Halloween is upon us, which means, among other spooky things, that video stores everywhere will have empty shelves in their horror sections. And why not? What’s more thrilling than vicariously surviving our worst fears? The following make for the best fright night moments of sheer terror.
10. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director Nicolas Roeg’s unsettling Don’t Look Now is most famous for Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s explicit sex scene, but the real punch comes from its shocking ending — Sutherland’s dream of a reunion with his daughter turns out to be a premonition of his own death at the hands of a murderous dwarf. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond’s work won him a BAFTA Award.
9. The Wicker Man (1973)
The Nic Cage 2006 remake (with a Neil LaBute screenplay) has nothing on the original movie — a musical of sorts about pagan cult rituals on an obscure Scottish island. It’s creepy rather than scary… until a devastatingly terrifying ending in which Edward Woodward’s investigator is rendered powerless and trapped in a gigantic burning wicker man effigy, screaming for an absent god. A really powerful final moment can do a lot for a film.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street gives audiences nowhere to hide — even dreams are prey to face-scarred killer Freddy Krueger. Exceedingly gruesome, the movie’s most frightening scene has a sleepy young Johnny Depp sucked into his own bed… before returning as a fountain of blood.
7. The Exorcist (1973)
Despite its cheesier touches (the twisting head, the pea soup vomit), The Exorcist still scares. No more so than in its climactic exorcism scene when Jason Miller and Max von Sydow’s priests scream “The power of Christ compels you!” as possessed Linda Blair levitates several feet off her bed, a disturbing and strangely awe-inspiring manifestation of the marvelous.
6. Jaws (1975)
Accompanied by one of the great ominous scores in film history (John Williams’ simple but discomfiting da-DUM, da-DUM), the opening of Jaws has since given beach-goers second thoughts about going into the water with a shark’s point of view of a different kind of seafood meal. It’s also made suspense a key ingredient for summer blockbusters ever since then.
5. Psycho (1960)
It never gets old: Janet Leigh, rudely interrupted in her motel shower by a silhouetted, knife-wielding intruder in one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t show the stabbing but instead cuts Leigh up through rapid editing, and in the process leaves the worst to our unsettled imaginations. Gus Van Sant, talented as he is, couldn’t match it in his studied homage.
4. The Shining (1980)
Not “Redrum” or “Heeeeeere’s Johnny,” but the slow-motion ocean of blood let loose from an elevator of the haunted Overlook Hotel is the scariest moment from the highlight reel of horror that is Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. As a vision experienced by psychic Danny, it’s evocative, mysterious, and totally spine-chilling.
3. Halloween (1978)
Disorienting the audience by opening on a point of view shot from the vantage point of a character we don’t yet know, John Carpenter’s Halloween allows us the titillating voyeuristic thrill of a young naked woman and then pulls the rug out from us with a terrifying murder that makes us its culpable accomplice. There were many sequels but none has matched the original for chills.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
“What have you done to its eyes!?” “He has his father’s eyes.” In Roman Polanski’s spooky but also blackly funny Rosemary’s Baby, we know long before Rosemary that her soon-to-be-delivered baby isn’t going to quite like the others. And yet, when the end comes, Polanski terrifies us by revealing only the dark windows to the soul that are her offspring’s demonic peepers.
1. Carrie (1976)
The surprise ending — perhaps the greatest scare tactic at the fright fest’s disposal — has become so perfected in horror movies that it hardly registers as a surprise at all anymore. How can they ever surpass the jump-in-your-seat gotcha of Carrie when an arm shoots through a grave to grip the one classmate our titular anti-heroine failed to kill in tortured rage? Even if it’s just a dream, how come it takes so long to catch our breath?
What moment do you consider the scariest?