Psycho (1960) • Two moments of note: The split second after the shower curtain is pulled back, but before Mother pounces on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), we get an almost subliminal glimpse into the face of madness. Director Alfred Hitchcock must have spent all day lighting this shot, to obscure Mother's face just enough so we only see a glint of insanity off the eyes, and that's enough. On freeze frame, there's nothing else to see. The second moment comes at the climax of the film, when Lila (Vera Miles) has wandered into the basement and discovered Mother, but she doesn't know Norman (Anthony Perkins) is on his way. The one-two punch of discovering both secrets of Mother and son electrifies the whole audience.
Alien (1979) is full of scares, shocks, and gross-outs, but the scariest sequence has to be when Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) goes into the ductwork to find the "chestburster" alien, which escaped the dining area, after escaping from Kane (John Hurt). What the audience and the crew doesn't know is, the chestburster had a growth spurt since he skittered across the breakfast table.
|I love Harry Dean Stanton's costume...|
and I have a reproduction of his cap!
The Shining (1980) is good because it's too long, it has plenty of creepy, shocking, and scary moments, but the scene which still scares me is the Twins In The Hallway scene: Little Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) is pedaling around the Overlook Hotel on his Big Wheel, turning corner after corner. Director Stanley Kubrick is brilliant- not only do all these twists and turns disorient the viewer, but it serves to preserve the surprise on repeat viewings. Even a veteran viewer like me doesn't remember which corner will reveal the ghost twins. Then it gets worse. Kubrick cuts in brief glimpses of the twins' untimely demise, but you never know which split-second they'll appear, so you have to watch the whole scene through your fingers, just like poor Danny does in the film. No special effects, no latex, just one line of dialogue "Come play with us Danny..." and a few gallons of fake blood.
Speaking of blood, one of my very first memories of going to the movies was seeing the theatrical teaser trailer for The Shining. The trailer consists of the Elevator Flood Of Blood Scene. Since the film was released in May 1980, I must have been 7 or 8 when I saw it. I remember seeing the trailer, and asking my older brother next to me if the guests were going to drown in all that blood. My brother said (God bless him) that the hotel was closed and no one was there. I remember thinking "gee, what about the janitor? isn't anyone at the hotel?" The Internet Movie Database Trivia Page for The Shining points out that the MPAA normally wouldn't allow such a graphic scene in a trailer approved for All Audiences (like me at 8 years old!) but somehow Kubrick convinced them the blood was actually rusty water(??). I just wanted the MPAA to know, 23 years later, that that trailer scarred me for life.
Poltergeist (1982) had a profound impact on me because I saw it at Halloween time, a few years before I should have. The part which scared me the most (I think I was behind the sofa the whole time) is when the nerdy scientist goes for a midnight snack. The face-melting scene looks really phony now, but it worked very well 20 years ago...
The Thing (1982) • This was a fertile year for scary movies. This film is soaked in paranoia and simmering fear, interspersed with true shocks and creeps. When Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) is attempting CPR and the man's chest opens like a bear trap, then chops off the Doctor's arms, that's a sign that the patient isn't going to make it. My favorite scare has to be the scene with the severed head which grows spider legs (insert shiver here!)
Silence Of The Lambs (1991) • Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has discovered Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), but she's all alone with him, and no backup in sight. Bill escapes into his basement, and Clarice must go after him; his latest victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), is down there somewhere, and Clarice cannot wait for help to arrive. The basement is a true labyrinth, with no sense of order or geography to the place. What's worse is, Bill could be anywhere. Clarice makes an attempt to search some of the rooms, and finds Catherine down in the well, but then the lights go out. Bill has a night vision scope to hunt Clarice in the dark, but he makes the classic movie blunder: he waits until he is standing directly behind her to cock his gun. Clarice (who is so jumpy she'd shoot anything at this point) spins around and unloads all six shots at point blank range.
The most delightfully scary moment in Signs (2002) is when the whole family is barricading themselves in the basement. The aliens are about to break in, and just in the nick of time, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) discovers a shovel to bar the door (or was it a hammer? a pick? It doesn't matter). Merrill grabs the tool and accidentally breaks their only lightbulb. Yes, it's another "Monsters-In-The-Basement-With-The-Lights-Out" Moment, and it works. I was also creeped out by the moment when Merrill finally sees an alien on the Brazilian TV broadcast. The crowd I saw it with was mostly laughing at Joaquin Phoenix's silly/nervous yelling at the TV, but the moment was perfectly rendered. If I had to imagine what a accidental videotaping of an alien on Earth would look like, that would be it.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Blair Witch Project