In the spirit of October, this list will look at scary scenes, but not from the horror classics directed by Craven or Carpenter or even Hitchcock (I’m excluding him, though I argue most of his work isn’t exactly horror). These are from the films that aren’t really meant to scare you. At least, not at the visceral level that horror films do. These are the fifty definitive moments from non-horror films that still made an impact on the “frightening front.” From shocking to creepy to unsettlingly hair raising, these are moments that will stick in your mind long after watching the films, even if they are part of a very different narrative.
50. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Scene: Monkey Security
The third installment of the one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time is also one of the darkest children’s films ever made. But in a film that has a stuffed bear with the persona of a cult leader and a near closing scene that feels like a descent into Hell, the scariest moment takes place about two thirds through, when our beloved toys try to escape the day care center with Lotso (Ned Beatty) – a stuffed bear – serving as a surrogate leader for the existing toys. Lotso’s ship is run like a cult – once you’re in, there’s no turning back. He’s welcoming and promises that any toy is free to go, but that exit is monitored by a cymbal banging little chimp who watches the security cameras at all times. The dark, surreal nature of the daycare center is frightening enough for children, but the chimp puts it over the top, with a terrifying face and an aggressive persona that goes beyond a cheap jump scare. And to think – this was a toy we used to give to kids for fun.
49. The Witches (1990)
Scene: The Woman in Black
You would expect a movie called The Witches to be frightening, but not when it’s based on a Roald Dahl book (well, maybe if it’s based on a Roald Dahl book). Directed by Nicholas Roeg (he directed Don’t Look Now, so perhaps we should’ve known), The Witches is the story of Luke (Jasen Fisher), a young boy who loses his parents in a car accident and is taken in by his grandmother Helga. Eventually, Luke is exposed to a bevy of witches, but his first encounter comes while playing in his treehouse in the English countryside. The Woman in Black (Anne Lambton) approaches and tries to coax Luke down with the promise of a snake and chocolate (a real snake – alive and everything). This sets the narrative in motion, but the incredibly unpleasant first encounter is the one that sticks in memory. The reveal of her purple eyes. Her attempts to lure him down like a child predator. In a film co-produced by Jim Henson with some creepy art direction and staging, the most frightening moment comes without the help of any special effects at all.
48. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Scene: Danny’s Death
One of the classic 1940’s film noirs that tends to be forgotten, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is a classic femme fatale story with a brilliantly devilish lead performance from Gene Tierney (Oscar nominated). Told in flashback, novelist Richard (Cornel Wilde) meets socialite Ellen Berent (Tierney) on a train. Ellen immediately falls for him, mostly because he looks like her dead father. Plus, she’s already engaged to a Boston attorney (Vincent Price), whom she quickly tosses aside to marry her newfound love. Slowly, we learn how unbalanced and jealous Ellen is, refusing to let anyone else accept the care and love of her new husband. Richard’s brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) comes to stay with them at their lodge on the lake, drawing out Ellen’s hatred as she sees how much Richard cares for him. Mind you, eventually Ellen throws herself down a flight of stairs to ensure a miscarriage; that’s terrible. But it’s her trip out on the lake with Danny that is the most frightening moment, as Danny talks a big game about how he can swim the lake, despite being unable to use his legs due to paralysis. Ellen doesn’t believe him and almost challenges him without saying so. Danny hops overboard, but finds himself impossibly weighed down by his immobile legs. Ellen watches dead-eyed as Danny struggles to stay afloat, just out of the reach of the boat. It isn’t until Danny is already submerged and Richard comes to shore that she begins to scream. Tierney’s eyes are as cold and unloving as any ever on screen in this oft-forgotten noir and this moment of sheer uncaring and disregard for another life is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.
47. American Psycho (2000)
Scene: Paul’s Murder
From the mind of famed misogynistic author Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron’s American Psycho could almost be classified as a horror film if it wasn’t so deliberately darkly comic. But within those mild traces of anti-establishment, 80’s pop culture comic moments comes a graphic and sometimes bloody edge that is stomach turning. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a well-groomed, wealthy investment banker in New York City, obsessed with his appearance, his social standing, and his music collection, consisting of dozens of 1980’s staples, like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston. On top of all this, he is secretly a serial killer. So there’s that. In this world, the allure of your business card is what makes you stand out. When Patrick learns his associate Paul (Jared Leto) has a nicer business card than him, it throws Patrick into a fit of rage. He lures Paul to his apartment after getting him drunk and proceeds to layer the room with tarps and newspapers, while he wears a parka. He puts on Huey Lewis and the News’ hit “Hip to Be Square” and illustrates the importance of the subtext of the song and its writer/performer, all while preparing to ambush Paul with an axe. As intended, it’s kind of funny, despite the violence. But it’s also all the while terrifying to watch a man switch off and on between happy-go-lucky and menacing. We even get to see a little Bale moonwalk in there. But Bale’s breakout adult performance in this cult classic is one for the ages and one that points directly to that inner darkness he has drawn upon since, especially in this exceptionally memorable scene.
46. The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Scene: The Toaster’s Dream
Produced by Hyperion Animation and distributed by Walt Disney, The Brave Little Toaster was an early offering from a group of animators that would eventually make up Pixar Animation Studios. The story centers on the titular toaster and his band of electronic appliances as they head out to find their original owner. Their log cabin has been put up for sale, so the appliances hook up a car battery to a rolling chair and keep themselves powered for the long journey. They are met with various trouble on their way through the wilderness, but the moment in question actually happens early in the film, when the toaster has a dream about his owner. In this dream, he sees his owner making morning toast, only to watch smoke pour out of his slots. The smoke morphs into a hand and grabs his owner, giving way to a towering fire and a menacing clown in firefighter attire holding a hose. He leans into the toaster (we are watching through the toaster’s eyes) and whispers “Run.” From there, it’s a chase as the toaster tries to get away from a tidal wave, only to end up falling into a bathtub and waking up. While only given a limited release in theaters, The Brave Little Toaster found new life of VHS, giving birth to two sequels of lesser quality. It was distributed by Disney, but never really gets included into the Disney canon very often, predating the Disney renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989. But the influence of the Pixar approach was there – an adult story veiled by a children’s adventure that was darker than most give it credit for.
45. The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)
Scene: The Angel’s Visit
Claymation is creepy enough – we see that with work from Jan Švankmajer. But Will Winton’s 1985 film The Adventures of Mark Twain (released as Comet Quest in the UK) took the ideas of the great Mark Twain and twisted it into a cerebral, twisted smörgåsbord of vignettes. In the film, Mark Twain and three of his famous characters – Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher – travel on an airship, searching for Halley’s Comet. The children sneaked onto this interstellar balloon Twain built because he was tired of the human race and planned to crash into the comet. They plan to convince him that his plan is wrong and that he should have more faith in humanity. So, Twain takes them through various portals, each one giving a small piece of his philosophies, personified by select stories he wrote. There are many terrifying scenes in the film, but the one that stands out is definitely their meeting with a body holding a talking mask who identifies himself as an angel named Satan. The scene itself feels disjointed from the rest of the film, as he takes them onto a floating island and gives them fruit, then they all build a sand castle with people together. But the ambiance being set in the scene is just uncomfortable. For a film that is filled with dark depictions of Twain’s honest philosophies throughout his work, this little stand alone moment is incredibly unsettling, especially with the way Winton’s animation feels so all at once smooth and dirty at the same time.
44. Signs (2002)
Scene: The Alien Sighting
M. Night Shyamalan broke out with his 1999 film The Sixth Sense. He followed it up with a lesser, but still not terrible film, Unbreakable. Then, in what felt like the turning point, he made Signs, an alien invasion story that was surprisingly well-paced and interesting. Starring Mel Gibson as a conflicted pastor on a farm in Pennsylvania, he and his family begin to see mysterious crop circles popping up on their property. Graham (Gibson) has all but lost his faith after the death of his wife, as he is now left with his son Morgan (Rory Culkin), daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed up minor league baseball player. The children are exceedingly quirky – Morgan is asthmatic and insightful, Bo leaves half-filled glasses of water all over the house. But, slowly the paranoia builds. The scene in question is a simple jump scare, but Phoenix’s performance sells it. Merrill watches a news report being ported in from Brazil, taken from a children’s birthday party. The camera shows the children watching, while Merrill screams for them to move (in Spanish, no less). It’s brief and seemingly inconsequential, but when that alien steps past the alley, Phoenix takes Merrill to a different level. His face is scarier than the actual report. At that point, Merrill joins the children, convinced that the aliens are coming. Signs is an excellent piece of science-fiction and suspense for 95 minutes of its running time. Then, the final ten minutes happen and everything falls apart, much like Shyamalan’s career seems to have. But for those 95 minutes and that brief moment, we had ourselves a really solid thriller that didn’t rely on special effects. It relied on atmosphere and some really quality performances.
43. The Neverending Story (1984)
Scene: Gmork’s Final Attack
I won’t even dance around it – when I was a child, the idea of “The Nothing” scared the living crap out of me. Plus, I was a little young to really gather everything that was happening in Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story. But within the incredibly dense children’s movie was a collection of memorable characters that still stick in the memories of the youth of that time. Among them was a villain we never really hear from until the end named Gmork, which is basically a large wolf-like creature. We follow Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) through Fantasia as he tries to find a way to save it and the childlike empress, who is dying from an illness caused by “The Nothing” which, as Gmork explains, is basically hopelessness and despair that destroys the human heart and any semblance of imagination, which fuels the existence of Fantasia. Gmork has been sent as a servant for this entity to kill Atreyu. The showdown is little more than a Bond-villain style confession from Gmork, which allows Atreyu to arm himself, knowing that Gmork has come for him. But that animatronic talking wolf in the cave and its expressive eyes are enough to frighten anyone, especially with the world around our hero crashing down around him. As an adult, the moment isn’t nearly as scary. But, as a child, Gmork was the personification of a nightmare – a creature sent to kill within a dream world that supposedly exists in all of our minds. Deep stuff.
42. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)
Scene: Morell Snaps
A small, independent British film from director Shane Meadows, A Room for Romeo Brass is really a coming of age story focusing on the friendship of two twelve year old boys in the English countryside. Andrew Shim plays the title character, who hangs out (sometimes begrudgingly) with his best friend Gavin (Ben Marshall), whose nicknamed “Knocks.” Knocks has a spinal issue and needs to have surgery, which leaves him with a noticeable limp and an obvious impairment. Romeo must work through the stigma attached to his friendship with a now disabled boy, which causes him some grief. Meanwhile, the two boys meet an older teenager named Morell (screen debut of Paddy Considine), through he is really looking for more exposure to Romeo’s attractive older sister, Ladine (Vicky McClure). So, Morell uses his friendship with the boys to try to work his way to Ladine, only to see Knocks play a humiliating practical joke on him, embarrassing Morell in the sight of Ladine. Morell already seemed like a bit of a wild card, but the resulting conversation between Morell and Knocks sets the stage for the rest of the film, as Morell begins to drive a chasm between Romeo and Knocks, thinking that will help his chances. But this scene, which begins as a friendly, somewhat weighty conversation between two familiar people, takes an incredibly dark turn as Morell becomes increasingly hostile, to the point that he is threatening the life of a disabled, twelve year old boy. We recognize that Morell’s behavior is not necessarily out of the realm of the character, but the slow burn of anger in his eyes directed toward a child half his size is not easily seen. A Room for Romeo Brass feels almost comedic up until this point, but Morell’s first verbal assault ensured that this was nothing to laugh at, as well as Considine’s presence on screen as a loose cannon.
41. Return to Oz (1985)
Scene: The Wheelers
This movie is ridiculous. 1939’s The Wizard of Oz is still one of the most beloved, most successful films of all time. But L. Frank Baum had a library of books about the world of Oz. So, in 1985, Disney distributed this pseudo-sequel, much more faithfully based on Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. Return to Oz follows Dorothy (screen debut of Fairuza Balk) as she returns to Oz to find it has been completely destroyed. This time, she is accompanied by her favorite chicken, Billina, a clunky mechanical man named Tik-Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead (he’s what you think he looks like). Then comes The Gump, a moose-like head with the body of a couch, broom, and tree branches. There are dozens of terrifying moments in this “fantasy-adventure family film;” disembodies heads screaming; a giant, flame-engulfed rock monster; the possibility of Dorothy received shock therapy at the beginning of the film. But the moment that stands out has always been the Wheelers. The Wheelers are basically stooges sent by the Nome King to track down Dorothy as she journeys to the Emerald City. They are men in colorful costumes with wheels hooked to their feet; men that look unbalanced and horrifying. So, within a movie that, while extremely faithful to the source material, was a major disappointment to fans of the original, if I had to pick one moment out of a laundry list of scary moments, it would be their first appearance to Dorothy.