Retrocrush have an interesting top 100 list of the scariest moments in films. It’s interesting because the list actually isn’t restricted to horror films as such (the pink elephants from Dumbo being a notable example), although there are a lot of those. That said, I find myself wondering what’s particularly scary about some of the moments they’ve chosen. (I should add the page is profusely illustrated, sometimes unattractively as well. You may wish to consider yourself warned.)
For example, among the top 100 is the infamous gut-puking scene from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead; Fulci makes another appearance with his equally notorious eyeball-skewering from Zombie Flesh Eaters. Plus there’s the exploding head from David Cronenberg’s Scanners (illustrated with a GIF animation of the scene). And there’s Linda Blair’s green puke from The Exorcist and Luis Bunuel with his razor in Un chien andalou. I’ve not seen any of these films apart from the last two, but even so I have to ask: what is actually scary about these scenes as such.
Back around the time I was at uni I discovered my local library held a book by a fellow called Peter Nicholls called Fantastic Cinema (published circa 1983, now presumably long out of print; a pretty good book for its time, though, if you want to go looking for it). It was a history of the whole SF/horror/fantasy genre, and it had a rather interesting way of appraising films in the guide at the back of the book, giving them not one but two ratings: one for overall quality and one (where merited) for gore content. And he made what I thought was an interesting point as his justification for this, namely that fear is one emotion, disgust is another, and although you can mix the two, just because a scene is icky (someone’s head exploding or guts bursting forth) doesn’t necessarily make it scary. Which leads me to wonder whether these scenes I’ve highlighted are necessarily scary as such or just squicky.
For example, I found The Exorcist scary when I first saw it on TV, but the split pea soup was not frightening, just kind of ugh. Similarly, the eyeball stuff in the Bunuel film is more biologically yuck than scary. Maybe it’s a bit scary for people who don’t know that it’s coming… the first time I saw it was in a university lecture theatre with a bunch of people who mostly didn’t seem to know what lay ahead; that occasion provided proof that a film made in 1928 still has the power to make people scream with horror. Hmm, horror, there’s that word again. Apparently Boris Karloff didn’t like Frankenstein being called a horror film as he thought “horror” had connotations of physical nastiness rather than the emotion of fear. He suggested “terror film” as an alternative name for the new genre but it never caught on. Maybe he was onto something, though.
Anyway, the eyeball stuff in Chien strikes me as more of a shock thing than anything else, which, I suppose, then begs the question, just how much of a difference is there between shocking a viewer and scaring them. Some examples again. The shower scene from Psycho tops the list. There’s also the scene from The Birds with the dead man with no eyes, that rather bravura opening murder from Suspiria, and Lon Chaney’s unmasking in The Phantom of the Opera. These are, to be sure, shock moments… but are they scary? Or am I just splitting hairs here? I don’t know because I don’t actually have an answer to that question, so “splitting hairs” may actually be the valid response here. Still, thought I’d throw the question out anyway.
Incidentally, Chaney’s unmasking scores quite highly on the list, which is nice to see. For my money, though, it’s probably not until you compare a photo of him from that film with a photo of him without makeup and contemplate the makeup job he had to do on himself to get that look (yes, he did his own makeup) that you realise how scary his Phantom actually is.
See what I mean? (Photos via Jon Mirsalis’ Lon Chaney Home Page.)
Notably, The Shining makes a number of appearances on the list, but Retrocrush left out what I think is the key scene of the film, the one where Jack is released from being locked up in the pantry by the ghosts of the Overlook. That, for me, is when the film really trips out into horror; hitherto we’ve assumed the ghosts are just hallucinations on Jack’s part, but this scene forces us to question that assumption and wonder just what the hell they actually are. There’s a comparable scene near the end of Fritz Lang’s Testament of Dr Mabuse; we assume that the ghost of Mabuse who appears to the hospital director at various points is just a hallucination, except the ghost is seen at the film’s end to open a cell door for him. Subtle, yet freakish.
And I should end by noting my disappointment that The Haunting (1963 version) appears to have been overlooked completely by whoever compiled the list. That is my definition of a shit-scary movie, with its house that was “born bad”, and I don’t recall being as purely scared by a film in recent years as I was by that one. Its absence from the list really is a travesty… still, as I’ve said, the only real function these lists usually serve is to provoke disagreements and arguments, and the Retrocrush list has succeeded at that. Meantime, do check it out, as it does contain some thought-provoking choices. And have a look also at this nice article on the 70th anniversary of King Kong (containing a shot from the lost scene with the giant spider), which I may say is still a surprisingly violent film, given the period it was made in…