Over at the movie news/review site Film Junk, the hosts of the Film Junk Podcast run down a weekly list of top fives. The lists change every week and can involve anything from favorite onscreen death scenes to favorite movie one-liners. Recently I sent in a number of suggestions for possible future top five lists to discuss on the podcast, one of which was "top 5 most suspenseful movie scenes". This week, on episode #152 of the podcast, hosts Sean, Jay, and Greg ran down their personal selections for this category, so I figured that I'd throw my hat into the ring as well. The following are my personal choices for The Top 10 Most Suspenseful Moments In Cinema:
I realize that naming this film is sort of silly considering that it's as much a comedy as it is a thriller, but spiders and I don't get along very well in real life, so certain parts of this movie manage to get under my skin. When Jeff Daniels is trapped in the dank basement of an old house that's overflowing with spiders and the biggest one of all is on a mission to do him deliberate physical harm, I get quite antsy. Having seen this again recently I think that the effects hold up rather well, so I still get pretty tense during the climax of the film.
9. King Kong
Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the monster movie classic King Kong divided audiences with it's excessive running time and sometimes preposterous story elements, but I think that one thing almost everyone who saw it (including myself) would agree on is that it isn't a frightening film. Still, there is a scene which makes my heart jump into my throat with anticipation every time I see it. The scene in question takes place on Skull Island when the crew of Jack Black's ship are searching for Naomi Watts' character and end up in a cavern filled with swarms of over-sized bugs. King Kong may be rated PG-13, but in this scene Peter Jackson's R rated horror background surfaces as the music drops to a foreboding hum, the sound seems to be overcome with the clicking and buzzing of the massive insects, and one by one the crew members are overwhelmed by grotesque creepy crawlies. The worst, by far, is when one poor soul's head is engulfed in the gaping maw of a maggot-like creature twice his size. Disgusting.
There are plenty of intense moments in Ridley Scott's classic science fiction horror film to choose from when composing a list like this one, but for my money the most hair-raisingly suspenseful of all is when Tom Skerritt is hunting for the title creature in the air ducts. He's all alone in a confined space looking for a monster we know nothing about and which we've only just begun to see the destructive capabilities of, and then the tracking unit which shows the creature's location begins to malfunction. The music slowly drops out leaving behind only ambient noise and if only the scene weren't so enthralling, everyone would probably have seen the big scare coming, but of course nobody ever does, which is why it's so perfect.
7. Blood Simple
Look up the term "dark comedy" and you will inevitably find a reference to Fargo, the Coen Brothers' classic crime thriller. Several years before they made that film however, the brothers Coen committed a similar tale to film with significantly more "dark" than "comedy". The tension begins with a view through a sniper scope from across the street aimed toward a set of large windows leading into an apartment and Frances McDormand trying desperately to turn off the lights without stepping into the view of her attacker. Then things get worse when the shooter crosses the street and enters the studio apartment, inciting a rather brief, but intense and gleefully original game of cat and mouse. The first time I watched Blood Simple I couldn't help but laugh during this climactic scene because I needed some way to vent the pressure building up in my chest as I wondered what the hell the outcome would be.
6. John Carpenter's The Thing
The premise of this film alone is enough to earn it a place in this list, but the true height of the suspense in The Thing is the blood test sequence. An alien life-form capable of perfectly assimilating any living thing right down to their looks and speech patterns has replaced an unknown number of the twelve members of an antarctic research team cut off entirely from civilization for an unknown amount of time. The only way to find out who is human and who isn't is for a sample of each of the remaining crew members' blood to be tested. One by one, Kurt Russell places a hot piece of wire into each petri dish full of blood, and I would wager that nobody who has ever seen this movie was able to guess what the outcome would be.
5. The Fly
David Cronenberg's film is rather eerie for the entire ninety five minute running time, but the whole movie is essentially just one huge build-up to the last ten minutes or so when something truly horrifying finally happens. John Getz (the would be hero) is crippled, Geena Davis is helpless, and the Brudle Fly in his various forms is shambling around to some of the most overtly intense music of any movie I've ever seen. The perfect cap to the scene, as well as the movie in general, is that we get no wind down period. Cronenberg slaps the audience in the face with the first fast-paced action of the entire film and then ends it before you have a chance to process what's happened.
4. The Mist
The tension of this film begins to build right off the bat when about five or ten minutes into the story a cloud of mysterious mist floats into town, obscuring everything more than ten feet in front of the characters' faces. Next comes a series of scenes involving some of the most disturbing creatures ever committed to film as they terrorize a small group of people trapped in a grocery store. Things begin to mount further as a completely irrational and psychopathic religious woman played by Marcia Gay Harden begins turning the occupants of the store against one another. Finally, the tension begins to boil over when Harden orders her mindless followers to capture a young boy so that they may kill and sacrifice him to god in exchange for protection. Combine a completely despicable villain with a scene of pure hopelessness as a paltry group of rational individuals try to fend off a horde of blood thirsty nut-jobs and an elephant tranquilizer couldn't have calmed me down as I watched this scene for the first time.
3. Rear Window
I'm not sure which scene is more suspenseful, so I'll cheat and list two of them. The first is when Grace Kelly is trapped inside Raymond Burr's apartment when he the suspected murderer arrives to discover her intruding in his home. Meanwhile Jimmy Stewart desperately attempts to contact the police when the lights in Burr's windows across the courtyard suddenly go out. The second is the climax of the film when Burr is closing in on the wheelchair-ridden Stewart who tries to stall his attacker's approach by repeatedly blinding him with flash bulbs. They don't call Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense for nothing.
2. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The first time I ever saw this movie was last summer and though I'd heard a lot about it, I honestly had no idea what the outcome of the final showdown between Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach was going to be. Sergio Leone draws out the tension with close-ups of three sets of squinting eyes and hands hovering over holsters with intense music pplaying for an almost infuriatingly long amount of time before the three title characters finally draw their weapons and fire. I was almost literally on the edge of my seat at this point wondering who had been shot and who had done the shooting.
1. Saving Private Ryan
During the final conflict of Saving Private Ryan, Adam Goldberg is out of ammunition and ends up in a fight with a German wielding a knife while that cowardly bastard Jeremy Davies hides in the stairway, too afraid to do anything to help. No matter how many times I watch this scene my heart races like mad because I want Goldberg to come out victorious even though I know that he won't. The death of this nice, funny guy who you've grown to like over the course of the film goes on seemingly forever while the German taunts him like an adult holding a cookie just out of a starving child's reach. I fucking hate that scene.
- The car chase sequence in Quentin Tarantino's half of Grind House as Zoe Bell clings to the hood of a car driven by Tracie Thoms while the maniacal Kurt Russell repeatedly rams into them and tries to run their car off the road.
- A moment in The Descent when one of the female spelunkers is trapped in a tiny crevasse, unable to free herself and in a place where rescue is essentially impossible. I have no fear of confined spaces, but the idea of being in such a hopeless situation makes my skin crawl.
- The climax of The Silence of the Lambs when Jodie Foster is exploring the inside of a pitch black home while, unbeknownst to her, a murderer is lurking right behind her wearing a pair of night vision goggles.
- The torture scene at the end of Takashi Miike's Audition in which an obsessive and psychopathic young woman does a series of horrifying things to a man who is conscious, but paralyzed by a drug he has been injected with. As suspenseful and intense as this scene is though, the similar instances in Takashi Miike's episode of Masters of Horror titled Imprint are perhaps even worse.
Feel free to leave feedback on my choices or some selections of your own in the comments section of this post. Also, don't forget to stop by Film Junk and give their weekly podcast a listen.