic tale of an America ballet student named Suzy uncovering a coven of witches at a German school, this first part of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy is full of dreadful imagery with dire implications. That said, it’s the final appearance of Suzy’s classmate Sarah that truly alarms.
Earlier in the film, Sarah sneaked out of her room to investigate strange noises in the hallway, leading to an unseen force chasing her into a room full of razor wire. For much of the remaining runtime, her fate is left unknown—that is, until she reappears bloodied and brandishing a butcher’s knife meant to stop Suzy from discovering the head witch, Helena Markos.
It’s the realism and simplicity of Sarah’s appearance that makes it so startling. Rather than be covered in many layers of monstrous prosthetics, her inhuman glare and few facial slashes—coupled with her demonic cackle—are enough to send shivers down the viewer’s spine. It’s as iconic as it is distressing.