Last week I was a little too gobsmacked by Blade Runner 2049 to think in terms of Cinedelphia’s typical October horror output, so this week I wanted to dive deep into it. It’s odd to me that horror is so often regarded as low-brow entertainment when it’s given us so many legitimately great movies. I suspect that this misdiagnosis of the brand is resultant of the same aspect of horror which makes it so special to me. Namely, that horror, more so than any other genre, HAS to use every tool afforded to it by the medium. A good drama can be blandly directed and still succeed. A great action flick can coast over a garbage script so long as the explosions look good. But a horror flick by its very nature is an effort in manipulating an audience member into feeling fear for completely manufactured reasons. It must utilize strong shot composition, skillfully employed score, a clever script, and believable performances if it wants to rise above novelty (note: novelty is of high value in this genre as well).
A lapse in any one department can threaten the quality of the whole thing, which isn’t always the case in other genres, and it’s because horror can be instantly devalued by a single statement: That’s NOT scary.
And if it’s not scary, why are we watching?
Furthermore, when we sit down to watch a spooky movie, it’s often from a resistant perspective — we want to be scared, but we also want to posture ourselves above a fright flick’s tactics. If I’m going to scream, it had better be for good reason! I’M A TOUGH GUY!!
But me, I’m not a tough guy. It’s easy to scare me. I tell myself I’m a victim of my own imagination, but really I’m a wuss. No lie, when I’m in my apartment alone, I do ghost checks before sleeping. If my girlfriend witnessed this even once, my role as “protector” would quickly (and correctly) be called into question.
So since reducing me to a shivering mess is a pretty simple task, I want to focus on scary sequences with an impact which lasts beyond the moment. I want to highlight a few great scenes which have stuck with me long after the movie has ended. These five scenes pop into my head regularly and without warning, and each time they do I am forced to reckon with ooky feelings; I am forced to place myself into these terrible situations and silently make peace with the fact that I simply couldn’t handle it.
Child’s Play 3: The nerd jumps on a live grenade.
Chucky’s third rodeo has the killer doll following the now teenaged Andy to military school. During a war game in which the students are to do battle using paintballs, Chucky has secretly swapped it all out for live ammo. In the midst of the unexpected calamity, a live grenade hits the dirt. The resident nerd, who has spent the entire movie as everyone’s bullying victim and is savvy to the deadly nature of the grenade, heroically leaps on top of it. One could expect a gruesome explosion of blood and guts, but the troublingly realistic depiction of a man taking the entirety of the shrapnel to his torso is what made this so haunting to me. His body jerks, his glasses shatter, and blood pours from his mouth when he goes slack. It’s doubly upsetting that this guy chose to die and did so to protect a bunch of people who treated him poorly. This is the silliest entry on the list, but I think about it all the time.
Tremors: The lady in the car.
Tremors is a stone cold classic. Equal parts western, comedy, and creature feature, it hearkens back to a time when large budgets were given to distinctly strange projects. As a child I used to watch this movie all the time (my cousins had a small VHS collection, so it was always either Tremors or Temple of Doom during our frequent play dates), and every time I did, I found myself hesitant to walk outside for fear of being eaten by a Graboid. Moreso than Jaws, Tremors triggered a primal fear that lives within me to this day: I do not want to be food. The idea that all of my hopes and dreams amount to nothing but a single day’s nutrition for a monstrous creature is something I simply cannot abide, and this one scene from Tremors captures it beautifully.
After her husband is sucked into the ground by a monster worm, a woman runs to the safety of her station wagon. It seems to be a good play at first until the tendril-like Graboid tongues start, um, grabbing at the windows. They’re slobbery, goopy, and downright evil-looking, but the windows manage to keep them at bay. All seems okay for a second, until the ground opens up and begins to swallow the vehicle whole. We watch from a distance as the car’s headlights point skyward and then disappear into the sand.
Presumably, this woman will be trapped in a sandy, wrecked station wagon as it is digested around her, and once its protection is fully compromised, she too will be digested. It’s like the Sarlacc pit only not ruined by unneeded CGI.
Red, White, & Blue: The torture scene we don’t see.
Nobody saw his little gem, but I have a hard time recommending it to anyone given how aggressively difficult the material is. Some background: Nate has been wronged by a group of young men and is now seeking revenge. One of these men is away from his home one day when Nate pays his wife and daughter a visit. The wife and daughter are completely in the dark regarding their patriarch’s wrongdoings and don’t know what to make of being tied to chairs by an angry stranger. When Dad arrives home, he is also subdued and tied up, and is shamefully unable to explain to his family what is happening and why.
Nate makes it very clear that neither Mom nor Dad are going to survive this encounter. He explicitly states that he is going to torture Mom first and then kill her so that Dad can watch. He will then do the same to Dad. But their young daughter is given a choice. Nate says that after he kills her parents, he will let her go, unless of course, she wants to die with them. The young girl chooses the latter option while Mom begs her to choose life. The scene ends, and we never get to know what happens.
I feel sick just writing about it.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Vanger explains his motivation.
Up there with “being eaten by a monster” is “having a bad feeling about something and going through with it anyway, resulting in my demise,” and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo captures this concept at its most literal. In fact, watching his victims face this realization is precisely the killer’s motivation. Chills.
At this point in the movie, Blomkvist is 100% positive that Vanger is the culprit. The two men meet as Blomkvist is snooping around Vanger’s property. He is invited inside for a drink, and despite knowing it’s a terrible idea, he accepts. Soon after, he’s strung up in a BDSM swing, cuffed, and being prepped for torture. Vanger explains to Blomkvist the potent illogic of his behavior. Rather than risking a rude appearance by declining the offer of a nightcap, the reporter has knowingly walked straight into the lion’s den. Vanger gleefully mocks this poor decision, further explaining that he gets off on watching his victim’s eyes in the moment when they accept that no amount of begging, bargaining, or struggling will gain them freedom.
Daniel Craig sells this moment flawlessly. As he’s being lectured we can see each of these realizations pass through his mind. We see him kick himself for having come inside the house. We see him start to wonder what he can say or do to escape. We see him sadly conclude that he is going to be tortured and killed.
And I think about it twice a week at least.
Twilight Zone: The Movie: It’s A Good Life
Joe Dante’s segment in this horror/sci-fi anthology taps into an even more morose version of the previously mentioned fear. What if I make an innocuous decision — a kind decision, even — and it turns out to be precisely what authors my end?
While It’s a Good Life is scary right off the bat, it’s hindsight that really drives it home for me. For those not in the know, this segment tells the story of a teacher who, after giving a young boy a ride home when she accidentally destroys his bike with her car, finds herself trapped inside this boy’s home. As it turns out, the boy can manipulate reality with his mind, and has been abusing his ability to hold a roster of people hostage as his surrogate family … and our protagonist is his newest acquisition.
During our initial introduction to his ‘family’ we meet his sister, who sits silently in a room watching cartoons. In a deeply unsettling bit of dramatic irony, we are shown that she has no mouth. We can assume that this poor, innocent girl was duped into entering this home, and after enduring untold physical and mental torture, understandably said something not to her captor’s liking. And like that, no more mouth.
During one’s first viewing it’s merely a creepy, mysterious image. But once you know the full story, it’s a snapshot of a living nightmare.
I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.