The Top 5 Most Terrifying Scenes in Movie History

By Kelan Young

Mailed on October 31, 2014

Dear Readers,

Kelan Young writes postcards to the cast and crew responsible for some of the most frightening moments in movie history. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead)

5. The Hallway Scare in The Exorcist lll

Dear Gerry Fisher, Cinematographer,

I don't think I'd be opening myself up to controversy by saying that, for the most part, jumps are among the cheapest tricks horror movies can pull. Whether it's a hissing cat suddenly leaping out of a closet/cupboard/fridge, everyday noises cranked up to eleven for no discernible reason, or characters who greet one another by stealthily creeping up from behind and pouncing, it can be startling, sure. But rarely scary.

[A perfect example of this is the moment in The Simpsons when Homer bursts into Bart's bedroom in the middle of the night to show off his brand new hockey mask and chainsaw.]

This bring us to what is arguably the most famous scene in otherwise underappreciated The Exorcist lll.

What makes it special is how unassuming the setup is. You set up a perfectly still shot of a hospital hallway while a nurse does her rounds. She leaves the frame to enter a patient's room, comes back into the shot after about ten seconds, then, suddenly, the stillness is horrifically broken. You zoom forward, the soundtrack shrieks, and a figure shrouded in white comes out of the room behind her holding a pair of shears.

It's absolutely hair-raising, and the immediate cut to a shot of a decapitated statue informs us of the poor woman's fate without actually showing a drop blood, which is pretty ingenious.

4. Testing The Blood in The Thing

Dear Rob Bottin, Special Makeup Effects Creator and Designer,

Every great thing that can be said about your astonishing work on The Thing has already been said. Even now, thirty years later, the effects you created to bring to life one of the all-time most frightening screen monsters haven't aged a day. Contrary to the claims of some naysayers that argue the film relies too heavily on gloopy makeup, the film's most effective, suspenseful scenes are those in which your makeup and design works perfectly hand-in-hand with the very smart, well-constructed script.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous blood testing scene. The steady undercurrent of paranoia has reached critical levels as de facto camp leader MacReady is forced to kill in self-defense, then designs a test to determine once and for all who is human and who isn't. The tension builds superbly as one by one the survivors are cleared, until MacCready's attention lapses at a crucial moment and the Thing reveals itself.

The rest is a nightmare of melting flesh and snapping jaws. It's truly marvellous stuff. I have yet to meet anyone who didn't jump out of their skin when they watched this sequence for the first time.

3. Stuck in the Tunnel in The Descent

Dear Shauna Macdonald, Actress,

Part of what makes The Descent such a marvel is that, long before the ill-tempered Gollum-creatures arrive and turn the whole thing into a monster movie, it functions equally well as a breathlessly suspenseful cave exploration/survival story.

It's also remarkable that for all the blood that is spilled, the single most chilling moment in the film comes when your character gets stuck in a narrow tunnel.

I've never really considered myself claustrophobic, but the discomfort and panic you convey as the situation becomes more and more dangerous is so palpable, so raw, that...well, I'm pretty hardened when it comes to the horror genre, but of all the times I've watched The Descent (which is a lot) I've never been able to keep my eyes on the screen when this scene comes up. And that's primarily due to your incredibly powerful performance.

2. The Attic Finale in REC

Dear Javier Botet, Actor,

It's difficult to emphasize how profoundly disquieting the last few minutes of REC are.

Granted, the entire third act is the ultimate "how could it possibly get worse?" scenario, as nearly the entire cast is abruptly (and mercilessly) bumped off and the possibility of a happy ending fades ever further into the distance. And then we get to the attic, where you finally step in front of the camera, and we find out it can get worse after all.

Mother. Of. God. It isn't enough that the makeup and design is ghastly – a skeletal body topped off by a head that seems entirely too large – but add to that your half-hunched posture and awkward, jerking movements. It's those disturbing physical elements of your performance that convert the last few minutes of this film into high-octane nightmare fuel.

1. The Last Shot of The Vanishing

Dear Tim Krabbe, Screenwriter,

From a storytelling standpoint, the finale of The Vanishing is pure macabre gold. After years of fruitless searching, the film's protagonist finally establishes contact with the man who abducted his girlfriend, who then offers to reveal her fate. Great, right?

In both your book and in the screenplay you adapted from it, you perfectly capture the banality of evil in your characterization of Raymond, the abductor; he's a mild-mannered, painfully ordinary individual who is nonetheless completely devoid of empathy and, as he explains to the hero, has carried out an unimaginable crime just to prove a point to himself.

The circumstances Rex finds himself in at the end of the's truly difficult to think of any other scene that has left me as rattled as this one. The concept is fairly simple, but utterly terrifying in the way it's executed.

What's even more amazing is the way you sprinkle clues throughout the film about how everything will resolve, most notably in an early scene when Saskia recalls a dream about floating golden eggs. The awful moment of realization when the meaning of that dream becomes clear, which comes right before the credits roll, is indicative of the power of genre cinema. It's one of the bleakest, and most terrifying, moments in film history.



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