One of my favorite directors, John Carpenter, famously said that the scariest thing is often what you don’t see. But sometimes the scariest things are what you see, or at least visually reference. Horror is a genre of pacing, tension buildup and release, in addition to all that storytelling. It is also a collection of moments. A few fantastically realized moments of horror can make an otherwise dull film jump up several levels.
Some moments are forever etched into the minds of horror fans, sometimes even making it into the cultural canon at large. Linda Blair projectile vomiting in The Exorcist. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” from Night Of The Living Dead. Of course, the shower scene in Psycho. These scenes don’t really haunt me- perhaps because they are so iconic at this point. But plenty stick with me, still unsettled in my consciousness, tickling at some part of my mind that can’t resolve what I have seen. Here are a few of them. I know that they have stuck with me because, when looking these clips up on YouTube, I discovered I had already watched them before. I suppose that I enjoy re-traumatizing myself, just for fun.
The Devil’s Rejects: the truck
Rob Zombie’s sequel to his debut film House of 1000 Corpses is an exceptionally cruel film, one that goes beyond the borders of good taste. Yet it is clearly a film with impact, because I have never been able to forget one particular moment. While on the run from the law, the Firefly family take a group of traveling musicians hostage at a roadside hotel. They torture, rape and murder them, leaving one survivor trapped in a bathroom wearing her husband’s own mutilated face, a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The woman escapes after a maid comes by and discovers the murder scene, running out into the road, blinded by the bloody mask she’s wearing. As she stands there screaming, boom. A truck zooms into the shot and immediately flattens her. JESUS! It is played for laughs, a punchline to one of the most grotesque scenes ever presented on film. This is one of the only movies I hate because of its violence, but I’ll never forget that moment where Zombie basically laughs at the traumatic experience he just put his audience through.
The Exorcist: Regan goes down the stairs
Now that we’ve gotten poor taste scares out of the way, let’s return to the good stuff with one of the scariest films of all time- William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. You know the story by now- little Regan (Linda Blair) becomes possessed by an ancient evil spirit as her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) try to save the poor girl’s soul. Friedkin ups the tension like a pot of boiling water over the first third of the film, as the bizarre events around the household become impossible to ignore.
One night, Chris comes home to find that Regan’s babysitter has died. He fell out of Regan’s window to his death, supposedly. As Chris is distraught and crying, trying to process this shocking event, another shocking event happens. The camera lingers on her grieving expression as her attention gets brought to the stares. We see her terrified reaction before we see what she is seeing- then we do. Regan is crawling down the stairs quickly, upside down as if she were a giant spider- bleeding from the mouth and moaning voraciously. HOLY SHIT. Then the scene ends. The family never references this moment again- it’s just another inexplicably horrifying event that the family has to process as they figure out what to do about Regan.
I didn’t really notice this part when I first saw the movie. But when I re-watched it at a midnight screening last year, it made my skin crawl and the hairs on my arm stand on edge. I felt the shivers on my neck as I was walking home that night.
One trope that terrifies me to my core is when a person that should definitely be dead from their wounds turns out to be still alive. They won’t be alive for long- but they’re clinging to their last bit of life as a mangled, unrecognizable version of the human they were, looking more like the corpse they are about to become. It fucks me up badly. Some examples are L.G. waking up after several hammer blows to the head and his face getting skinned off in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, or older sister Lynn in the remake of The Hills Have Eyes who gasps a few last breaths after being shot in the head.
Yet one of the most effective examples is in David Fincher’s Se7en, where clues lead detectives Mills and Somerset (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, of course) to a dilapidated apartment in their nameless, rainy city where they hope to find the seven deadly sins killer. They arrive at a room full of hanging air fresheners, and a bed with a figure lying under a blanket. Opening the blanket, they discover an emaciated body- essentially a skeleton with skin on top. The skin is red and scarred, the arms covered in track marks from needle use. The hair is long, with the figure looking almost like the cryptkeeper from Tales Of The Crypt. The word “Sloth” is scrawled on the wall. Uh oh- Mills and Somerset know this is not the killer, but another crime scene. One officer looks closely at the body, still thinking they found the killer, whispering “you got what you deserved.” As soon as the camera does a close up of him leaning into the corpse, you know what’s coming. The corpse coughs- the corpse is alive. FUCK!
The corpse is not a corpse. He’s a man who has been kept chained to a bed for at least a year, given a constant supply of heroin to sedate him as his body literally withers away. He starts squirming and gasping for breath, panicking, as the cops freak out and retreat. Their big shotguns and expert procedural skills standing no match against the horrors of a would be corpse.
The Fly: Kill me, please
In case you don’t know the story of The Fly, it involves the brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) discovering that he can successfully transport physical matter through a set of “telepods,” instantaneously. But through one fatal oversight, ends up fusing his DNA to a fly that was caught in the machine. The rest of the film portrays Brundle’s grotesque physical transformation into the half man, half fly creature known as the Brundlefly.
In the final scene, Brundle has abducted his girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis) after discovering that she is pregnant with their child and seeking an abortion. At this point a giant, oozing, vomiting fly man, he hatches a plan to fuse them together through the telepods (clearly a plan resulting from his descent into pure insanity), but accidentally fuses his body to the machine itself. What crawls out of the telepod one last time is some brand new machine/fly abomination of creation, as Brundle has finally managed to merge himself permanently with the object of his obsession.
Seeking to end his suffering, he reaches down a claw and pulls the shotgun Veronica is holding to his own head. She turns away, crying that she can’t do it. He looks up at her, moaning, his little mouth sucker things moving around. She looks back at him… and pulls the trigger, blowing his head apart and offering him mercy. And….scene. DAMN. That is one of the most brutal endings in movie history, much less horror movie history. Perhaps it is so brutal, because it is the only thing that makes sense in that situation-Brundle uses the last speck of his humanity to beg his pregnant girlfriend to murder him. Love hurts. Love scars. This scarred me, that’s for sure.
Land Of The Dead: The face pull
After zombie movies made a comeback in the early 00’s, the inventor of the genre, George Romero, made a comeback of his own. This was his first entry in his “Dead” series since 1985’s Day Of The Dead, and while it’s somewhat maligned I think it is quite effective.
This one is not in the R rated version, but in the unrated version. After the zombies, led by smart ex-mechanic/now full time zombie leader “Big Daddy,” broach the defenses of futuristic Pittsburgh (I had no idea until writing this that this was supposed to be Pittsburgh), they begin slaughtering people. Soldiers, construction workers and civilians alike lie in the unlucky path of the flesh eaters, and are gobbled up quickly. One unlucky construction worker meets a particularly gruesome fate, as a zombie ceases hold of his head from behind, and proceeds to pull his entire head skin off of his skull. It’s as if he is just taking a mask off the guy, but it’s actually his face. The guy is screaming while he does it (as noted by the subtitles). GROSS. I did not know that zombies also had super human strength, but perhaps they are just more committed than the rest of us. Leave it to the master, George Romero, to find exciting ways of disfiguring the human body that I can guarantee no one else had thought of before.
High Tension: The dresser beheading
Alexandre Aja is a french director of extreme horror, and member of the so called “splat pack,” the new class of directors who in the mid 00’s revitalized the genre with gallons of fake blood and gore a plenty. High Tension was his breakout 2003 hit, a riff on movies like Psycho by way of the home invasion thriller- and one of the most gruesome movies I had seen at the time.
The story begins with Marie and Alex, two French college students, who travel to Alex’s parents’ countryside home for the weekend to study for their exams. After getting in a nice dinner, the two turn in for the night. Suddenly a large man appears at the front door, and Alex’s father goes downstairs to see what he wants. Before we know it, dad gets his face slashed with a knife and the family dog has been gutted. As dad crawls away from the man, screaming in agony, he pulls dad up the stairs and jams his head between two of the banister railings, trapping him there (another childhood fear realized!). The man comes back around, grabbing a tall and bulky dresser in the living room and begins to move it towards dad. As dad looks on in disbelief, the man decapitates him with the brute force of the moving furniture. WHAT?!
This is perhaps so disarming, not only because it is the first kill in the movie, but because it is so extra brutal. The killer could have just stuck a knife in his chest or slit his throat, but he had to go the extra mile and use bulky, not easily moved household furniture. The scene had to be toned down for the R rated version- the NC-17 version lingers on the headless corpse in an overhead shot as it spurts gallons of blood onto the floor. The R rated version, which I saw the first time, is actually scarier. There is no overhead shot and all you see is the man moving the dresser towards the father, cutting away before it makes impact but keeping the gory sound effects. Because we don’t see exactly what happens, we are left to imagine it. But to be honest, I didn’t see much of it the first time around anyway- as soon as I picked up on what was about to happen, I covered my eyes in fear.