120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 7: Epic Meltdowns
If the transformation is a character’s external change then the meltdown is the internal equivalent. Sometimes the most terrifying part of a horror film isn’t when the monster pops out, but when a character loses his or her grip on reality. The psychosis can begin gradually, exacerbated by stress, sickness, or an outside tormentor. Often the character begins a film in complete control of his or her mental faculties. But control is a relative term, and in a horror film, the illusion of control can be just as powerful as actual agency. The options: denial or embracement. The psychological break will come soon enough. The only question is, how broken will the person be once it does?
Alien (1979) – Ash malfunctions
The crew of the cargo ship Nostromo has just about had it. Awakened from a cozy hypersleep to answer the worst wrong number in interstellar history, they then watch one of their own unexpectedly give birth to the water bug from hell, which then starts eating everybody. Now, in the universe’s answer to “What more could go wrong?,” Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has uncovered “Special Order 937,” the horrifying secret behind the entire ordeal. Of course, creepy science officer Ash (Ian Holm) can’t be expected to let Ripley live to act on her new knowledge. As he tries to block her escape, we see some weird white substance trickle down his forehead. What is that, exactly? The saliva from the alien? Some virus rearing its ugly head? With alarming strength, Ash tosses Ripley around the room like a rag doll before attempting to choke her with the only thing handy: a rolled-up magazine. Luckily, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) arrive just in time to save Ripley and then watch Ash have some kind of seizure. He bounces frenetically off the walls, flails his arms, and makes a hideous screeching sound, all while vomiting the white stuff. Then his head comes off. If we didn’t have the chest-bursting scene, this is the moment we’d all be talking about in Alien: “Remember when that guy’s head came off and he was a robot?” Yes, Ash is revealed to be a cannily crafted android. There were a hundred ways the filmmakers could’ve revealed this secret, but as with every other scene in the movie, they chose the one designed to keep our stomachs in knots. The Ash-thing continues to attack– its head, attached by a bit of synthetic skin, hanging uselessly down its back–as Parker beats it into submission, and we realize that the alien isn’t the only thing that’s been allowed to infest the ship. Android or not, we’re happy to see the bastard get his when Parker takes a flame thrower to his remains, and we watch the smile melt from Ash’s smug, robotic face. (M. Robert Grunwald)
American Psycho (2000)– Hip to be Square
The satirical nature of this Brett Easton Ellis adaptation may not make it a straightforward horror film, but American Psycho most certainly has plenty of oddly chilling moments. In a film with a handful of notorious scenes, Patrick Bateman’s (Christian Bale) dissection of the Huey Lewis and the News hit, “Hip to be Square,” takes the cake. Every detail from the dialogue to Bale’s livewire performance to the mis-en-scene–especially the raincoat and the pristine axe of choice–makes it iconic.
Bateman and his drunk colleague, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), have arrived back at Bateman’s apartment. Bateman brings up the evolution of Huey Lewis and his affinity for the artist, while he runs off to the bathroom to put on a raincoat, swallow a few pills, and grab an axe. With weapon in hand and “Hip to be Square” blasting on the speakers, he suddenly bursts into a murderous fury, repeatedly striking Allen with the axe. When he finishes, he takes a seat on the couch, and lights up a cigar in a dramatic low angle shot.
What’s most unsettling about this scene isn’t Bateman’s explosion of rage, but rather the build up to it. As he giddily geeks out about a seminal 80s pop act, the viewer senses something off-kilter in the quirkiness of Bale’s performance. For most movies, the most powerful shot of this scene would be Bateman holding the axe just as he unleashes the madman within, or even the moment Allen’s blood sprays on his face. Rather, it is that dramatic low angle shot. Bateman has been portrayed as the outcast of the corporate world and has been made to feel inadequate in many instances. Through that shot, the film gives Bateman a sense of power he doesn’t have in reality, allowing him to take pleasure in a brief moment of dominance amidst the chorus of an eerily relevant song choice. (William Penix)
The Babadook (2014)- The book made me do it
One of the biggest criticisms leveled against Jennifer Kent’s terrific horror movie, The Babadook, is the seeming lack of explanation about the supernatural goings-on. At a children’s birthday party with her son, Amelia (Essie Davis) remarks how she “used to write children’s books.” A casual sentence of exposition all but clarifies the origin of the book for those who need to contextualize her descent into madness. It is better to ignore this half-hearted explanation and instead marvel at the escalating severity of her meltdown, which acts as an effective mirror image to her son’s irrational behavior in the movie’s first half.
As new chapters in the Mister Babadook pop-up book appear, telling her that she will kill the family dog, her son, and then herself, her frantic mental state is complicated even further by a vision of her dead husband, who urges her to sacrifice her son. It is to Kent’s credit that the sight of Amelia coolly killing the dog remains a disturbing image despite the film’s foreshadowing. Amelia’s detachment actually makes the later attempted strangling of her son less upsetting. After a cold, uncalculated killing, the emotional complexity of Amelia’s motivation and Davis’ gamely melodramatic performance ensure that her descent always feels earned. (Alistair Ryder)
Blue Jasmine (2013)– A new person
In some respects, Woody Allen’s filmography has always been concerned with class, particularly the maintenance of class. It’s somewhat ironic given Allen’s humble, though not underprivileged, Brooklyn roots that he seems so enamored with depicting and occasionally critiquing the upper echelon. The ambivalence is there, as far as a desire and disgust with the upper class, but he articulates it most explicitly in Blue Jasmine–his version of a horror film.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has been so used to a lifestyle built upon properness and money that when she’s thrown into the world of the working class (or what Allen imagines the working class looks like), she’s at a loss. Allen is kind of cruel to the character, recognizing how easy it is to laugh at the circumstances of the super privileged white woman experiencing a dose of her own medicine. But it soon sets in that there’s sympathy intrinsic to the cruelty: Jasmine has an attachment to valium, experiences panic attacks, and is plagued by headaches.
Blue Jasmine as A Horror Film by Woody Allen is never clearer than when Jasmine recounts her devolution from society woman to someone who has suffered explicit trauma. She has a mental and emotional breakdown after it is revealed that her husband has been cheating on her, and, worse, is even more fraudulent when it comes to finances. Blanchett’s tone wavers, her voice shakes, and the progression from reliving some of the wonderful moments of her life, all with an air of ambivalence about not acting on what she actually wanted to do, to the cynical, even nightmarish concluding note leaves the audience–and her sister’s two children–shaken to the core.
Her eyes are swollen, and as she clutches her glass, she sneers, “Well, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.” The cruel joke that Allen plays on her for our entertainment isn’t funny anymore. Just scary, sad, desperate. (Kyle Turner)
Bug (2006)- Agnes breaks down
It seems like Michael Shannon ripping a tooth out of his head should be the biggest mind-freak from William Friedkin and Tracey Letts’ Bug, but it isn’t. Peter (Shannon) savagely stabs a man to death then convinces Agnes (Ashley Judd) that he killed a robot, not a man. Peter’s hardened denial reinforces his mental breakdown; the real revelation here is Agnes’ spiral into the madness. Throughout the film you can see her perform mental gymnastics to make Peter’s paranoid frenzy seem sane, but witnessing the murder breaks her completely. Previously, she played along just to stave off her loneliness, but now she has bought into his insanity whole-sale. Talking to Peter about bugs doesn’t seem so bad compared to talking to herself.
Their motel room is covered in foil and lit only by bug zappers, which lends an intensely blue cast over the entire affair, making the psychosis more surreal. Every personal failing that has ever happened to Agnes can now be pinpointed to a conspiracy perpetrated by the U.S. government. This complete transformation wouldn’t work without an actress of Judd’s stature. The spark of insanity in her eyes has flourished into a full-blown blaze. (Colin Biggs)
Come and See (1985)- No time like the present
Young Florya wants to fight. He’s so sure that he digs up a rifle from the beach and joins the Partisans. After being separated from his regimen well before the conflict begins, things look on the bright side when he pairs up with Glasha, a nearby village girl. Their forest idyll comes to an abrupt end when a German airstrike takes out Florya’s hearing. The two make their way back to Florya’s home, now deserted. “They’ve gone out,” he says. He doesn’t seem to notice the buzzing flies or the wretched stench that’s sickening poor Glasha. But there are his sister’s dolls left on the floor, the untouched well water, and the quiet chill of death in the air. Florya runs back the way they came, and Glasha gets an eyeful of their new reality: dozens of bodies in a pile on the far side of the house. We’re only a third of the way through Come and See, and director Elim Klimov submerges us into the horrors of the German occupation of Belarus with nary a care whether we can hold our breath. It is no coincidence that Florya and Glasha wade through a literal quagmire as they escape, crawling and struggling through muddy water that seems to pull them in the more they resist. Klimov’s choice to have a subjective soundtrack, namely a soundscape that favor’s the ringing in Florya’s ears and the droning of his anxious heart, gives the scene a sense of hellish desperation. “They’re here,” he pleads to Glasha, referring to his family. Glasha runs into the arms of a shepherd. “He’s crazy!” she screams. This is not just a scene about a boy losing his innocence, it’s a scene about a boy losing his entire future. Florya survives the German occupation and joins back up with a regimen by the film’s end, but what life is there for him now? He and Glasha might have had a summer romance. Maybe a family of their own. Now all Florya has is the present, the fear that if he doesn’t keep moving, he’ll be just another nameless face to a pile. (Shane Ramirez)
The Haunting (1963)- Hill House is alive with the sound of screaming
The Haunting, directed by the incredibly versatile Robert Wise, is one of the best haunted house films one can find. It’s a particularly ingenious piece of spooky cinema insofar as it keeps its cards extremely close to the vest for a very long time. Instead of delaying the scares in order to set up the characters, it instills an unnerving creepiness right from the opening frame by only suggesting paranormal activity.
Julie Harris plays Eleanor Lance, one of three individuals present at Hill House for a field study orchestrated by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson). They are to live in the house for a few days and document whatever peculiar activity they witness. It seems as if Hill House has a terrible history and may be haunted. The catch is that Eleanor is, by all accounts, a bit mentally unstable. She’s quick to resort to childishly emotional reactions to situations, to say nothing of her living a desperately unhappy life with her domineering sister and brother-in-law. The longer she remains in Hill House, the more she is convinced that the building “wants her” as a permanent resident. Dr. Markway warns her not to fall under whatever spells the ostentatious, rococo style hallways strive to conjure.
However, on a night when the quartet of residents are cooped up in the living room, bizarre and violent pounding noises roar just outside the door. Eleanor completely loses it, finding a second exit through which she leaves her three companions behind and begins to run down the eerily lit corridors. It is a whirlwind sequence that reaches a fabulous if maddening, crescendo. The building has come alive, erupting in a cacophony of violent and terrifying outbursts. Eleanor, already a little bit susceptible to mental lapses, finally gives in to her own madness and to the nefarious intentions Hill House has in store for her. (Edgar Chaput)
Onibaba (1964)- Behind the Hannya mask
Dripping with suspense and tense buildup, Onibaba is one of the oldest horror movies to come out of Japan. Released in 1964, the film tells the unsettling story of a mother and daughter-in-law left to survive in feudal Japan after their son/husband is forced to join the army. What makes the film outright scary isn’t monsters or zombies, but the women’s way of life–murdering wandering soldiers and selling their belongings. This creates intense jealousy between the pair. The Mother becomes enamored with Hachi (Kei Sato), a deserter with ties to her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Hoping to frighten her away from the young man, the Mother murders a samurai then takes his demon Hannya mask. Her attempts at stopping the relationship are successful until she is unable to remove her disguise. With her daughter-in-law’s help, the two pry the mask off with a hammer. Underneath, the Mother’s face has become littered with sores, creating a demonic visage that terrifies her daughter-in-law for good. The film closes with both character’s snapping from some of horror cinema’s best karmic irony. Nothing screams horror more than the amalgamation of repression, agony, and the loss of one’s identity. (Christopher Clemente)
Repulsion (1965) – The hallway of horror
Roman Polanski’s subtle horror film follows an isolated, sexually repressed woman’s descent into madness. Catherine Deneuve gives her best performance as Carol, a Belgian immigrant in London who lives with her sister but largely keeps to herself. There are no explanations for Carol’s erratic behavior nor is there a clear distinction between reality and hallucination. The sense of isolation we feel through Deneuve’s performance is only heightened by Polanski’s astonishing control in situating us inside the mind of a mad woman. Carol’s apartment becomes a deranged character of sorts, it’s very dimensions changing with her diminishing reality. While her sister is off on vacation with her boyfriend, Carol succumbs to her greater delusions, being “attacked” by arms that reach through the hallway walls and disoriented by shrinking rooms and tilting floors. Elevating the horror is the magnificent use of sound. On top of Chico Hamilton’s unsettling jazz score, the soundtrack is layered with multiple sound effects of dripping water, ticking clocks, creaking walls, and loud bangs. Polanski reminds us that if you can’t trust the floorboards beneath your feet and the walls that surround you, you know you’ve got some serious issues. (Ricky D)
Seconds (1966)- Shock and awe corridor
Seconds is a chilling character study and a distressing examination of happiness, loneliness, consumerism, and the American dream. The film focuses on the hallucinatory nightmare of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who takes dramatic and desperate action to fill the empty void in his life. He undergoes plastic surgery to alter his physical appearance in the mistaken belief that this will also improve his psychological well-being. However, Hamilton makes the fatal error in changing his identity to Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) without truly considering the repercussions it will have.
There isn’t one bad scene to be found in John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, and he saves the best for last. After suffering a mental breakdown, Wilson wakes up in a clinic, strapped in a straitjacket with a doctor standing by his bedside. Having lost all touch with reality, his attempts to convince the doctor of his sound mental state are futile at best. His cries go unheeded as the medical staff carries him to the operating room, and the sound of a drill echoes just before the credits roll.
Hudson’s portrayal of a tortured soul struggling to fill in the blank canvas of what he now calls life is a tour de force performance that the actor never matched. The scene features dazzling, disorienting, rich black-and-white cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe, whose use of long takes, wide-angle lenses, and skewed framing gives it the feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare. The central theme of the film is distortion, exemplified by the edgy jangle of Jerry Goldsmith’s score mixed with Wilson’s unbearable screams. Frankenheimer directs Seconds as a nightmare, heightening every shot to maximum discomfort. By distorting the lens and exaggerating the shots (a 9.7 mm fisheye lens was used), Howe and Frankenheimer reveal the mind of a man who is struggling to break free of both his physical and emotional straightjacket. (Ricky D)
The Shining (1980)- All work and no play
Ask any actor what one of the hardest things to play is and they’ll say “being crazy.” The biggest criticism leveled against Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by original author Stephen King is that the audience already figures that Jack Nicholson’s character will turn crazy because of his offbeat performance. It’s a fair criticism but unwarranted given Kubrick’s ulterior intentions with King’s material. Nicholson’s Jack Torrence is either a disturbed alcoholic who finds his tipping point at the eerie Overlook Hotel, or, more alarmingly, he has always been attached to the Overlook’s spirits and has finally arrived at the place he has been predestined to die in. Thus, Kubrick and Nicholson take an it’s-only-a-matter-of-time approach, signaling Jack’s psychosis then unleashing it in the famous “All work and no play” scene. When Wendy (Shelley Duvall) discovers her husband’s true insanity, Nicholson walks the acting tightrope between the hammy Jack of his later Batman years and the reserved Jack of his Five Easy Pieces days. In fact, a case could be made for The Shining as the transitional film between these two styles. Perhaps, like Jack, Jack found his tipping point from an acclaimed character actor to a legendary movie star. 127 damn takes of going insane will make anyone choose a career shift. (Shane Ramirez)
The Stepfather (1987)- Daddy dearest
Terry O’Quinn delivers a fabulous performance as a serial murderer who assumes a false identity and insinuates himself into a family in director Joseph Ruben’s excellent piece of psychopath cinema. O’Quinn’s Jerry Blake starts to show cracks in his façade early in the film, but his false front completely breaks down near the film’s end in a highly memorable scene between Blake and his wife, Susan (Shelley Hack). She confronts Jerry after discovering he quit his job several days prior. Jerry blames an incompetent receptionist for providing her false information and calls his office, giving his last name as “Hodgkins.” Looking confused, he asks his shocked wife, “Who am I here?” What follows is a brutal act of violence as the real “Jerry Blake” takes center stage. If you haven’t seen The Stepfather, don’t dismiss it as just another slasher film from the ’80s. And while you’re seeking it out, avoid the 2009 remake as if your life depended on it. (Terek Puckett)