Thursday, October 30, 2008
the art of terror
In honor of Halloween, my film class has been studying the art of the horror movie, so - and as you can probably imagine - it's been a pretty fun couple of days. Sure, far too many of my kids think that the Saw franchise is *awesome*, but I'm proud to say that when pressed, most of my students will concede that the most satisfyingly creepy and unsettling scenes from the genre aren't necessarily determined by the level of violence, depravity and gore strewn across the screen, but rather by the mood a truly skilled filmmaker can create through an artful application of his craft.

Naturally, this all got me thinking about what my favorite non-gory and yet still completely freaky moments are in cinema, and so here's my personal picks. Enjoy.

28 Days Later: Jim Wakes Up

I'm a person who's far more scared of things that actually might happen than she is of the supernatural, and thus 28 Days Later - a film set four weeks after a viral holocaust has decimated the city of London - totally gets under my skin.  In a film full of violence and gore, one of the most disturbing scenes is as devoid of blood as it is of people.  It's when Jim - freshly awoken from a coma - wakes up to discover that the world has come to an end while he slept.  His slow, confused walk through the vacant London streets reminds one of how the unknown can be more terrifying that the monsters you can see.  Boyle's use of silence in the beginning is truly eerie, and then his slow musical  build coupled with his sweeping long shots over the empty streets and hazy sky is as gorgeous as it is creepy.  (And yes, that's a German accent you hear.  The only version I can find was dubbed in German, but all he says is "hello," so I figured it wouldn't matter much.)

Silence of the Lambs: Clarice and Buffalo Bill Face Off

Silence of the Lambs definitely has its fair share of gross-out scenes, but the scariest ones for me have always been the moments that are purely psychological.  Hannibal Lecter is creepy for sure, but the scariest moment of the entire film comes at the end, when Agent Clarice Starling realizes that she is in the home of the serial killer whom she has been hunting - totally alone and with no backup coming to her rescue.  The decision to cut the lights and film the majority of the scene from Bill's nightvisioned point of view was a stroke of terrifying brilliance, and no matter how many times I watch it, the sound of Foster's panicked breathing and the helpless sweeping of her hands through the darkness, mere inches away from the monster himself, always makes me hold my breath in nervous anticipation.

The Shining: All Work and No Play...

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining very well may be my favorite scary movie of all time, and it's right up there with my favorite films of all time as well.  And in a movie full of horrifying moments, one of the freakiest is also one of the simplest.  Wendy, suspecting that not all is well in paradise, decides to sneak a peek at the novel that Jack's been plugging away at for months, only to discover that it's hundreds of pages of pure madness.  Her husband hasn't just cracked, he's been cracked for quite some time, and the close up on Shelley Duval's face as she helplessly flips through the manuscript, coupled with Kubrick's masterful use of frantic music is just brilliant.

Misery: The Hobbling Scene

Annie Wilkes is the perfect argument for why madness trumps monsters in the scariness department.  Paul Sheldon, a writer whose biggest fan unfortunately happens to be a total loon, has recently been caught trying to escape from her terrible care, and so Annie decides that she must teach him a lesson.  You know, to keep him safe!  Because I'm a big baby, I always cover my eyes the moment she swings her hammer into Paul's ankle, but maybe the scarier moment is the one after the deed is done - when she looks at him with complete adoration and total sincerity and says, "God, I love you," as "Moonlight Sonata" plays ever so softly in the background.

Feel free to share your favorite scary moments if you'd like to play along, and Happy Halloween!



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