My earliest horror movie memories are not of being scared by the movies, but simply having a whole lot of fun watching them. I fell in love with Freddy Krueger at a pretty young age, perhaps younger than one should be at the time of delving into the genre, and I can count on one hand the number of times I ever felt genuinely scared while watching guys like him do their thing.
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible for horror movies to actually tick off that ‘holy shit I’m scared right now’ box, which I say not as a testament to my manliness – trust me, I’m anything but manly. Truth be told, I kind of hate that I don’t tend to get scared while watching horror movies, because being scared – within the safe confines of your own home – is pretty damn fun.
The way I see it, a horror movie’s potential to scare has as much to do with effective filmmaking as it does the conditions under which you watch that movie, as a scary movie watched while the sun’s out, or with the wrong audience, totally loses any and all power it potentially wields. But that same movie watched alone at night, with the sound up and all the lights off, can become an entirely different beast.
Under these perfect conditions, both as a kid and an adult, a handful of select horror movies over the years have indeed managed to achieve that goal of chilling me to my very core. I wanted to spotlight some of those moments here on HL today, so as you read this list, keep in mind that it’s merely a list of scenes that scared ME, rather than a comprehensive rundown of horror’s most terrifying moments.
Let’s relive some of that nightmarish trauma, shall we?
1) I must admit that I can’t quite remember where I was the first time I watched Silence of the Lambs. I was pretty young, and I’m pretty sure I was at a friend’s house, but the exact conditions have long faded from my memory. What has not, however, is one little scene from the movie, which still sticks out in my mind like a sore thumb – or something much more terrifying than a sore thumb.
It wasn’t Hannibal Lecter that scared me but rather Buffalo Bill, and it was the scene wherein he kidnapped Catherine Martin that really did something to a young me. In the scene, Catherine helps Bill load a chair into the back of his van, and he sadistically forces her into the vehicle, pummels her and then drives off with her unconscious body – all while her cat watches on.
It’s a simple scene, and one that likely wouldn’t have stood out in my mind had I watched the movie for the first time as an adult, but the idea of a seemingly-kind stranger abducting someone, mere steps away from their front door, really got to me as a kid. In fact, watching the scene is likely the formative life moment that made me wary of strangers, which is something I still to this day very much am.
The quintessential ‘creepy van’ scene, if you will.
2) There’s something about foreign horror films that makes them inherently scarier than American horror films, which likely has something to do with the unfamiliarity that comes along with them. When a Japanese film, for example, is remade for American audiences, with a known director and a known cast, much of that power is lost, as there’s a level of comfort that comes with familiarity.
The 2002 Hong Kong film The Eye is a great example of what I mean, as the Americanized remake, starring Jessica Alba, failed to match the creepiness of the original. In so many words, the movie is about a young woman who receives a corneal transplant and then begins to see ghosts, and there’s some genuinely chilling moments in the film.
For me, the standout moment of terror takes place in a classroom scene, wherein the main character notices an empty-eyed female figure standing in the corner of the room. The figure disappears and then suddenly reappears, lunging towards her with her arms outstretched. It’s a moment that many American ghost films have tried to pull off, but oh boy does it work in The Eye.
That whole movie just plain creeps me out. So let’s move on.
3) It’s easy to criticize M. Night Shyamalan nowadays, since he has admittedly made some turkeys, but my stance is that the dude made such quality work early on that I honestly don’t even care what he’s done in the past decade. Movies like Unbreakable, Signs and The Sixth Sense are pure brilliance, so M. Night is one of the greats, in my book.
I clearly remember the first time I ever watched Signs, which I rented from Blockbuster and played on a laptop in my bedroom, alone with the lights off. I had no idea what to expect from the film, as this was shortly prior to the days where I knew EVERYTHING about every movie, going in. And THAT scene – you surely know the one, even without the screen grab – made all the hairs on my body stand straight up.
I’m of course referring to the Mexican birthday party scene, viewed through the lens of a visually grainy handheld camera. Amidst a lot of commotion, the camera points to an alleyway, and a lanky alien-like creature quickly walks past the screen. My reaction was much the same as Joaquin Phoenix’s in the film, with my hand over my mouth and my eyes wide with sheer terror.
Signs admittedly takes somewhat of a turn for the goofy in the latter portions, but the power of that scene cannot be overstated. Masterfully executed and again, so simple. Countless found footage movies that have come along in the decade since have tried to do what Shyamalan did with that one scene, to no avail.
Next week we’ll take a look at a few scenes that scared an older and hairier me, in more recent times!
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