Warning: The article below contains some spoilers, owing to the nature of cinematic fright.
Over the years, movies have delivered a number of iconic scares. Sifting through them and choosing ten feels akin to selecting dead limbs at a morgue to make your own Frankenstein’s monster. I suspect that, two days from now, part of me will want to redo the whole thing or at least mess with the order, but such is the nature of top ten lists. Anyway, please find below my picks today for scariest moments in film, none of which have anything to do with Pauly Shore’s dubious career.
10. The Sixth Sense (1999) – Cole Swears He Didn’t Do It
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is credited for starting the twist ending craze, but people often forget that its first hour and forty minutes comprise a thrilling ghost story in and of themselves. Consider the scene in which Lynn (Toni Collette) turns around to find every cupboard in the kitchen open. What makes the scare so effective is Haley Joel Osment’s performance as Cole, who claims never to have left his seat. His distress seems almost palpable, what with the cold sweat around his hands, and we end up terrified for the boy, which is to say, terrified with him.
9. The Tenant (1976) – Bouncing Ball
Diving headfirst into dementia, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, a.k.a. Le Locataire, serves up a number of disturbing images, but the one that’s stayed with me to this day proves deceptively simple. It’s night. Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is trying to sleep, but the sound of a bouncing ball keeps him awake. Outside the window, we see it go up and down, up and down, never losing its spring. The ball eventually turns into something more gruesome, but I usually regain my senses around that point. Maybe it’s the hypnotic rhythm that perturbs me or the notion of a rubber sphere ascending several stories just to taunt someone. These things can be difficult to analyse when you’re busy pooping your pants.
8. The Changeling (1980) – Ball Walks Downstairs, Alone or in Pairs
Apparently, balls freak me out. It’s not homophobia if ghosts are involved! At any rate, I get a particularly creepy vibe from the red ones with a white stripe in the middle. It all harks back to Peter Medak’s The Changeling, which has one such ball bouncing down a staircase, beckoning John Russel (George C. Scott), who just lost his little girl. The scene proves perhaps more tragic than frightening, leading to our heartbroken hero throwing the toy off a bridge. Upon his return, he finds the ball springing down the stairs again, this time scarring audiences for life.
7. The Untold Story (1993) – Boy Pees His Pants
Based on the crimes of real-life serial killer Wong Chi Hang, The Untold Story, a.k.a. Bat Sin Fan Dim Ji Yan Yuk Cha Siu Bau (say that ten times fast), stands out for its unflinching brutality and understated realism. The murderer isn’t particularly fanciful, and the victims aren’t particularly resourceful, so when a six-year-old boy sees Chi Hang (Anthony Wong) butcher his parents in a restaurant, he does what any child would do: he hides, weeps, and soils himself, burning his helplessness into our brains. I came out of the theatre laughing hysterically. I didn’t think it was funny. I just didn’t know what else to do.
6. The Shining (1980) – Fellatio Bear
Sometimes it isn’t the image on screen that frightens me so much as the knowledge that a human mind came up with it. From rivers of blood to an axe-wielding maniac, The Shining delivers in its climax some mighty threatening occurrences, but none drive up the WTF quotient like the sight of a dead party guest getting oral sex from a ghost in a bear suit. What possessed director Stanley Kubrick to put that in there? What does the scene add to the narrative? More importantly, has it contributed to my fear of juggling bears?
5. Poltergeist (1982) – Robbie Clowns Around
A colleague once told me that Poltergheist was responsible for his mild coulrophobia. The film features a creepy clown puppet on which Robbie (Oliver Robins) throws his coat every night before going to sleep. One stormy evening, the child misses his target, and the toy takes offense, crawling into his bed to strangle him. Is there a childhood phobia on which the sequence doesn’t capitalise? Admittedly, my discomfort with clowns comes from a different movie altogether, but I do blame director Tobe Hooper for my fear of coats falling off human-shaped objects on rainy nights. Very specific, I know.
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Heather’s Last Sight
Despite its ropey plotting, The Blair Witch Project remains, for my money, one of the most fascinating studies of cinematic fear. Its thesis: terror lies not in gore or gruesome monsters but in the ethereal space outside the frame. Most films would use the mystery to build up to a graphic climax, but directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez stick to their guns, delivering a final shot that overloads our senses with information never shown on screen. What could frighten Mike (Michael C. Williams) so much that he’d refuse to turn around even as his friends call out to him? Something messed up, that’s what.
3. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) – Kayako Sneaks into Bed
When trying to push the envelope, most thrillers ramp up the violence, assailing forbidden targets like children and puppies. Shimizu Takashi’s Ju-On doesn’t concern itself with genre conventions but with the mundane idiosyncrasies in which we find comfort. When Hitomi (Itô Misaki) spots the ghost of Kayako (Fuji Takako) on her way home, she does what any of us would do: she runs into her bedroom and hides under the covers. The ghoul’s sudden appearance beneath her sheets, where one ought to feel safe, is the cinematic equivalent of telling a child Santa Claus doesn’t exist and proving it by waving around a mall imposter’s severed head.
2. The Fly (1958) – François Finds Andre’s Other Half
The final scene of Kurt Neumann’s The Fly has been referenced and parodied so often we often forget how chilling it proves in its original context. After hearing the harrowing tale of how Andre (David Hedison) turned himself into a giant insect, François (Vincent Price) and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) find in a spider web another monster, this time a tiny fly with a human head and torso. About to be eaten by a spider, the mutant squeaks, “Help me! Help me!” until Charas smashes it with a rock. I can’t tell whether I feel worse for the half-breed creature, for flies in general, or for Andre, who missed his salvation by a few hours. At any rate, now I get goose bumps whenever I hear Alvin and the Chipmunks call for help.
1. Halloween (1978) – Where’s Michael?
One of the most iconic monsters of his time, Michael Myers has reached double digits in terms of movie appearances. For this, I blame the original Halloween’s open-ended conclusion, meant to spark our morbid imagination, not that of greedy producers. After revealing Michael has escaped, the film cuts to shots of the deserted Doyle estate. “Is Michael in your home?” the camera seems to ask. “Is he hiding upstairs, in your living room, behind your bedroom door?” I don’t typically find slasher killers all that scary, but, as the credits hint, Michael Myers embodies something more abstract. Every now and then, I walk into an empty room and remember that, whether a ghost, a mutant, or an evil ball, the Shape waits in the shadows of my mundane existence, just like director John Carpenter said it would.