Since I first saw the original Dracula when I was eight years old, I have been hooked on scary movies. Orson Welles once said, “Celluloid is a ribbon of dreams” to indicate why films in general are so popular, but the dubious pleasures one gets from scary movies are that of nightmare. The things we fear most are manifested in the creatures of the night, the creaky old house, or the wild eyes of a neighbor next door.
I have compiled a list of my favorite moments from scary films that I love to watch (again and again). This is not a “best of” list, just my favorite moments in films I enjoy watching. Perhaps some of them are yours too. I trust that there are many besides the ones I list below, and I hope you’ll tell me about them in your comments.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
With: Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea
Tension is mounting in the farmhouse surrounded by ghouls, and the humans trapped inside are watching television to get the latest information. A news reporter interviewing a Police Chief asks, “Are they slow moving, Chief?” The chief responds, “Yeah, they’re dead; they’re all messed up.”
2. Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter
With: Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis
In the climactic scene, Doctor Loomis shoots Michael Myers who falls off the house (to what is apparently his death); however, when the good doctor looks back to see the body, it is gone (setting the table for countless inferior sequels and imitations).
3. Aliens (1986)
Director : James Cameron
With: Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn
After escaping the deadly grasp of the killer Queen monster on the planet while rescuing the little girl Newt, Ripley must face her again on the spaceship in a battle of maternal wills (Ripley is protecting the child; the monster is seeking revenge for its offspring that Ripley has just destroyed). As the Alien approaches the little girl, Ripley screams, “Get away from her, you bitch.”
4. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Director: Herk Harvey
With: Candace Hilligoss and Sidney Berger
Girl who has improbably survived a car crash keeps seeing dead people. She goes out to an abandoned amusement park, only to find the dead are having a grand old time on the rides and dancing in the street. Oh, and they’re waiting for her.
5. Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Director: Rupert Julian
With: Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin
There are many implied scares galore here, but the terror we are waiting for comes in the unmasking scene. I know it’s coming, but I can’t stop watching. Philbin hesitates then finally pulls off the mask. The Phantom’s reaction is a study in visceral terror. It gets into my mind like a worm under the skin and can’t get out.
6. Dracula (1931)
Director: Todd Browning
With: Bela Lugosi and David Manners
Too many great moments in this one, but my favorite is when Bela has fattened the calf (the unsuspecting Renfield), who inquires why the Count is not also enjoying a meal and a drink. The response is perfectly timed by Lugosi, “I never drink wine.” Perhaps my favorite line of dialogue in a horror film.
7. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Director: George A. Romero
With: David Emge and Ken Foree
Completely on target film, maybe better than the original, with palpable fear mixed with wicked humor. Best moment for me is when the biker gang invades the mall fortress that our heroes have to defend. One of the gang members (wearing a sombrero) keeps trying to use a blood pressure machine, even as ghouls start attacking him. Needless to say, his systolic reading is a little off.
8. Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
With: Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh
Still amazingly fresh in its build-up of terror; the dramatic irony the audience believes it’s in on (that Norman’s mother is alive and a killer) reaches a peak when Mr. Arbogast (a detective) climbs the stairs to find the old woman. She pounces on him (surprisingly spry for a little old lady) and slashes him, sending him down an unforgettable trip on the stairs. She’s down and on top of him like a flash to finish the job as he kicks his feet in futility. How many films have borrowed from this one?
9. The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
With: Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart
Trapped in an isolated polar outpost, Russell is desperate to find the killer monster that has taken over at least one of the men in his crew. The scene where he binds and interrogates them (with the threat of being burned alive by a torch), each one sighing in relief that it he is not the one, yet knowing one of them is the one, is still almost unbearable to watch even after I’ve seen it twenty times.
10. Fright Night (1985)
Director: Tom Holland
With: Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall
TV monster show host Mr. Vincent (McDowall) thinks he is just humoring a young man who believes his neighbor is a vampire, but then Vincent finds out the guy really is a blood sucker. After an initial confrontation, McDowall faces Sarandon’s vampire with a raised cross. The vampire says, “You have to have faith for that to work, Mr. Vincent.” McDowall smiles, knowing that he has acquired faith in the course of the night, and raises the cross and thus repels the vampire.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
With: Betsy Palmer and Laurie Bartram
I think the scene when Pamela Voorhees is revealed as the killer is fantastic. All the sequels pale in comparison. Still simply an awesome finale.
Director: James Whale
With: Colin Clive and Boris Karloff
Definitive sceen monster in Karloff and the same as the mad doctor for Clive. Best moment is when he knows the monster has life. When Clive says, “It’s alive!” ; it’s one scary moment.
The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
With: Gregory Peck and Lee Remick
This story is still spooky after all these years. Most favorite moment (not the famous decapitation scene) is when the Peck and the reporter are trapped in the graveyard by mad dogs. Still truly a fright.