May 19, 2017
/Response: The Movie Scenes That Scared You the Most
(Welcome to /Response, the companion piece to our /Answers series and a space where /Film readers can chime in and offer their two cents on a particular question.)
Earlier this week, the /Film team wrote about the scariest movie scenes of all time. We then opened the floor to our readers: what movie scene scared you more than any other? And you let us know!
We have collected our favorite answers (edited for length and clarity) below. Next week’s question, in honor of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, who is your favorite film or TV pirate and why? Yes, this can include space pirates. Send your (at least one paragraph, please) answer to firstname.lastname@example.org!
In my opinion, the scariest movie scene has yet to be topped over fifty years after its release. It’s from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, when Tippi Hedren’s Melanie goes to check on Cathy’s school. Melanie sits outside the school and all we hear is the eery singing of the school children. Hitchcock shows us the playground behind her, and a single bird flies down and lands. The camera alternates between two shots from here on out: Melanie sitting outside waiting for class to end, and the playground, with an increasingly large amounts of birds. The terror slowly ramps up, making the scene agonizing to watch. We see the immense danger Melanie is in, but she doesn’t, and we are left only able to watch and see how it all turns out. This is all amplified by the creepy singing of the children, and creates an unforgettable scene that only a true master like Hitchcock could put together. Taken out of context, it’s just a woman sitting outside a school next to a harmless flock of birds, but Hitchcock established just how frightening these birds are, and turns a mundane scene into an utterly terrifying one. (Ben Chairnoff)
I find cinematic violence captivating, especially the way filmmakers chose to portray it: to demonstrate symbolic power, to repulse us by its grotesque imagery, to distance us and the characters from humanity, or to engage the viewer in an immersive, visceral experience. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier grapples with these themes constantly by portraying his protagonists as ordinary individuals thrust into grisly situations with little choice in the matter. His characters are woefully unprepared to perform — let alone endure — such carnage, nor do they fathom its physical and psychological consequences. Saulnier’s 2016 survival horror, Green Room —which pits a hapless punk band against a gang of militant Neo-Nazis — deftly deploys this theme in the initial melee between the two factions, and crafts the most unnerving cinematic experience I’ve ever had in theaters.
Cut to the chase: our punk protagonists have come across a murder after playing a gig at a white supremacist hangout and have barricaded themselves in the titular green room, having taken one of the Nazis hostage. Initially, the skinheads (led by Sir Patrick Stewart in a sublime performance) are peacefully negotiating with the band and even managed to convince them to open the door and hand over a handgun they’ve acquired (smart, I know). As expected, the scene bursts into an unrelenting fury of mayhem packed with machetes, boxcutters, snapped bones, and a disemboweling. But what makes the scene powerfully frightening, however, is the chaotic atmosphere of awkward savagery. The violence is messy, not only in gore, but in impulsive actions and confusion.
For instance, when Anton Yelchin’s arm gets caught through the door, the Nazis on the other side go to town on it with a machete (the audience doesn’t see it), but Yelchin’s agonizing screams are harrowing. Once he pulls his mangled arm back, the result is expectedly gruesome, but it’s Yelchin’s reactions that make this scene stomach churning. Yelchin’s fear and pain are palpable while his futile attempt to remain strong feels raw and genuine. Saulnier is a master of accentuating the far-reaching consequences of violence and it’s what makes this scene a chilling experience. Saulnier has effectively robbed both the characters and the audience of their agency. For the duration of the scene, the viewer feels trapped in an inescapable hurricane of chaos, and that grueling emotion lingers with us throughout the film. But more importantly, this scene punishes the viewer with a more fearful reminder: how physically and emotionally fragile we can be. (Mike Silangil)
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of introducing a woman in her twenties to Jurassic Park for the very first time (I know…crazy, right?). Sitting next to her, with the freshest of eyes, I got to witness her journey through my favorite movie of all time. And when the kitchen scene began, I was absolutely giddy when I heard her utter this phrase, whilst cutting off circulation in my arm:
“Oh my god, this is TERRIFYING!”
Like many of you, I did not see this classic for the first time as an adult. My parents found it smart to sit me down through it, in a theater, at the ripe age of five. While I would thank them daily for this experience, as it legitimately blew my mind, I had serious qualms about going upstairs by myself. For years. Lights needed to be on in every square corner of the house. And don’t even get me started with the basement. Because two raptors, hunting children, in a kitchen has got to be the most terrifying thing in cinema!
It is Steven Spielberg at his most Spielbergiest, bringing the terror that he wrought in my father’s generation with Jaws to a new age of computer effects (perfectly blended with the practical, of course) that still hold up in the scariest of ways. He didn’t care about scientific inaccuracies like feathers or chicken proportions. He wanted to generate utter fear, plain and simple. And he succeeded.
I hope I can find every adult who hasn’t seen this movie and watch it with them. I’ll supply the popcorn! (Chase Dunnette)
The People Under the Stairs and An American Werewolf in London
The year was 1992, I was about 9 and I’d been invited to a slumber party to celebrate a friend’s birthday. There was a group of eight-to-ten of us who had spent the day playing games, getting sugar comas from cake, and gearing up to watch scary movies. For me, it was my first introduction to horror films. We started with The People Under The Stairs and while the scene above still forces me into a sprint as I climb any stairs in the dark, it wasn’t until the second half of the double feature that I lost my wits.
An American Werewolf in London, to this day, has one of the most absolutely terrifying single scenes in my memory. The complete transformation scene is so disturbing that I still can barely watch it. The pain, anguish, and physical change are gross and scary in all the right ways. It scarred me then and it still pains me now. And you better believe, I called my parents and dad was over there in a jiffy so I could sleep at home. (Seth Finck)
Think back to the first time you did something you knew was wrong, even if you didn’t know at the time why it was wrong. Now remember the shock of being caught in your misbehavior: the desperation to reverse what can’t be reversed, and the dreadful certainty of an unknown punishment. Stir these sense memories in a pot, add a full serving of the fear of abandonment, let it simmer, then bring it all to a sudden, roaring boil and watch it spill over. These are the ingredients for the abject nightmare that is the Pleasure Island horrorshow reveal in Disney’s Pinocchio.
The Coachman has already informed us that no one ever comes back from the island…”as BOYS!” even if we don’t totally understand the implication. We know Lampwick is an unreliable and wicked tour guide for our dimwitted hero, even if we don’t know exactly why we distrust him. We know Pinocchio will come to rue his remark that ‘being bad’s a lot of fun!’ (uttered as he – yes – chops wood, which is no subtle metaphor for self-destructive behavior), even if we don’t know how that regret will manifest. The filmmakers heap up the dramatic irony and dial up the tension, and by the time Jiminy beats on the wooden doors and shouts, ‘I wanna go home!’ and hears strange braying on the other side, we’re about ready to throw up from anxiety and unease. And then Disney drags us into a waking hell.
The braying comes from the snouts of naughty boys who have turned into donkeys, and as soon as the audience understands the horrible fate that awaits Pinocchio, Lampwick has begun his own transformation, and we know Pinocchio’s will follow shortly. We want to reverse it, but we are as helpless as the hee-hawing youngsters nailed up in the wooden crates; we want our hero to be delivered, but we also know he is as doomed as the half-transformed Alexander who cries out convincingly and pathetically for his ‘mama.’ And when I taught this movie to high school students in northern Virginia, the moment Lampwick grows hooves and collapses on all fours and screams for his mother and bucks madly as his shadow is cast against the wall like something out of German expressionism never failed to get the same audible reaction from a few of the students: “That’s terrifying.” (Jake Baskin)
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