120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 4: Traps & Games
Sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s visceral. It can be a masked killer’s twisted pastime. A labyrinth our poor heroes must find their way out of. Perhaps a nasty round of torture by the Big Bad. Whatever it is, the sick feeling of impending doom overcomes us as we realize the characters might not make it out alive. Sometimes they can think their way through. Sometimes they can fight. But when the exits are closed and the madman decides to get creative, all bets are off.
Alucarda, La Hija De Las Tinieblas / Innocents From Hell (1977) – A Dracula takes revenge
Director Juan López Moctezuma came along during the new wave of 70′s Mexican genre pics that expressed radical and subversive views. An important intellectual figure in Mexico in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, Moctezuma produced Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Fando Y Lis. Of his three horror films (which also includes Mansion of Madness, and the American co-production Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary), Alucarda was his by far his very best. Part nunsploitation, part possession/satanism movie, and part vampire flick, Alucarda (“a Dracula” backwards) finds satanic going-ons in a convent, where orphan Justine is seduced by another orphan named Alucarda. When released, the film didn’t receive much attention from critics nor audiences, but over the years it became something of an underground cult classic and is often cited as having one of the best climaxes in any horror film. Towards the end of the film, the priests and nuns hang the two girls naked to a cross to perform an exorcism (complete with flagellation and torture) that will summon “the devil” out of them. Their ritual kills Justine, whose body disappears and is later found in a bloody coffin. While the entire convent is distracted with the strange twist of event, Alucarda returns for revenge. What follows is a bloodbath: nuns are set ablaze, priests are decapitated, and the entire building crumbles to the ground. The grueling conclusion to Alucarda is often compared to the final scene in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, only Carrie is tame compared to this. It’s a batshit climax crazy that needs to be seen. (Ricky D)Watch the scene
Battle Royale (2000)– Tower standoff
Battle Royale is the epitome of a trap scene; the whole film is one big trap in and of itself. A school of delinquents is forced by the government to hash it out on a deserted and monitored island until only one remains. But this isn’t your family’s version of The Hunger Games, it’s a campy, bombastic nightmare that is as entertaining as it is horrific. Battle Royale does not hand-hold the audience by explaining in detail why the students are in their untimely predicament. Sometimes the future is just a harsh world you have to accept to go along for the ride. Thus, the audience is just as trapped in this dreaded game as the characters. No other scene captures that fear better than the standoff in the tower. Filled with paranoia and distrust, it plays for both laughs and chills by enclosing its characters in a tiny dining area with no chance of escape and slim odds for survival. The tension breaks, and the scene ends in a messy bloodbath. Once the number of participants drops significantly, we’re left to ask who will survive this game of cat and mouse. (Christopher Clemente)
The Cabin In The Woods (2012)- “Free will”
At the heart of the ingenious puzzle game that is The Cabin in the Woods is the sequence in the cellar, a virtual curio shop packed with books, trinkets, arcane weaponry, and other ephemera. Each chosen item summons a different entity to sacrifice the cabin’s residents, a method demanded by the “old gods.” While the monsters themselves (all of them, not just the cannibalistic Buckner family) are the film’s obvious showpiece, it’s the almost prosaic means of unlocking them that turns the story. The workers in the vast control center may bet on the object chosen, but it comes down to a simple question of what will appeal to the cabin’s visitors. “They have to make the choice of their own free will,” we’re told. “Otherwise, the system doesn’t work.” That said, the questions raised by the group’s rejected choices are as fascinating as the Buckner diary. For example, what was on the film Marty looked at? What would have sprung forth if Jules had put on the bridal necklace? What would the tarot cards, the comic book, the drums, and the fossil have unleashed? And what would have summoned some of the more outlandish creatures unleashed later in the film, such as the homicidal unicorn, the upside-down people, or the Evil Dead-inspired tree? The cube and elevator scenes invite obsessive freeze-framing, but the cellar scene is nearly as fascinating because it’s where the horror first seeps into the victims’ reality. As with the film’s countless monsters, the cellar’s details are never fully revealed. And it’s further proof that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard weren’t out to create the ultimate horror film, but the ultimate meta experience for horror buffs. (M. Robert Grunwald)
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)-Force field
Halfway through The Cabin in the Woods, the terrorized teens see an opportunity to escape their predicament. Curt the jock, played by Marvel pin-up Chris Hemsworth, pledges to save everyone by riding to town for help. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard telegraph his impending obstacle earlier on in the film when a bird crashes into an invisible force field. By now, the audience has already forgotten all about that scene…which makes what’s coming so much worse. Curt gives a rousing speech and mounts his dirt bike, ready to save the day. Viewers hold their breaths as he confidently manages to jump halfway across the canyon before smashing smack into that force field. It’s a heroic attempt rejected as soundly as a weak lay-up in front of Dikembe Mutumbo. The scene is simultaneously shocking and hilarious, perfectly keeping with the tone established by the writer and director. Despite almighty Thor’s confidence, Curt winds up a sacrificial lamb for the number crunchers behind the scenes keeping score on a whiteboard. Characters giving grandiose speeches right before death or a spectacular thrashing (think Loki vs. Hulk) is a Whedon hallmark, and this scene encapsulates everything grand about Cabin in the Woods. The film is self-aware, but not smug, and never afraid to laugh at itself in the process of subverting genre expectations. (Colin Biggs)
The Cell (2000)- Catherine meets King Stargher
It would be easy to write off Tarsem Singh’s directorial debut as nothing more than an indulgent exercise in art direction and visual effects. Time, it seems, has been the kindest critic for The Cell, the hallucinatory thriller that critics didn’t quite know what to make of back in the summer of 2000, where it closed out a season of blockbusters like Gladiator and X-Men. It’s hard to imagine a big-budget mind trip up against a superhero movie in today’s climate. The Cell may have been sold as “Silence of the Lambs meets The Matrix” but it’s a one of a kind beast, a thriller that traps its audience via its premise. Social worker Catherine (Jennifer Lopez in a fine performance despite what the internet will forever say) must venture deep into the mind of serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) in order to aid the FBI in finding a woman he has kidnapped. By virtue of technology, the movie has zero interest in explaining, Catherine makes her first entry into a dream world where the layers of the subconscious dictate the rules. After meeting Stargher’s inner child and his former victims, she is snatched by one of his living trophies (each one made up like some kind of doll) and brought before a great throne. The giant purple walls are revealed to be the ends of a cape, which break free as a demonic version of Stargher descends the stairs to greet his new trophy. “Where do you come from?” he roars. Fortunately, a well-timed panic button allows Catherine to escape the “king in a very twisted kingdom.” For the audience and for the brave Catherine, this is just the first journey into these waking nightmares. Some thumping Howard Shore cues and some very convincing visuals supply all the dread we require to sweat out the next “therapy” session. The “real world” of the movie becomes our comfort zone from a realm where anything can happen. What makes The Cell such a thrill ride is our awareness that the mind, in its vastness and darkness, is the most terrifying prison imaginable. (Shane Ramirez)
The Descent (2006)- The cave collapses
If the nocturnal bat-like crawlers had never shown up in The Descent, the film would still be remembered as a claustrophobic nightmare. Neil Marshall’s feminist horror film pays homage to a number of genre classics–Alien, Carrie, and Deliverance, among others–but its emphasis on groping-in-the-dark terror is all original. One year after losing her husband and daughter in a car accident, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) joins her friends on a therapeutic spelunking adventure in the Appalachian Mountains (as therapeutic as poking around in dark caves can be). During a tight squeeze through a tunnel, she gets stuck on a rock and panics. Her friend Beth (Alex Reid) goes back in to retrieve her, but as she pulls her out the cave beings to collapse. It’s not just a scene that is every caver’s worst-case scenario, it’s nightmare fuel for any person who fears being buried alive. Shot in tight close-up by Sam McCurdy on an impressive soundstage set, the artifice of the moviemaking is never apparent. McCurdy uses negative space to great effect, filling the edges of the frame with suffocating darkness while the actor’s light the scene with their miner’s caps and actually pack themselves into the narrow tunnel. The audience gets a slight breather once Sarah makes it out of her tight spot and into the next cave system. But after one of horror cinema’s closest calls and with more darkness in sight, we’d rather the monsters pop up as soon as possible. (Shane Ramirez)
Funny Games (2008) – The Lord’s Prayer
There’s very little love for Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and even less for his self-remade iteration Funny Games US. The film stands somewhat precariously on the notion that it’s a comment on the need to make American remakes of foreign films, and it’s hard for that to work justifiably when, in the ten or so years since Haneke’s original Austrian version came out, technology had changed rapidly, affecting some of the narrative, and even ideological, heft. But at its core, Funny Games US needs its performers to sell its sadism, and that it does.
One scene, in particular, strikes a chord, mainly because of Naomi Watts’ convincing performance. As Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet wreak havoc on a nice bourgeoisie family, one game involves forcing Watts to undress as she recites The Lord’s Prayer. Should she make any mistake, her family is to be murdered.
As a home invasion thriller, Funny Games (both versions) resonates because of Haneke’s clinical style. He’s not really an aesthete, so his thriller functions as a kind of ostentatious lecture about audience fascination with the very brand of cruelty he’s serving up. However, the assault against the mother in both films reaches an uncomfortable level for those aware of Haneke’s filmography. Less frequently called out than, say, Lars von Trier, Haneke seems to be as interested in putting his female characters under distress as the aforementioned Danish provocateur. Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown, or Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher comes to mind.
It presents questions about Haneke’s gender politics to be sure, as well as his more general ideas with regard to the way society treats women. It’s this latter reading that makes the prayer scene so strikingly repulsive; the words that are ostensibly supposed to protect someone, a maternal figure at that, are being subverted in order to harm her. And when it comes to the abuse of women – verbal, physical, or any other way – there’s nothing funny about that. (Kyle Turner)
Near Dark (1987)- Closing time
The American Southwest becomes a lethal wasteland in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire classic. In one of the film’s highlights, a band of nomadic vampires (superbly played by Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Jenny Wright, and Joshua Miller) stop off at an isolated rural bar with a potential new family member (Adrian Pasdar). The bar becomes a death trap as the patrons and employees are isolated, toyed with, and murdered by the bloodthirsty clan. As Severen, Paxton takes the lead in the slaughter. The actor perfectly plays a predator who knows no mere human can offer him any real opposition yet decides to have fun with his prey anyway. When he utters the line, “it’s finger-lickin’ good,” after feasting on the blood of one of his victims, the effect is disturbing. The audience is reminded that these vampires are not tortured souls or romantic figures but physically superior animals. It’s one of the great sequences of 1980s horror cinema. (Terek Puckett)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)- Count to three
With Captain Vidal, writer/director Guillermo Del Toro created one of the most despicable villains in modern pop-culture. A portrait of authoritarian forces in Franco’s Spain, Vidal (Sergi López) is detestable for reasons extending far beyond his ill-guided political views and treatment of the young heroine Ofelia. The character’s unabashed love for sadistic violence is never more apparent than in the stuttering sequence, where he promises to let a republican prisoner leave unharmed if he can count to three without his speech impediment taking over. Although often edged out by the masterful Pale Man set-piece, Del Toro builds up the tension to agonizing levels. The scene is introduced with the highest stakes possible; Vidal calmly informs his prisoner about the instruments of torture he plans to use to extract information. The nature of the prisoner’s speech impediment ensures that freedom is never an option, this horrifying game merely prolonging the torture. The scene pulls off the impressive feat of making audiences want the torture to begin, simply because the crippling tension is overwhelming.
As he was casting the film, Del Toro was informed that choosing López, known in Spain for primarily being a comedic actor up until this point, was a vital mistake and that audiences wouldn’t buy him in such a villainous role. The stuttering game is all it takes for skeptics to be proven wrong. It’s virtually impossible to imagine him in a comedic role after his transformative performance here. (Alistair Ryder)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) – The climax
The Pit and the Pendulum was the second title in the popular series of Edgar Allen Poe based movies released by the low-budget exploitation studio American International Pictures. The first was Roger Corman’s House of Usher released the previous year. Both starred the larger-than-life Vincent Price and both had scripts by legendary pulp writer Richard Matheson (Duel, Dead of Night, The Devil Rides Out). Poe’s brief tale centers on a sadistic torture machine used by the Spanish Inquisition, but in Corman’s big-screen adaptation, Matheson saved it for the film’s breathtaking climactic sequence. After Nicholas (Vincent Price) goes mad, he confuses Francis (John Kerr) for Sebastian’s brother, Bartolome, and knocks him unconscious before tying him down on a stone slab beneath a huge razor-sharp pendulum. As Nicholas slowly lowers the swinging blade closer and closer to Francis’s torso, you can’t help but grip on tight to your seat. Roger Corman said that John Kerr was so worried about being accidentally decapitated, that in order to demonstrate that it was perfectly safe, the director had to stand in for Kerr during a test run. In order to increase the pendulum’s sense of deadly menace, Corman took out every other frame during editing to make the blade appear to move twice as fast. Corman never had a huge budget to play with, but you couldn’t tell by watching his Poe adaptations. Like House of Usher, the film features beautiful widescreen cinematography by Floyd Crosby, handsome set designed by art director Daniel Haller, and a killer score composed by Les Baxter. Stephen King has described the scene as being among the most important moments in the post-1960 horror film, and after watching it, you’ll understand why. (Ricky D)
Scream (1996)- “Do you like scary movies?”
The late Wes Craven will always be remembered for being an innovator in the horror genre. He regularly strived to either push the genre to its limits or find new ways to reinvigorate it. Sometimes this meant creating a horrific monster that broke new ground like Freddy Krueger, other times by playing the audience like an instrument in ways that had not been done since the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. This is what he gave horror hounds with his 1996 picture, Scream, a movie that knows exactly what the rules of the slasher genre are, yet it catches the viewer off guard by playing on those very rules.
Craven wastes no time in doing just that. The very opening scene features none other than girl next door Drew Barrymore, who was at the most popular point of her career. She plays Casey Becker, a cute young adult getting ready to watch a scary movie at home until she receives a phone call from a mysterious man. The exchange is flirtatious at first, as the two share their favorite horror movies. But things turn on a dime when the caller’s temperament shifts from playful to full-on violent. When Casey discovers her boyfriend tied up in a chair on her patio, only a guessing game can save him. Alas, one incorrect Friday the 13th trivia question and all hell breaks loose.
If the stress of this brilliantly directed scene is too much, unsuspecting viewers can rest assured that Drew Barrymore will survive the ordeal and exact her revenge later in the film…until the masked Ghost Face killer catches her, stabs her repeatedly, and hangs her body from a tree in the yard for her parents to find! (Edgar Chaput)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)- What’s for dinner?
Complex named it one of the ‘50 Most Hard-to-Watch Scenes’ in film, and Cracked noted it as one of ‘5 Great Movie Scenes Made Possible by Reckless Endangerment.’ The dinner scene from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is undoubtedly one to be reckoned with. Along with John Carpenter’s Halloween, Hooper’s film is regarded as one of the foremost slasher films before the subgenre exploded in the 1980s.
Sally (Marilyn Burns) has spent most of the night attempting to escape Leatherface, and just as she believes she has, a man from the maniacal Sawyer family kidnaps her and brings her back to the house. There, the hitchhiker she and her friends picked up earlier in the film ties her to a chair then holds a razor to her throat as her finger is sliced. Her seeping blood is fed to a withered ‘grandpa’ before she passes out. When she awakens for the “dinner,” the film’s psychological terror reaches jarring heights. The camera quickly zooms out on her blood-curdling scream. We alternate between a shot of her writhing in the chair and her POV of the Sawyer family mocking her cries. Extreme close-ups of Sally’s face and eyes thrust the audience right into the middle of this torturous sequence with little hope for escape. The scene’s psychological trauma is as essential to horror cinema as any of Leatherface’s murders. (William Penix)