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What Is the Scariest Moment in Cinema?

Black rooms and bloody toilets: our writers choose the most frightening scenes in film, from classic horror to coming-of-agers

Scariness, in its most typical guise, tends to involves old houses, creepy children, and things coming at you in the dead of night. But often what evokes a true sense of fear is an atmosphere or feeling – a deep-seated sense of wrongness. A moment of pure implication. Anxiety, in whatever form. Yet fear is also entirely subjective, and what frightens one person isn't necessarily going to spook another.

To celebrate this Halloween season, we asked our frequent contributors to name that one scene that sprung to mind when asked for “the scariest moment in cinema.” Their answers covered a broad spectrum, from classic horror movies to coming-of-agers to films that aren't easily classifiable at all. What's evident in these picks is that there are so many ideas of what we constitute as “scary” – and it doesn't always need to involve a jump scare.

Words by: Tom Barnard, Jack Blackwell, Ben Flanagan, Steph Green, Ella Kemp, Manuela Lazic, Emily Maskell, Adam Solomons

 

The Black Room (Under the Skin) – Tom Barnard, Editor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

To call Under the Skin a horror film does little service to Jonathan Glazer's genre-less marvel, certainly one of the strangest films of the last decade – and one of the most disturbing. It's a film that evokes such a specific type of uncomfortableness that the real world actually begins to feel like a colder and more frightening place as you're watching it. There are many unsettling moments, but it's those set inside the film's deeply mysterious “Black Room” that takes the cake. It's here that Scarlett Johansson's nameless alien takes the men she picks up in order to “harvest” them. What is this room? What does it feel like to be inside it? What is actually happening to these unfortunate blokes as they float naked in an endless void, skin turned blue, before being sucked of their organs until only the skin remains? The real terror here stems from the idea of the unknown, Mica Levi's bizarre score further emphasising the sense of alienation. It turns my stomach just thinking about it.

 

The Phantom (Inland Empire) – Jack Blackwell, Contributor

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Though most of his work doesn’t fall neatly into the horror genre, there’s no better filmmaker than David Lynch for tapping into the nightmare part of your brain. He conjures images that don’t sound too scary out of context, but make you sick to your stomach in practice. So it is with the “Phantom” in Inland Empire, a grotesque, grinning version of Laura Dern’s protagonist. As he often did in Twin Peaks, Lynch uses lo-fi effects (here looking like the relatively simple face distortion feature that early versions of iMovie had) to create something far more uncanny and disconcerting than the most cutting edge CG or prosthetics ever could. Swimming through the digital muck of Inland Empire’s visual style, this giant silent scream of a face is the sort of image you wish you could forget, but absolutely never will.

 

The Gas Station (The Vanishing) – Ben Flanagan, Contributor

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

George Sluizer’s The Vanishing is one of the most deeply distressing films ever made not for any excessive gory moments, but because of the absence of bloodshed. Based on Tim Krabbé’s novella The Golden Egg, it tells the story of a sexy Dutch couple – Rex and Saskia – whose holiday in the French alps is disrupted when Saskia disappears at a service station. Knowing the title of the film, we wait for this moment, examining the corners of the frame for signs of danger. Rex and Saskia’s chemistry is natural, the countryside lush. It could be an Éric Rohmer film, save for the bulkish man we see watching the couple (the terrifying Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). All the while, composer Hennie Vrienten’s bassy score makes a lover’s kiss feel like staring into the abyss. Rex’s all-consuming mission to find Saskia takes the film into some of the most disturbing corners of the human condition. But it’s that opening 15 minutes that haunts the most. It reminds us that things can turn sour at the drop of a hat.

 

The Ghost (Pulse) – Steph Green, Contributor

Where to watch it: BFI Player

Pulse crafts a nerve-shredding atmosphere of fear throughout, as well possessing its fair share of hide-behind-your-hands moments. Eschewing jump scares, an agonisingly slow build-up of terror lets you steep in your own growing distress. One scene in particular sticks out, as a character enters a forbidden room and meets what appears to be a ghost. A combination of things contributes to the dread, from the shadowy, hallway-of-horrors angular set, to the eerie score that sounds like wails caught in the wind. The ghost walks so slowly, her limbs bending inhumanely in a ghastly dance. The camera is unforgivingly fixed – a can’t-look-away fear, akin to sleep paralysis. A glacially slow tech-horror about the loneliness that arrives with the advent of technology, the film is set at the turn of the millennium where unexplained depression and suicide is on the rise. What’s frightening, and prescient, is how the apathy, despair and solitude appears to be contagious.

 

The Toilet (The Conversation) – Manuela Lazic, Contributor

Where to watch it: Now TV

Everything has been said about the greatness of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a true 1970s film about cover-ups and surveillance. Yet while the conspiracy itself is chilling, it's private investigator Harry Caul’s helplessness that turns the film into a personal horror trip. Hired only to record a mysterious conversation, the shy and nerdy Caul (Gene Hackman) isn’t meant to be confronted with anything too dramatic – which makes the moment when he is all the more horrifying. Although usually uninterested in the consequences of his findings, Caul’s humanity pushes him to seek out answers. He arrives in a hotel room where he believes a murder was committed, but fearing paranoia, he doubts himself. Coppola’s camera glides around the room to emphasise its emptiness and banality as Caul relaxes, glad to have been wrong. But when, about to leave, he flushes the toilet, his suspicion proves correct: blood starts coming up the drain and the red water overflows, like a mundane version of the gory elevator in The Shining. Caul trembles and stares at the water, immobilised. It's a testament to the ways in which true horror can manifest in the most ordinary of settings – even a hotel toilet.

The Pool Party (Eighth Grade) – Ella Kemp, Contributor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Ominous horns blare, loud and vicious animal-type things spit and splash furiously. It might be called a party, but there’s no celebration here for Kayla Day in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, who experiences a pool party like something out of your worst nightmare. The fluorescent green of her swimsuit feels abrasive, and the kids she’s trying so hard to impress squirt chlorine through their teeth and roll their eyes back into their skull just to show they can. Burnham uses Anna Meredith’s “Nautilus” with ingenious dramatic pacing, letting the experimental producer’s gloriously garish track give Kayla’s deep awkwardness the epic scale it deserves. Nothing goes violently wrong, she doesn’t say or do much – but you just know that every step she takes feels as heavy as the world. It’s excruciating, terrifying being a teenager. Eighth Grade captures the horror perfectly.

 

The Other Parents (Coraline) – Iana Murray, Contributor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Henry Selick’s Coraline has a reputation for being nightmare fuel – and for good reason. There are arguably scarier scenes in the film – the surreal face-off between Coraline and her arachnid mother being a good example – but her first meeting with her “other” parents stood out to me as truly dig-under-your-skin chilling. The sewed-on button eyes lend an unnerving uncanniness to their interaction, but the tangible quality of the stop-motion animation also adds an element of body horror that’s unlike anything you’d expect from a children’s film. The scene encapsulates how Coraline taps into the idea that your parents are mortal and fallible, which is a more terrifying discovery for a child than any monster. It scared me then, and it still gives me shivers now.

 

The Bonfire (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) – Emily Maskell, Contributor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Fear can be the last component of a terrifying realisation and yet the most visceral. In Céline Sciamma’s stunning film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) experiences that hair-raising dread as she looks through the bonfire that separates her and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). As the flames dance between them, Marianne realises she has fallen in love and, subsequently, the terror that the feeling may not be reciprocated seeps in. Surrounded by darkness, the bottom of Héloïse's dress goes up in flames. Frozen in horror and unable to take her eyes of Marianne, Héloïse collapses to the floor. That image of Héloïse standing, flames at her feet, haunts Marianne. No matter how startling and horrifying this moment is, the real terror comes with facing the grandeur of their own love.

 

The Reveal (Eat Drink Man Woman) – Adam Solomons, Contributor

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Ang Lee’s 1994 food-family comedy-drama isn’t a movie most of us necessarily associate with horror, but the final act plot twist of Eat Drink Man Woman is surely scary enough to have you choking on your elaborately-made fish dinner. Most of the film plods along with a wry observational smile, but in its penultimate scene Lee decides to flip the table. Mr Chu (Sihung Lung) has been set up to marry Madame Liang (Gua Ah-Leh), a kindly and eccentric friend of his, as the pair approach their twilight years. Gathering his entire family, the film’s ensemble, we expect the expected. Instead, Chu announces he will be marrying her daughter Jin Rong (Sylvia Chai), to the horror of everyone gathered – and us, too. Madame Liang faints on the spot, a response which might actually be called an under-reaction. If anyone saw this coming I both commend and fear them in equal measure.

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