Ever get that feeling you’ve been cheated out of a good ‘scare?’ If you’ve watched a horror film produced in the past twenty years, there’s a good chance you have. Even the quality titles such as The Descent and Sinister can’t help but prod us with forces popping up in the frame while booming aural effects pummel our senses. Like it or not, the “jump scare” is here to stay; it’s one of the oldest and most fundamental techniques in horror cinema’s vernacular. Still, while it might be hard to believe, there are plenty of films in the genre that play this age-old card to satisfying means. Is it possible that the problem is not with the tool itself, but the manner in which the filmmaker puts it to use? I’ve deliberately selected popular films for this list, in hopes of not spoiling any surprises for the reader. I’ve also provided YouTube links for several titles.
Cat People (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
Val Lewton’s first foray into a series of noir-inflected psychological chillers features one of cinema’s most discussed jump scares. In fact, this moment is so innovative that critics and historians have since dubbed it as the “Lewton Bus.” In this clip, Irena, a Serbian immigrant cursed with the ability to morph into a panther every time she becomes sexually excited, stalks her husband’s co-worker Alice through Central Park on the suspicion that Alice and her husband are having an affair. Most modern jump scares elide a prolonged dramatic build-up in favor of merely startling us with random intrusions accompanied by a thunderous musical sting. The “Lewton Bus,” however, milks suspense from a set-up involving dramatic irony while the outcome reveals not a threat but an innocuous mundanity. Before long, the “Lewton Bus” had established itself as an essential technique in horror cinema’s lexicon, working its way into movies as diverse as J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear and Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body.
Wait Until Dark (dir. Terence Young, 1967)
There are all kinds of reasons to be afraid of the dark: a) you can’t see in front of you, b) while using a light source aids you in glimpsing whatever’s in front of you, it’ll allow anyone/anything lurking in the darkness to see you from far away, and c) there’s always that chance Alan Arkin will leap out from the shadows and scare the s**t out of you. Wait Until Dark is not a masterpiece and is sometimes hindered by logic issues and its theatrical roots – much of the action is confined to an apartment — but this gripping tale of several thugs attempting to pry a doll stuffed with heroin from a blind woman crackles with suspense, and features ace work from Audrey Hepburn and a menacing Alan Arkin. The most successful scene employs the jump scare as an agent to exploit one of our more primal fears – the dark. This is, perhaps, the most conventional jump scare on this list; we’re practically waiting for something to disrupt Hepburn’s escape attempt, and a shrill musical sting accompanies the inevitable surprise. Director Young, however, wisely turns off most of the lights – only a fridge lamp illuminates the space – magnifying the inherent terror of unseen threat(s) lurking within the shadows; Young’s staging of the “big moment” is wonderfully deceptive. Even though Wait Until Dark is nearly fifty years old, this climactic scene never fails to trigger the startle response.
Carrie (dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)
In addition to the jump scare, the climax of Brian De Palma’s Carrie incorporates yet another of horror cinema’s age-old adages: the ol’ reliable “t’was only a dream”* reveal. This technique dates back to the early days of cinema itself – as far back as Georges Méliès’s The Astronomer’s Dream – but Carrie might be the first to popularize its usage within the horror genre. Most of us ought to be familiar with the scene: after Carrie has died and the chaos subsided, Sue Snell visits the plot of land formerly occupied by the White residence bearing flowers. Ever the mannerist, De Palma envisions the scene in dreamlike fashion: night-for-day lighting, heavy diffusion, and photographed in both reverse and slow motion. Pino Donaggio’s melancholic flute sings on the soundtrack, heightening the oneiric ambiance. All this dreamy, prettified imagery, however, is merely a calculated move; De Palma seemingly plants this to misdirect the audience so his strong-arm payoff can pack a more forceful wallop. When Carrie’s arm finally reaches out from the ground, arising the petrified Sue from her slumber, the jump scare arrives as a harsh, but playful jolt — another one of De Palma’s alligator-grin endings. Its effect startled viewers, likely launching a few popcorn buckets into the air, and led to a slew of imitators – from Friday the 13th to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even De Palma himself couldn’t help but crib the ending for his psycho-sexual nightmare Dressed to Kill, wherein the execution might trump that of Carrie.
*Granted, De Palma prefigures this scene with a shot of Sue Snell asleep in her bed. Still…
The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the all-time great “boo” movies; rarely in horror film history has a movie’s technique oozed such giddiness at spooking the audience while its ethos espouses a po-faced fatalism. Furthermore, Carpenter’s immaculate handling of scares in The Thing practically renders the movie a directorial textbook for aspiring filmmakers. He works within convention, but hardly submits to the clichés – he virtually transcends them with the infamous “blood test” set-piece. Carpenter lulls us in with a rhythmic, almost cyclical, juxtapositional montage of faces, blood-soaked petri dishes, and MacReady’s flamethrower; much of the action is shot in static medium shots or close-ups, only cutting back to the master wide to capture a few blocking adjustments. It’s pure cinema! The scene builds tension visually, with each shot communicating a vital piece of information giving way to the next piece and so on – the dialogue is mostly incidental. The upshot is nearly the inverse of the “Lewton Bus;” Carpenter locks into a hypnotic rhythm and engages us with the characters’ business, protracting the routine before shifting our attention away from the scene’s objective for a brief beat of bickering. That’s when he hits us! Not with a fake-out, but the real deal. And, boy, does he score a home run.
…and a Personal Favorite Shock
Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento, 1977)
Only that baroque artisan of Italian Horror, Dario Argento, could’ve mustered up something this aggressively outré. Much of Suspiria appeals to our senses on a visceral level; events featured include a dog biting his owner’s jugular, maggots crawling through hair, and a phantasmagorical climax replete with gelled lightning and melting faces. One of the most effective scares appears in the film’s centerpiece, as one of the players, Sara, seeks to discover who’s making the strange noises reverberating through the halls at night. After various corporeal threats manifest, something inexplicable occurs: while attempting to flee a murderer’s grasp, Sara crawls through a window toward presumed safety. Just when she seems to be in the clear, and nothing in the frame denotes alarm, the camera tilts down as she plummets onto a floor covered with razor wire. Surely, one could question the logic of supplying a room with barbed wire, or even why Sara would jump into the wire when it’s clearly within her vantage point. Beyond his early gialli, however, Argento embraces anti-logic to the extreme – a facet that, if you’re of a certain frame of mind, might intensify the overall effectiveness of his work. What is it about this absurd moment that’s so staggering? Perhaps it’s the simple reveal of a threat which is thoroughly unexpected, or possibly the former conflated with the terrifically bombastic Goblin score – rarely has horror movie music been pitched at such an overwhelming intensity. This selection doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of the traditional jump scare, but it’s a personal favorite and sure to perplex the mind as much as it startles the senses.