As a fiction author, I'm often asked about the books and writers that influenced my style. There are some, to be sure -- among them Jack London, Anne McCaffery and the mandatory hat-tip to Stephen King -- but most of my key influencers come from the screen, not the page. Tarantino, Cameron and Carpenter, among others, have a bigger impact on my work than any print author.
That means I don't really sit down to write "books" as much as I try to create blockbusters that just happen to be on paper instead of film. Since I write horror (a paranormal-free, hard-science version of horror, sure, but there's no mistaking what I do), that means I visualize my stories playing out as horror movies. I'm therefore quite conscious of the elements that go into a great flick -- character, pacing, plot, etc. -- including something that really defines the horror genre: a shocking, signature scene.
You know what I'm talking about; those scenes that disturb you, that shake you up, that make you and your friends laugh in relief when the house lights finally come up and you get to see the sun rise one more time. Those moments that stay with you for years, even after most of the movie has faded away.
I'm influenced by movies as a whole, but also by those pitch-perfect moments. Here are 10 of my scariest.
MISERY: the hobbling scene
This is ridiculous. It’s just sick and wrong. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched it, but even after all those viewings it still drops me into a sitting fetal position. This is the role that made Kathy Bates’s career, and with good reason, because she sells crazy like she’s got an overstocked warehouse and she’s practically giving it away. The first leg is bad enough, but that slow walk around for the second leg? Ungh. Blargh. The real icky-factor here comes from James Caan being helpless to stop it: He sees what’s coming, and there’s not a damn thing he can do.
ALIEN: the chestburster
A masterpiece of both horror and scifi, this Ridley Scott classic delivered some of cinema’s most-memorable moments. The one that stands out, of course, is John Hurt’s uninvited dinner guest. This scene greatly impacted my writing by permanently embedding an indelible fact: parasites can be nasty, nasty things. Having an enemy within, or “something inside of me that I can’t get out,” is a recurring theme in my work, and this movie is why.
THE THING: chest scene
I love this John Carpenter flick so, so much. It’s gonzo, anything-goes storytelling within a well-defined rule system — the first act of the movie establishes those rules, so no matter how bat-shit crazy the visuals become they don’t take you out of the story. And it doesn’t get any crazier than this scene, with one piece of insanity slipping seamlessly into the next. For me, the dumfounded disbelief of the characters is what sells it, including that subtle-yet-spot-on bit of dialogue: “you gotta got to be fucking kidding.”
There are so many horrifying scenes in this film, but some of them haven’t aged all that well. Carpenter’s creation was maybe ten years ahead of its time: another decade for special effects tech to catch up with his vision, and this movie would be flawless. I almost went with the “blood test” scene, but the FX are just off enough that you think about them instead of just soaking up the carnage. It’s still spectacular, though. Don’t remember it? Here’s a link.
POLTERGEIST: awful devil clown made of evil why-why-why
I know my Gramma loved me, I really do, but that woman had no idea what little kids find frightening. Dear Dead Gramma: nobody like the clown dolls you bought us. And decorating the little guest room you had for your grandsons with clown lamps, clown bedspreads, clown wallpaper and two absolutely nightmarish oil paintings of clowns? I mean, they weren’t even smiley face clowns.
I was probably seventeen or eighteen before I fully let go of my absolute conviction that her clown doll wasn’t going to bite its way out of the steel box I’d locked it in and come rip out my throat in the night, giggling maniacally as it bathed in the shower of my arterial spray. So, with thoughts like that, you can imagine how much I loved this scene from POLTERGEIST.
BLAIR WITCH: the basement
Let’s all remember for a moment that BLAIR WITCH is fifteen years old. Yes, you may loathe the idea of found-footage films and think that the technique has become schlocky and trite (it has, unfortunately), but when this bad boy came out no one had seen anything like it. It de-poo’ed a lot of people. This final scene was set up much further back in the movie, like a master comedian embedding a joke’s premise before delivering several minutes later with a punchline payoff.
It’s the subtlety of that final moment, of the man facing the corner, that made my insides freeze up and my belly shrink into a tiny, dense black hole. Maybe it’s hard to appreciate this movie now, but that moment scared the berschnickies out of me.
AMERICAN HISTORY X: curb stomp
Not all horror involves ghosts and goblins. Some movies disturb us at a base level because they magnify realities we can see around us every day. The infamous “curb-stomp scene” from this movie shows Ed Norton in full control of his considerable acting skills, but it’s Antonio David Lyons’ squinted eyes that make you bleed inside while watching this. A lot of the scenes on this list make me squirm with delight: this one just makes me squirm.
There are many scenes to choose from in David Fincher’s horror masterpiece. The movie disturbs on several levels, and I love the work of everyone involved: Fincher’s pacing, Morgan Freeman’s soul-tired wisdom, Brad Pitt’s overconfidence and Kevin Spacey’s chilling calmness all combine in a recipe that makes magic. Out of those scenes, however, the one that messed me up the most involved a jumping cat I never saw coming. The “sloth” scene not only has the immediate impact; afterward, there is a slow reveal, a pinecone in the mud, opening rough petals to show that there is more than at first you thought. It’s after this scene that the real horror sets in, when you’ve recovered from the shock and you start to do the math. I’ve never liked math: I liked it even less after this movie.
THE RING / RINGU: TV scene
Earlier, I mentioned that some scenes from THE THING were a few years short of the technology that could have made them flawless for all-time. Here’s an example of how just a few years of FX advancements (and, probably, a butt-ton more budget) can improve a scene.
There was a lot in THE RING that bugged me. I won’t get into it here, but it suffered from many of the same symptoms that plague J-horror remakes. The American version leaves a lot to be desired in comparison with the original Japanese flim, but one area where it up-leveled from the source material is special effects.
Here’s two clips of the same scene, one from the 1998 Japanese original, and the other (above) from the 2002 American version starring Naomi Watts.
The first one? Awesome. The second one? Even more awesome.
INSIDIOUS: the dinner table
This is one of the few recent scenes to make my list, but the first time I saw this it caught me off-guard and totally de-poo’ed me. Yes, it’s a jumping cat. But it is one goddamn mean-ass jumping cat.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: The invite
That’s right, a Swedish vampire flick. This 2008 Tomas Alfredson adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the script) is a tale of lonely outsiders finding a connection in each other. From a traditional definition of movie terrors, this is by far the tamest of these ten clips, but it grinds at me in a different way than the rest. In this clip, we’re not sure if Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) really believes that Eli (Lina Leandersson) is a vampire, but he’s clearly testing the boundaries. He does what so many of us do when we’re young (or maybe not so young): we play games with someone we hope likes us, when we don’t understand the consequences of what seems to be a harmless bit of teasing. She needs to be invited in, he’s just difficult enough to not say what she wants to hear. Oskar knows not what he asks, but she knows exactly what will happen when she enters without his permission — she’s willing to do that and face the consequences, because she needs him even more than she needs to be invited in. There’s a raw “I’ll give anything you ask, even if it is everything” vibe here that is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying. Sometimes, an actor’s skill and just a touch of blood can do more than all the effects in the world.
Here's a three scenes that either didn't quite make the cut, or that badly de-poo'ed the teenage me and didn't sufficiently impact the grownup version.