1. The Undead
For all the existential terror instilled by George A. Romero's zombies (“Is that all there is?” “Are they us?” etc. etc.), it took tyro Canadian director Zack Snyder to really give the groaning undead a kick up the decaying backside and make them truly terrifying. Why? Because they ran. And they were nasty. No longer could you simply and serenely evade zombies while on a pleasant stroll through the park – now the bastards came at you with the force of a ten-ton truck. It's the opening sequence of Snyder's 2004 debut, though, that really unsettles – beginning with a creepy and bloody attack by a little girl on the unsuspecting husband of Sarah Polley's heroine, Anna, and ending with society falling apart. All in less than nine minutes. Whether it's Polley looking in shock as a poor girl gets ripped apart on a bus by savage ghouls, or the pyres of smoke and flame that belch into the air as petrol stations and power plants explode, or Snyder's disorienting placement of a camera behind the bumper of Polley's car, making it float through the carnage, this is truly destabilising and discombobulating stuff.
2. The Satanic
The genius of Richard Donner's classic tale about the rise of the antichrist is that, despite the clearly supernatural elements that surround the story, demonic histrionics are conspicuous by their absence. There are no glowing eyes here, no guttural voices, no hideous make-up jobs. Which, in a way, makes the sequence where Lee Remick's Cathy meets her doom somehow even more affecting. Having survived one Satanic attempt on her life, Cathy is getting changed in her hospital room when the door opens silently behind her. A figure, out of focus, approaches. Jerry Goldsmith's portentous soundtrack builds. And, then Cathy turns to face her killer: her trusted nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) who is, of course, an agent of Satan. And, as Goldsmith's sinister choir kicks in, it's the eyes that get us. They may not be glowing, but when director Richard Donner cuts to a close-up of Whitelaw's blazing, insane, infernally committed eyes, it's a vision that bores deep into the recesses of your brain and refuses to leave. There are more spectacular moments in The Omen – David Warner's sensational flying head, of course – but none that scare so profoundly .
If there's one thing that movies have taught us, it's that clowns are not to be trusted. They wear make-up – what are they hiding? They drive cars that fall apart – who would do that? And, crucially, they're not funny. And they're also utterly, utterly terrifying – and never more so than in the standout scene from Tobe Hooper's 1981 belter. And, for a movie filled with great scenes, it takes something special to stand out. And that's exactly what the attack of the clown doll – the malevolent little bastard that comes to life and attacks Robby Freeling at the end of the movie, when the Freelings and the audience have been assured that their possessed house “is clean” - is. From the horrible, insane leer on the clown's plastic face, to its deranged laughter as it tries to strangle young Robby, it's the stuff of nightmares... especially when it lunges at him from under the bed, that favoured hiding place of boogeymen and ghosts.
4. Monster Movies
Hey, a shark's not a monster! No fair, put this in Non-Horror! Well, yes, a shark isn't a monster, but in Steven Spielberg's wonderful sophomore effort, that's exactly what it is. It's a terrifying, lurking, ravenous, unseen threat that will bite your toes off if you go into the water. It's the Boogeyman with fins. Want further proof? Take the scene in Halloween where Donald Pleasance says that Michael Myers has 'black eyes... the Devil's eyes' – not a million miles away from Quint's speech about 'lifeless eyes... black eyes... like a doll's eyes' here. But the most terrifying scene? Well, Ben Gardner's floating head has been done. The bigger boat where Bruce rears his toothy noggin out of the water and scares the shit out of Brody? Done. But there's nothing more primal than the thought of going for a midnight swim and then being grabbed from underneath by something with more teeth than a Sky News presenter, and then tossed around like a ragdoll. So, for that reason we're going for the opening scene, when Susan Backlinie goes skinny-dipping and ends up becoming the meat in a tooth sandwich. And notice this: John Williams' score is largely absent from the scene. It's just splashing and screaming and gurgling, and the unsettling clang of a nearby buoy.
|5. Slasher/Psycho |
A superior film to the original Scream – perhaps because Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson had the confidence now to do whatever they wanted – Scream 2 features one of the most superbly orchestrated death sequences this side of Dario Argento or Brian De Palma. About halfway through, as Randy (Jamie Kennedy), Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courteney Cox) discuss their options in a grassy park, they receive a call from the taunting Ghostface. Randy takes the call and tries to keep Ghostface on the line as Dewey and Gale keep an eye out – but it ends badly for Randy when, out of nowhere, Ghostface emerges from a van behind him, yanks open the door, drags him in and butchers him. The scene scares for several reasons: it happens in broad daylight, which is usually a no-no especially when it comes to generating suspense. It's a masterclass in misdirection – you expect something to happen to Dewey or Gale, but not to Randy. And lastly, unusually for a slasher film, you actually feel an emotional connection to a likeable character, and therefore pain at his untimely demise. Especially since he knew all the rules – with Randy dead, all bets are off.
Paul W.S. Anderson is a much-maligned director, but on Event Horizon he showed that he could conjure up a scare as efficiently and creatively as some of the true horror masters. Most notably in the sequence where Sam Neill's Dr. William Weir ? racked by grief, and tormented by the ship that he built ? receives a visit from the ghost of his dead wife, while crawling around the claustrophobic corridors of the Event Horizon. We've already seen Claire once before, with her haunting black eyes and sing-song voice, and don't particularly want to see her again. Neither does Weir, and that's why this scene is such a triumph, with Anderson using light (as the sickly green lights of the corridor fluctuate wildly, creating a sense of deep unease) and sound to create palpable tension. We know that she's coming, Weir knows that she's coming, and even so, when she does, it still scares the bejesus out of us. Anderson, sad to say, hasn't hit heights like this since.
7. Non Horror
The Dead Zone
Technically speaking, of course, you'd expect a David Cronenberg film, based on a book by Stephen King, to be a horror. But The Dead Zone – despite featuring a sub-plot about a serial killer – isn't, strictly speaking, a horror, but instead a psychological thriller in the truest sense of the term (before it became a cop-out phrase for directors who didn't want to demean themselves by calling their horror films 'horror films'). It's also not that great – stilted, episodic and sloth-like. But it's got one truly terrifying sequence which, given the current state of the world and the debate about the importance of faith to the President of the United States, may even be as prescient as the film's hero, the visionary Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken). In a flash-forward when he finally grasps hands with oily politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny sees a terrifying glimpse of what will be: the evangelical Stillson, putting the mentalist in 'fundamentalist', now President, ranting and raving about his destiny – which is to nuke Russia right off the face of the map. It's not the way that Stillson bullies his VP into placing his hand on the nuclear briefcase's scanner that sends shivers down the spine – but the way that, after the deed has been done, a peaceful, beatific Stillson greets his horrified aides with a self-satisfied grin and the immortal words, 'The missiles are flying, gentlemen. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.' What would Jed Bartlet think?