First off, a confession of sorts: scary movies don’t scare me.
Or, to put it less bluntly, as a one-time horror movie aficionado, I quickly outgrew the ways gore supplanted suspense and special effects became a substitute for authenticity. It just happened that I came of age during the apotheosis of the Friday the 13th franchise. In fairness, the first one was genuinely terrifying. But, for me, even as a pre-teen, the most effective parts involved the mother, not the invisible knife and axe weilding psychopath. In any event, it was probably also an inevitable matter of timing that I was starting to grow up just as slasher movies became such an obligatory, and lucrative enterprise. I grew bored and more importantly, was never scared.
One of the reasons I always found Texas Chainsaw Massacre so truly horrifying is that, when I first saw it, I was already accustomed to the ludicrous pas de deux of the post-Halloween M.O.: the sexy vixen, scared out of her wits, running like a track star while Jason or Michael Myers walk in slow motion, invariably catching her, or jumping out from behind a tree, superseding the Space-Time Continuum, or whatever. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is no slo-mo, no obligatory — and intelligence-insulting — pyrotechnics; it’s raw and real: when the victims run the bad guys run after them (with chainsaws). For me the clip below, of the first kill, is still amongst the scariest “scary” scenes in horror movie history, owing largely (if ironically) to it’s low-fi sensibility. You know what’s going to happen, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. And then it happens. When “Leatherface” slams that steel door shut, it’s an indelibe moment: creepy, cringe-inducing and, several decades later, unsurpassed.
For me and, I suspect, most adults, the most unnerving scenes are not from movies found in the Horror section. There is a reason truth is stranger, and scarier, than fiction. Looking back on specific scenes that impacted me on first viewing, and retain their power to unsettle or spook me today, I offer up ten that I’d rank as more terrifying than anything featuring cartoon-character evil.
1. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976
I’ll commence with a wild card of sorts. According to legend, the actor intended to play this role could not make it on shooting day, so director Martin Scorsese (then still fairly unknown, at least by appearance), gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. The results are astonishing: more than merely a credible contribution, Scorsese taps into things he’d seen, heard and, perhaps, experienced, and fueled by lack of other options and, according to legend, some less-than-healthy doses of Bolivian marching powder, provides a cameo that, from first view, is unforgettable. The entire film holds a camera up to the shadiest back-alleys of the Big Apple, and this scene — as much as any of the more celebrated ones — depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness.
Martin Scorsese, 1990
(A much longer assessment what I consider the most definitive movie of the last two decades can be found here.)
There are, of course, no shortage of scenes from this one that could make the cut (DeNiro’s “death face” in the bar, DeNiro trying to lure Henry’s wife into the side-shop where paid goons are waiting to whack her, virtually every scene with Joe Pesci), but I’d give special props to the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story. We’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and wouldkill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.
This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed — and possibly delivered — ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).
3. The Bounty
Roger Donaldson, 1984
It’s impossible to watch this one without marveling at how young both Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson are. And they needed that youthful vigor to conjure up the intensity-with-a-capital-I so much of this movie delivers. In terms of outright scary, Sir Anthony’s portrayal of obsessed and, by this point, half-crazed Captain Bligh does the trick quiet nicely. Unlike the often over-the-top (albeit quite enjoyable) histrionics of Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins is tapping into some of the ultimate human pathologies here: corrupted power, paranoia, pride, ambition, et cetera. The result is a tour-de-force of claustrophobic power-struggling where, of course, no one really wins in the end.
For the record, regarding Hopkins, I could just as easily nominate another scene from the same movie, which features an almost impossibly young Daniel Day Lewis. For Mel, few scenes can match the conclusion of Mad Max, which, in addition to boasting one of the most satisfying instances of just desserts, also provided the blueprint for a very remunerative copycat franchise called Saw.
4. Marathon Man
John Schlesinger, 1976
Since this one is filed under Suspense, it makes the cut. Laurence Olivier (enough said) brings the pain as a demented Nazi dentist. I would not be surprised to discover that an entire film was built around the idea of this single scene. It comes dangerously close to parody (Dustin Hoffman, over-acting as only he can) but Olivier keeps it real, and underplays the role like only the grittiest of ancient school veterans can, investing this sociopath with an almost inexplicable humanity: he inflicts anguish because he is buried alive in his own. But mostly he is a rat scurrying to keep one step ahead of the men who are hunting him down, and he’ll do anything possible to live one more second.
Roman Polanski, 1974
Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Jake Gittes asks Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) and expect the same answer:
“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”
There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him — and the country — it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.
6 – 10
6. Burnt By the Sun
Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994
(A legthy appraisal of this masterpiece, and four others from the brilliant Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, can be found here.)
Among Burnt By the Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listeners’ faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.
Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.
7. Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick, 1987
Sticking with the war-and-what-it-does-to-us theme, this is possibly the most painful-to-watch scene from any movie I can think of.
A naturalistic tour into the dark heart of modern war, preceded by a disquieting tour into the darkness of the hearts that prepare our soldiers to survive there. The second section, on the front lines, a surreal sort of cinéma vérité, is more plodding than cathartic, which is probably the point. The first part of the film, devoted entirely to a group of Marine recruits at Parris Island, is a quicksilver tour de force — at turns riotous and harrowing. It is some of the most assured, affecting work of the decade: not too many movies can take you from hysterical laughter (the initial scenes where drill instructor R. Lee Ermey lambastes the boys is piss-your-pants funny) to disgust and, inevitably, despair. The blanket party scene, where the incompetent “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) is savaged by his fellow cadets lingers in the mind as one of the most disturbing scenes in movie history. It manages to illustrate a great deal about conformity, the military, the perceived necessity of truly breaking someone before they can function and what we must kill inside ourselves in order to survive. Most directors would inexorably play this scene for pathos; Kubrick films it matter-of-factly and his shrewd use of subtlety makes it many times more disturbing.
8. The Deer Hunter
Michael Cimino, 1978
It would be awfully hard, not to mention irresponsible, to avoid including another scene involving the most controversial foreign policy fiasco of the last century.
Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath — the dead or wounded — but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could — and should — be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.
This scene employs pitch-black subtlety as foreshadowing for what these brave, game and supremely misguided young men will soon endure. As such, it is effective and understated commentary on how war is sold vs. how it is, and the myriad ways we (mis)treat our soldiers once they’ve done all that was asked of them.
9. The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
Harry Caul’s comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. But he is not broken, yet. That dissolution is saved for the last scene, a final indignity wherein Caul’s most unimaginable apprehension is realized. After receiving a phone call on his unlisted number, he suffers the humiliation (and terror) of hearing his own apartment being bugged. Panicked, he promptly reduces his apartment to splinters in a fruitless attempt to find the hidden microphone. In what has to be one of the most harrowing scenes in cinema, the camera pans over a desecrated aftermath where Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage. What earlier in the movie might have been construed as a bit of a contrivance (the one-man band playing along with a pre-recorded tune) now symbolizes this man’s lonely disintegration: his record player (along with all his other dispensable possessions) destroyed in the rampage, he must finally face the music, while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.
(A longer assessment of Coppola’s masterpiece can be found here.)
Werner Herzog, 1977
Finally, a scene where no people need apply. A stark, disconcerting and unforgettable experience, Stroszek is not a film one returns to for fun. It remains one of the most efficient and ruthless appraisals of the American Dream myth while managing to be amusing, touching and ultimately demoralizing. Using his infallible instincts, Herzog has non-actor Bruno S. embody the unlucky, exploited Stroszek. Fleeing Berlin for what they assume will be the warmer and more prosperous U.S.A., Stroszek and his companions end up in the frigid, desolate landscape of Wisconsin. The final scene, after things have gone predictably off the track, features Stroszek on a ski lift holding a frozen turkey. Beneath him, in coin-operated cages, a duck plays a drum with his beak, a rabbit “rides” a wailing fire truck and a chicken dances while the soundtrack features the ebullient harmonica woops of Sonny Terry. Arguably the most surreal, and satisfying, commentary on the human condition ever filmed: once you’ve seen it, it stays seen.
So, what did I miss?
What are your favorite scenes depicting human beings behaving badly?