50 terrifying movie moments



Add +

Time Out's film team's run-down of the scariest scenes in cinema


The Profound Desire of the Gods: Tales from a Southern Island (1968)

Dir Shohei Immamura (Mikuni Rentarô, Kawarazaki Chôichirô and Kitamura Kazuo)

Going for a quick paddle

One of the fixations of the late Japanese director Shohei Imamura was using film to emphasise how human culture and interaction is essentially founded on a catalogue of primitive and bestial urges. His sprawling, sun-blissed 1968 soap opera involves the fictional inhabitants of a tropical island situated on an archipelago of Okinawa, detailing the effect that rapid modernisation has on this uncorrupted way of life. The jaw-dropping climax of the film anticipates ‘The Wicker Man’, as one of the island’s denizens attempts to escape a crime of passion via boat, but is eventually chased down by masked captors and battered senseless with their paddles. Imamura expertly draws out the scene, and the tension comes from the grinding inevitability of a gory death. DJ


A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)

Dir Shane Meadows (Paddy Considine, Andrew Shim, Ben Marshall)

You want to see things get really dark?

Following ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ and ‘My Summer of Love’, we all know what Paddy Considine is capable of: that stomach-turning shift from friendly to ferocious, from casual to carnivorous, has become familiar. But back in 1999, Considine was an unknown quantity: ‘Romeo Brass’ was his first film, and remains his finest performance. As knockabout doofus Morell, who befriends a pair of happy-go-lucky ten year olds, he seems at first like just another jolly outsider, a figure of fun for both audience and characters. But then the boys push him too far and, at the end of a fun-packed day on the beach, Morell simply flips. The result is shocking, indescribable, as bold an actor’s entrance as any in cinema. TH


Zardoz (1974)

Dir John Boorman (Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, John Alderton)

James Bond in a red nappy! Mummy, make it stop!

Director Boorman has plenty of previous when it comes to big-screen diaperings. Not only did he parade his own teenage son in a junglist loincloth through ‘The Emerald Forest’, he also persuaded man’s man’s macho man Burt Reynolds into a watertight black rubber singlet for soggy-bottomed thriller ‘Deliverance’. And we’re pretty sure we remember a few Medieval undercrackers amid the Arthurian lunacy of ‘Excalibur’ too. None of them – nor even Sting’s strong showing in a pair of winged metal jockeys in ‘Dune’ – make quite as deep and upsetting an impression as seeing 6' 2" of hirsute Edinburghian beefcake block-quoting Nietzsche whilst prancing through a sci-fi ‘Wizard of Oz’ retread in a tomato-red jockstrap. Most petrifying scene? The rickshaw sequence, perhaps. Or the transvestite wedding. The hall of mirrors? The psychosexual library freakout? You decide. ALD


Jaws (1975)

Dir Steven Spielberg (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss)

Three-and-a-bit men in a boat

The horror genre is the perfect medium in which to explore our primal fears in completely safe surroundings. We pay to scare ourselves shitless, and then go home and tuck into bed, safe in the knowledge that the frightful bogeyman we’d just encountered was nothing more than a figment of someone else’s imagination. But what of those films that dwell not on the impossible but the tangible? There are a number of buttock-clenching scenes in ‘Jaws’ but for sheer unexpected frights, Richard Dreyfuss’s sub-aquatic encounter with the bleached, festering head of a chomped boatman is a cracker. Worse, we all know that if he doesn’t squirrel his way to the surface very quickly, he’ll be adding his own visage to old sharkey’s trophy cabinet. DA


Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Dir Roman Polanski (Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes)

‘This is no dream, this is really happening!’

It’s a little creepy from the start when young couple Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) move into an upscale New York apartment block and their elderly neighbours Minnie and Roman start to take too keen an interest in their lives. It only gets worse when Guy changes his tune and expresses a liking for the pair and starts to spend time with them, no matter how much it bothers delicate, nervy Rosemary. Then things turn strange. Rosemary eats a dessert prepared by the neighbours, has a funny spell and passes out. She dreams there are naked old folk around her bed, including her neighbours, and someone is saying, brandishing a rope, ‘Better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions.’ Rosemary screams what we might be thinking – ‘This is no dream, this is really happening!’ But is it a dream? Is it happening? The questions continue right through the film and although this scene is terrifying, the real terror is the slow build of doubt and counter-doubt. DC


Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Dir Abel Ferrara (Harvey Keitel, Zoë Lund, Darryl Strawberry)

Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear hornier than they are

We’re still waiting for the third installment of Keitel’s ‘Wang Trilogy’. If he hadn’t been booted out of the lead role in ‘Apocalypse Now’, we could add the sight of him rolling around starkers in a Saigon hotel room to the twin poles (fnarr!) of his full-frontal assaults in ‘The Piano’ and ‘Bad Lieutenant’, but it was not to be. And it says a lot for the raw, naked battering that Ferrara’s magnificent cop drama delivers that Harvey’s Howitzer isn’t his most disturbing showing in the film. That must surely belong to the bleak, harrowing and forbiddingly humorous scene in which Harvey’s rapidly degenerating copper pulls over two teen girls and forces to make ‘love me’ faces whilst he spanks his monkey against the door of their Volvo. Even within the context of the mired squalor and moral dilapidation that floods the film, this scene still manages to break the needle on the Yikes!-o-Meter. ALD


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Dir David Lynch (Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Grace Zabriskie)

‘The man in the mask is looking for the book with the pages torn out…’

There was some discussion over which of the many mind-shatteringly unsettling Lynch moments would make it on to this list. The baby in ‘Eraserhead’? Michael Elphick’s sickening waltz in ‘The Elephant Man’? The midnight drive in ‘Blue Velvet’, or the phone call from the Mystery Man in ‘Lost Highway’? The closest contender, which almost won the day, was the hobo behind the diner in ‘Mulholland Dr’, a scene of indescribable, inexplicable terror – but also an almost shot-for-shot recreation of this even more shocking moment, the sight of the murderous demon Bob crouching behind doomed Laura Palmer’s dresser in ‘Fire Walk with Me’. The big-screen spin-off from ‘Twin Peaks’ is a film stuffed with horror, loss, grief and fear, and in the most disturbing of contexts, familial abuse. This scene is the turning point from grim melodrama to outright nightmare – a realisation so shocking, it can only end in bloody murder. TH


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Dir Tobe Hooper (Marilyn Burns, Edward Neal)

‘It’s a house’

‘I thought I heard something.’ You thought right – and it wasn’t the Forest Commission doing some standard pruning. Youngsters Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A Partain), while on a trip through rural Texas, set off into the woods to find two missing friends. Sally is pushing Franklin in a wheelchair – uh-oh – when old Leatherface lunges out of the darkness and rips the disabled one to death with his chainsaw. The next few minutes are pure hell as Leatherface chases Sally through the dark forest. She then darts into an isolated house  – uh-oh, number two – where she finds several shrivelled bodies upstairs and throws herself from a window when the man with the bloody machine follows her in. Soon they’re tearing through the forest and it seems like any second the sheer, hulking horror of this crazy monster will catch her up and rip her to shreds. Just don’t forget to breathe. DC


The Wages of Fear (1953)

Dir Henri-Georges Clouzot (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck)

Sweat, Semtex and South American roads – a killer combination

Take two clapped-out trucks, four displaced, combustible, conniving Europeans sweating out last night’s whiskey and dripping with Old World ennui, endless miles of bumpy roads and a whole mess of nitroglycerine and you’ve got the makings of what might be the most sustained piece of edge-of-the-seat cinema ever produced. Fully the entire second half of Clouzot’s masterful study of men under pressure is a gut-wrenching, teeth-grinding, knuckle-whitening death ride on which our four anti-heroes inch their way around boulders, through tar pits and across rotten, rickety bridges as they struggle to get their cargo to an refinery in order to extinguish a fire threatening a Yanqui oil concern. A film that will leave you truly exhausted. ALD


The Vanishing (1988)

Dir George Sluizer (Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu)

Searching high and low

Freaking out an audience by burying your main character alive should be like shooting fish in a barrel – but just try watching mediocre grave-based Ryan Reynolds vehicle ‘Buried’, and you’ll see how wrong that assumption can be. Without doubt, the high water mark of the surprisingly limited living-internment subgenre is Sluizer’s unforgettable 1988 thriller, in which a loving husband spends years tracking his wife’s abductor, only to be presented with a simple choice when he finally catches up with the psycho responsible: drink the flask, and know her fate, or put it down, hand me to the cops, and live in ignorance. The result is somehow inevitable, but still utterly devastating, an ending so bleak and fearless even its director couldn’t bear to live with it, as shown in Sluizer’s own pathetic Hollywood remake. TH

Users say