by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, October 30, 2015


Well, it's Halloween again, folks! That time when we fire up our cauldrons and our jack-o'-lanterns, and line the grocery stores for our Kit Kats and costumes for the kiddos, all in anticipation of everyone's second favorite holiday of the year (or, as we like to call it in the Lundberg home, The Night We Stock Up On Enough Stinking Candy To Last Us Through Easter At Least). It is also the time for movies about ghouls, ghosts, and goblins to flood our cinematic consciousness, and in keeping with tradition here at FTWW, I wanted to do something fun for you guys as a countdown to the big night.

This year, though, I wanted to make it a bit more personal, so instead of offering up a generic list of Horror titles guaranteed to worm their way into everyone's torture chamber at night, I've decided to share 31 (31 - get it?) of the biggest frights of my entire movie-going experience - specific moments from specific films, in order of intensity, which managed to scare the ever-living bejeebus out of me since I first fell in love with movies as a kid.

The funny thing about Horror: the stuff that keeps me awake at night is probably the very thing that puts you to sleep. So much of what frightens us depends on our upbringing and our environment and the way we've led our live up to this point, it's silly to think that your list (should you be inclined to conjure one up yourself) would be topped by such things as banshees, sharks or killer cyborgs... but that doesn't mean we can't get together and compare notes. So consider this a jumping-off point to a wider conversation about the nature of fear - a conversation I'd love to continue with you, either on Facebook or in the comments below.

Also note: a film's placement on this list does not necessarily reflect the quality of the movie itself. Horror masterpieces such as Night Of The Hunter (1955) and Dawn Of The Dead (1978) have been deliberately left of the list not because they fail to be "scary," per se, but because I admire them more for their ambition that their actual scare quotient. (The same goes for Bride Of Frankenstein or Evil Dead II, which I love, but which I also find more funny than frightening.) This, after all, is a list of Most Frightening Movie Moments, not Most Frightening Movies. So go ahead, flip off all the lights, huddle close to your computer screen or tablet, and pay no mind to that scratching sound at your window - it's just me, trying to get myself invited in.

Now, without further a-Boo...


#31: The Thing (From Another World)
    (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Howard Hawks's '50s classic keeps its monster hidden in the shadows for so long that it hardly matters when it turns out to be nothing more than a dude in fright makeup and platform boots. The movie's countless shots of characters opening and closing doors throughout their Arctic outpost has a brilliant payoff later on, when our heroes try to enter the greenhouse only to find the alien creature standing on the other side!

#30: Arachnophobia (Frank Marshall, 1990)

"It's a Thrill-omedy!" the ads proclaimed - a crude yet concise description of director Frank Marshall's creepy-crawly mini-masterpiece, which doles out the shocks and snickers in equal fashion. The biggest jump comes early on, when a particularly hairy arachnid - supposedly dead from toxic jungle fumes - suddenly rights itself and lunges straight at the camera!

#29: Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)

Speaking of spiders, no scene in this found-footage/monster movie mashup gave me a bigger case of the heebie-jeebies than the parasites-in-the-subway scene. The tension mounts quickly, playing on our fears of the dark, homicidal homeless people (don't ask), rats, and finally giant eight-legged beasties (revealed via night vision camcorder) with shrieks so horrific and guttural, I get the shakes just thinking about them.

#28: The Mothman Prophecies (Mark
    Pellington, 2002)

Based on an actual case from the 1960s, this eerie box-office underachiever plays (for the most part) like a splendid episode of The Twilight Zone, with editing tricks and camera shots that keep us off-kilter throughout. The monster, thankfully, is never glimpsed in full, save for a quick, What the heck was THAT?!! subliminal close-up reflected in a mirror on a slamming door.

#27: What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis,

Zemeckis shot this sub-Hitchcockian horror-thriller while on hiatus from Cast Away, but the scares are so clever it's hard to dismiss as a simple one-off. For the climactic bathtub scene, the moment where (name retracted) tilts (name retracted)'s head back to reveal (name retracted)'s face instead caught me so off-guard that I let out an actual "YELP!" at the screening we attended.

#26: The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan,

Yes, we were all bowled over by the big twist ending, yada yada yada, blah de blah de blah - but I've always marveled at Shyamalan's old-school use of the camera frame to generate scares. The shot in which we first meet the ghost of Kyra Collins is like a master class in suspense - Cole's breath, the color red, and the popping clothespins all building to a reveal that shocks us precisely because we didn't expect to see it there in the first place.

#25: Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

De Palma's dreamlike, erotically-charged adaptation of Stephen King's blockbuster novel features one of the most memorable "Gotcha!" endings in cinema history, after the horrors have (we think) subsided and we settle in for what (we think) will be the movie's final hallucinatory shot. It's a scare so unexpected, countless directors have been copying it shamelessly ever since.

#24: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)

The essential part of any good scare is goosing us when we least expect it, and the climax of this Hitchcock-ian suspense thriller is a virtuoso example of that. After spending much of the movie in utter distress, blind Audrey Hepburn finally gets the upper hand on psychotic killer Alan Arkin and stumbles off to safety, and just when we think she's reached minimum safe distance... well, let's just say you'd be hard-pressed not to toss your popcorn after what happens next.

#23: Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The most disturbing aspect of everyone's favorite serial killer thriller is how it flat-out refuses to show us any actual violence, but constantly forces us to think about the repercussions of that violence instead. Which is probably why John Doe's third murder ("SLOTH") gives us such a jolt: the movie has lulled us into such a false sense of security that the last thing we expect is the victim to suddenly spasm and spring to life!

#22: Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)

The first found-footage movie to give Blair Witch a run for its money has more than its share of bumps and things that go BANG! in the night, none more hair-raising than the moment, 64 minutes in, when Katie is yanked from her bed and dragged down the hallway by an unseen force. It's a gag so perfectly timed and executed, I had to rewind it several times (yes, we watched this for the first time on DVD at home - sue me) just to see how they did it.

#21: Kairo (Pulse) (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

It's no secret that this was my favorite Horror film of the Noughties - a panic-inducing, soul-searching indictment of the dangers of chat rooms and social media sites, which pre-dated Facebook by a full three years and Twitter by five. The film is shockingly short on jump scares but high in existential dread, so that when Ryosuke (Haruhiko Katô) is confronted by a particularly ghastly ghost toward the end, you're mulling over the ramifications of death as you're watching through your fingers.

#20: The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2001)

Understand, this remake of Hideo Nakata's 1998 masterwork is by no means "better" than the original, which arguably kickstarted the whole J-Horror movie craze in the first place. But the climactic scene in which Samara's ghost emerges slooooowly through the television set haunted us for weeks afterward, especially late at night while rocking our (then) newborn son during his 2am feeding.

#19: The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

Cameron's career-making Sci-Fi tour de force is a slasher movie at heart, in which a remorseless, unstoppable killer mows down a whole host of innocent bystanders until a resourceful Final Girl stops him in his tracks. The shot of Terminator's blown-apart metallic torso dragging itself toward its intended target is like something out of an apocalyptic nightmare - and also, incidentally, the image that inspired Cameron to make the movie in the first place, brought on by a fever-induced dream while shooting a different movie.

#18: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

Take your pick of scares from Scott's haunted-house-in-space Horror classic - the infamous "chest-burster" sequence, Ripley's final encounter with the fully-formed title xenomorph - but I've always been partial to the late second-act reveal in which the murderous intentions of Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) are made violently (and disturbingly) clear. If you can't trust your crew in moments of crisis, who can you trust?

#17: Return To Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)

Confession: I've never liked The Wizard Of Oz, if only because by the time I was finally exposed to it, my mind was already too preoccupied with monsters and maniacs to give much of a crap. Which helps explain why this much-belated sorta-sequel (released by Disney!) resonated so deeply instead - it's dark, it's twisted, and its centerpiece sequence, of Dorothy's horrifying encounter with Mombi's headless body, is the stuff of absolute nightmares.

#16: Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen / Hamilton Luske,

Even our most beloved cartoon classics have the power to shock and disturb us, since, when we're kids, they plumb the dark recesses of our imagination like no live-action movie ever could. That said, nothing in the history of Disney hit me like Lampwick's terrifying transformation into a (literal and figurative) jackass - as dire a warning against the dangers of smoking, drinking, and not listening to your parents as we're likely to get.

#15: An American Werewolf In London
    (John Landis, 1981)

Look, I'm into werewolves as much as the next guy, but the fact is, our post-Twilight, post-CG pop culture climate has romanticized the idea, de-fanged it, taken the terror out of becoming something you're not. The signature scene in this in-jokey Comedy/Horror hybrid captures that feeling in all its agonizing, bone-crunching glory, thanks to Rick Baker's revolutionary makeup and animatronic effects, and scored to Bobby Vinton's "Blue Moon" on the soundtrack.

#14: Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

Browning's controversial follow-up to Dracula (1931) was heavily cut prior to its release, and banned in many countries for its honest depiction of midgets, microcephalics, and "half-boys" in their natural environment. For the film's climactic showdown, in which our deformed friends take revenge on the "normal" folk who wronged them, it's hard to say which is scarier: the "freaks" themselves, or the idea that their victims get exactly what was coming to them.

#13: The Silence Of The Lambs (Jonathan
    Demme, 1991)

More psychological thriller than out-and-out Horror film, this exquisitely-shot adaptation of Thomas Harris's best-selling novel is also a love story between two platonic mates, ostracized by society for their gender and/or peculiar eating habits. Sir Anthony Hopkins is so charismatic as the devious Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter that (SPOILER!) when he carries out his ingenious escape, we want to see him get away with it, as uncomfortable and conflicted as that makes us feel inside.

#12: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

When people think of Psycho, they undoubtedly think of the shower sequence, a shock so iconic, it's ingrained in our brains even if we've never seen the movie itself. For my money, though, the purest example of the movie's power is Detective Arbogast's death scene: Hitch draws out the inevitable for so long - the steep climb up the stairs, the door slowly creaking open - that when "mother" finally appears, I am putty in the Master's hands.

#11: Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot,

The film - along with Psycho - that inspired this famous quote from Hitchcock follows the exploits of an abusive headmaster's wife and his mistress, who conspire to kill the man and dump his body in the dilapidated school pool out back. The plan goes smoothly at first, then the body disappears... and the suit he wore that night comes back from the cleaners... and the screws tighten and tighten until that heart-stopping final twist, unrivaled by anything since... well, Psycho.

#10: Night Of The Living Dead (George A.
    Romero, 1968)

The movie that gave "birth" to modern zombie culture is still just as merciless as ever, with (brief) nudity and (mostly implied) blood and gore that pre-dated the MPAA ratings system by only a month. The scene in which the undead munch on Tom and Judy's charred remains (actually baked ham and chicken bits) is particularly gruesome, as if telling us, for the first time, that if movies could show us that, they could show us anything.

#9: [REC] (Jaume Balagueró / Paco Plaza, 2007)

Spanish directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza inject a welcome dose of adrenaline into the shaky-cam/found footage format, proving there's still plenty of juice left in the ol' genre yet. For the film's final scene, our plucky heroine and her trusty cameraman find themselves trapped in a darkened penthouse with... something they can hear but just barely see, at which point I literally forgot to breathe until the credits rolled.

#8: The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Too many Horror films affect us from the outside in when they should actually do the opposite, a fact this Australian-made masterpiece rectifies with stunning precision. Its monster-as-metaphor for raging, inconsolable grief (plus the idea that, deep down, we all might secretly resent our children) is so strong that when mother and son finally face off against the demon(s) consuming them both, the horrifying truth is that there may be no ridding themselves of it after all.

#7: The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013)

Wan's modern-day riff on Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror overflows with so many goosebump-y bits and jump scares it's hard to choose among favorites. Yet I'll go ahead and vote Mrs. Perron's chill-tastic game of "hide and clap" with an unseen entity in her basement, an instant classic of suspense and surprise that all but confirms the former director of Saw as the new reigning champion of old-fashioned thrills.

#6: Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)

I bet I'm not the only one who had recurring nightmares about that stupid, stupid clown. Not helped by the fact that the toy actually started choking actor Oliver Robins (who was nine at the time of filming), until producer Steven Spielberg noticed the poor kid's face was turning purple.

#5: Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Michael Myers may not be quite as creative with his kills as Jason or Freddy, but his "less is more" approach (along with Carpenter's relentlessly creeping camerawork) has never been equaled since he first started slashing his way across cinema screens. The film's final twenty minutes are a nonstop sensory assault, culminating in a shot of Michael's bleached-white, expression-less mask being ripped from his face, revealing the banality of evil underneath.

#4: Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (‎George
    Sluizer, 1988)

Sluizer's minimalist Dutch shocker features one of the most talked-about twist endings of all time, which, once you've seen it, will get you thinking twice about the nature of obsession and the dark and dangerous places it can lead us if we let it. The key to the movie's mystery, though, is the "vanishing" itself, and it's the look in Saskia's eyes - pleading, horrified, helpless - that's haunted me all these years afterward.

#3: The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick
    / Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)

Its reputation may have soured a bit over the last decade and a half, but watching this game-changing genre classic with a theater full of like-minded Horror junkies remains one of the defining communal experiences of my lifetime. There's a slow-burn kind of intensity that creeps over the entire movie, and the frights are kept off-screen for so long that, by the time its climactic, pants-wetting reveal finally comes, our imaginations are officially firing on all cylinders.

#2: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe
    Hooper, 1974)

The most notorious "slasher" flick ever made holds that distinction not for graphic violence or gore, but because of what it suggests, our brains fully registering what our eyes clearly do not. For Sally's "dinner date" with her cannibalistic captors, the fear is so palpable you can practically smell the sweat and rotting flesh, and it's that looming, inescapable threat of actual violence that makes the scene so unbearable to sit through.

#1: Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Our most primal fears are the ones that envelop us from childhood - hence my endless obsession with Spielberg's blockbuster fish tale since I was a kid. My first movie memory, in fact, is of poor Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) getting yanked underwater by that three-ton, 25-foot shark, that fear - of deep, deep ocean, and being eaten alive by a force beyond our control - hanging over every inch of the movie and also my life.

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