Quick, think of the most shocking scenes in cinema history. You might think of the Chestburster scene in Alien, or the shower scene in Psycho. Maybe you thought about the Crucifix Scene in The Exorcist. All iconic scenes and thoroughly shocking. The problem is, they’re really old. So, with that, here are 20 of some of the most shocking scenes in modern cinema. To keep it fair I didn’t choose anything past the mid 1990’s.
Warning: Nothing but spoilers ahead!
Ari Aster’s debut film is about a grief stricken mother who begins to believe her family’s ill fortune is the workings of her departed mother. Hereditary is considered one of the greatest horror films ever made because at its core is something we can all relate to; inherited family traits. When things happen which we have no control over, like death, it can seem as though we are being controlled by external forces, and in some ways we are. Whether you like it or not, you are your parents or the ones who raised you. Because of this, it can be difficult to see yourself as an individual and not your mother or father’s puppet. This can lead to the insanity of trying to control the things that are out of your control.
The Scene: Gasping for air
Peter is high and is racing down a desolate road at night in his mother’s car. In the back seat is Charlie, his little sister who is having a severe reaction from eating cake with nuts in it. She cannot breathe. Charlie rolls down the back seat window to try and get air in her lungs. Meanwhile, Peter is driving down the road with reckless abandon, determined to save his sister’s life. As Charlie sticks her head out the window, Peter swerves, evading road kill in the middle of the street. Peter misses the road kill but drives dangerously close to a light pole.
Charlie’s head hits the pole hard. We hear the thud. And we end up on a static shot looking down at the rear tire as it screeches to halt. It’s the way Charlie might have seen the tire had her head still been there, but it’s actually on the side of the road. We cut to a close up of Peter and we now know what is apparent to him and that is Charlie is dead. Like most films on this list, Hereditary is not for everyone. However, for those who don’t have a problem with decapitation, which is a theme in this film, then I highly recommend it.
The Movie: The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese’s modern day classic is a convoluted tale about an undercover cop who infiltrates an Irish gang in order to expose their own infiltrator within the police department. Scorsese is a master filmmaker and is able to manipulate his audience’s expectations. At its heart, The Departed is a film about sacrifice for the greater good of the group. Like the saying “if you want to make an omelet, you gotta break an egg”, too often people are needlessly martyred in the name of ideology. This can lead a victim to loneliness and desperation, not knowing who they can turn to. When you are the only one watching your back, it’s impossible to see around every corner.
The Scene: The Elevator Doors
What makes this scene so good is the pacing, which brings us back to Scorsese’s ability to manipulate his audience. This scene, we assume, is in falling action. After all the chaos on the rooftop, Billy now has Colin in his custody. Also, there is a sense of safety now that they are alone in an elevator. Even Colin admits defeat, begging for Billy to kill him. We are relaxed, as are the characters. It is assumed that Billy will take Colin to the station and the good guy wins…
Just as the pace appears to be quickening, the unthinkable happens and Billy is shot through the head as the elevator door opens. Billy was supposed to the be the protagonist. He was the main character and in a flash he is dead. The truth is, this film is rich and textured enough that Billy’s story was complete, he just didn’t get the happy ending we were expecting. There was enough story to fill up an entire act after this, but by subverting expectations, Scorsese is able to go in an entirely unexpected direction. It’s a classic for a reason.
David Fincher’s enduring classic is about two detectives at polar ends of their careers trying to catch a serial killer who is basing his atrocities off of the seven deadly sins. Read more here. To varying degrees, the world of Se7en is a dark mirror held up to humanity. We worship heroes that do not exist, and the real heroes that should be celebrated, we couldn’t care less about. Society is falling apart and instead of working to make it a better place to live we shrug and say “that’s just the way it is.” The truth is we are generally apathetic to evil, and as a society have lost our connection the greater good of humanity.
The Scene: What’s in the Box?
Perhaps not since Hannibal Lecter sat up in an ambulance and peeled the flesh of another person’s face off his own has an audience been so collectively blind sighted. David Fincher does not get the credit he deserves as a master filmmaker and this scene is proof of his artistry.
At this point we know John Doe is in control and we know what he is capable of, but we also have no clue as to what is going to happen. The pacing is as calm as our new narrator, Jon Doe. When the delivery van shows up in the distance, we know we are getting closer to an answer. Fincher slowly feeds us information. The driver is delivering a box. What is it? We know it’s bad when Detective Somerset runs back to Detective Mills telling him not to kill John Doe.
In a movie that has continually upped the ante at every new reveal, only the worst could suffice.
Of course, in the box was the head of Detective Mills’ wife, Tracy. Even worse, she was pregnant with their first child. Basically something so awful and shocking it was inconceivable to a regular audience. Mills ends up executing John Doe right there. Usually when the good guy kills the bad guy it means good prevails over evil, but not this time. The bad guy dies, but he also wins.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is about a wealthy family that is terrorized and tortured by a pair of teenage maniacs. Its effectiveness stems from the all-encompassing fear of the class warfare between the have’s and have not’s. The dream to accumulate material success results in a shrinking of one’s world, constantly keeping more and more people away. The more you accumulate the more it becomes obvious that there are more of them(have not’s) and less of you(the have’s). What if the have not’s were to break into your world? How do you protect what’s most valuable?
The Scene: : One Two Three…
By this point in the film we know the two teenage antagonists are maniacal, but the question is “how maniacal are they really?” The funny game being played, as described by the alpha of the two psychopaths is if you survive till morning, you win. Sounds terrifying, but there is still a chance this is just two sick teens playing a sick joke on a family. Sure, they’ve busted up the father’s knee pretty bad, but no one has died yet. To start this game, the beta holds a loaded shotgun at the family, one by one like a variation of “eenie meenie miney mo”. The alpha gets up as we follow him out of the scene and to the kitchen to casually make a sandwich. The gun goes off, yet the alpha continues to calmly prepare his snack.
The genius of this scene is the orchestration of time. In hearing the gun go off, it is a strong possibility the stakes have risen exponentially but Haneke is stretching out the reveal. The pacing is casual and consistent. Now we get the static shot of the TV and there is blood over it. Someone has died, but who? They wouldn’t kill a kid, would they?
The payoff scene is simple and because of that, brutal. This shot lasts for over seven minutes and involves one pan and a lot of pain. Haneke also keeps us at an objective distance, giving space to a guttural response from the remaining victims. Funny Games is not for everyone. It is disturbing and it is violent. This scene not only shocks the audience but it completely changes the tone of an already dark film.
This one, admittedly, is less shocking if you’ve read the synopsis of the film in which the scene is given away freely. That’s a terrible shame, because going into this film blind, as I did, the accidental death scene is a jaw dropper. Still, even if you know what’s about to happen, the scene still works as a shocker. World’s Greatest Dad is about a high school teacher and failed writer who capitalizes on a personal tragedy in order to promote his own work. This is a film about the disappointment of failure and how it is passed down from generation to generation. It is also about how we project our own desires upon celebrities and then crucify them when they turn out to be human like the rest of us.
The Scene: Autoerotic Asphyxiation
What makes this scene so good is that it is foreshadowed and set up early on in the film when Lance, played by the late, great Robin Williams walks in on his son masturbating while he chokes himself. The set up scene is shocking enough, borrowing from the fake suicide scenes from Harold and Maude, we soon find out that the son is not dead, but trying to pleasure himself in a dangerous way. We also find out the son is severely unlikeable further endearing us to Lance.
So when we find Lance at his son’s door once more we know what Lance sees. Possibly the most important aspect of this scene is the sheer talent of Robin Williams. At first he is disgusted at his son, but slowly it sinks in that this time his son really is dead. The tonal change in an otherwise lighthearted film is both shocking and jarring. While the surprise is given away in the synopsis, it is no less shocking due to the steady hand of director Bob(cat) Goldthwait.
Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm follows the lives of two families set during an era in the United States (the seventies) marked by rapid social distrust in government as well as the questioning of the modern family. A film with a little too much going on to fit Lee’s meditative pace, it certainly ends up making the list of the most shocking modern scenes. It’s a film that exposes America’s uncomfortable relationship with sex and nudity. In many ways, it expresses the many things that remain the same, like the weakening of the American nuclear family.
The Scene: Mikey is Electrocuted
What makes this scene work so well is its consistent style and characterization. Mikey was played by a pubescent, but still innocent looking Elijah Wood. His character is both likable as well as innocent, and this scene is about his character’s childlike wonder of the world. As Mikey wanders on to a road to appreciate the beauty of the ice storm, he watches as a utility pole falls down. A power line breaks free and wildly flails in the middle of the street before it strikes the metal railing that Mikey sits on, killing him within seconds. His lifeless body slides face down on the street, only to be discovered by another character moments later. Did not see this one coming.
Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is about a group of people seeking refuge inside a supermarket from a strange mist that holds within it massive insects. Darabont’s film language lends itself well to Stephen King’s enduring themes that always seem to resonate with audiences. The horror of The Mist resides within the fear of what you cannot see, and one of the many things you cannot see are the dangerous intentions of your neighbors. In the darkest moments of life, a neighbor’s thoughts can lead to an “us versus them” mentality, and then the darkest of human attributes will arise: power. No matter the intentions of those in power, making choices of fate for a group of people is never a good idea.
The Scene: Not Enough Bullets
The brilliance of this scene is the sense of space and world building in the previous sequence. When the car runs out of gas, Darabont shrinks the space and makes us feel we are inside the car. It is very intimate. The predicament is clear “we are out of gas in a world full of giant man eating bugs. Worse, there are only enough bullets to euthanize four of us, leaving one of us to be eaten alive.” The audience is given time to observe each character as their reality starts to sink in. The final shot is the son of the main character waking up and seeing that his father is pointing a gun at him.
We are taken out of the space – a low angle shot outside of the car – as the main character shoots and kills every accept himself. David spends the entirety of the film trying to save his son’s life, only to be forced to end it himself. Ironically, had he only waited a few minutes before killing everyone he would have realized they were all about to be saved. Yes, it’s a bummer of an ending, but it is also a great and shocking end to a solid monster flick.
J.A. Bayona’s directorial debut is a gothic fairytale about a woman obsessed with finding her son after he goes missing from the orphanage she runs. The Orphanage was so well made most people thought it was done by the master of such films, Guillermo Del Toro, who produced the movie. What makes it so impactful is the tragic story of a woman who goes mad trying to right the wrongs of her childhood. Often a painful childhood is too hard to overcome for many people, which keeps them emotionally stuck in the past, unable to move on and grow up. Most adults find they too have repressed emotions from their childhood that are never reconciled.
The Scene: The Hidden Basement
The preceding scene leading up to the basement is a master class in tension and horror. Known as the “One two three, knock knock knock scene”, Bayona skillfully manipulates his audience’s emotions. He uses a long handheld take to stretch out a terrifying game Laura plays with the ghosts of dead orphans. The excitement and anxiety is paid off with a terribly sad reveal; Laura learns that Simon had died the very day he went missing six months prior. She finds his lifeless son laying as he had when he died falling from the scaffolding within a hidden room. She carries his dead body upstairs where she ends her own life, living as a ghostly caretaker to all of the orphans lost to the house.
The Safdie brothers second feature is a stress filled movie about a gambling addict whose entire life is on the verge of collapse as he risks everything to come out ahead. Few films capture the true desperation of addiction as well as Uncut Gems does. This is literally a case of “can’t see the forest through the trees”. For people in the throes of addiction, life is a chaotic mess where no matter what you do, things continually get worse. It’s the insanity of believing that addiction is a game you can beat, and the insanity in believing you are in control, so you do everything in your power to continue the insanity. However, the problems will only multiply until they are at your door and there is nowhere else to hide.
The Scene: The Open Airlock
Other than nailing the frenetic stress of the desperate gambling addict experiencing a midlife crisis, the casting of Adam Sandler was a stroke of genius. We closely follow Howard along the entire runtime of the film while he makes one bad decision after another. It’s dizzying how many bad decisions he makes as he continually falls onto his face over and over. Most actors, no matter how talented, would end up being terribly unlikeable. And while Sandler gets praise for his portrayal of Howard, and he has earned it, it’s still Adam Sandler. You can’t help but to see Billy Madison, Robbie Hart or Bobby Boucher behind his portrayal of a desperate man, and that means we still root for him.
There is something still loveable about him. So when we finally see Howard win after an astonishing amount of losing, the audience is still along for the ride. Howard’s elation is our elation. For the first time it feels like there is finally a reprieve from all of the stress, and like many films before it, the protagonist (or antihero) finally gets his win.
But, Howard is shot through the face. He didn’t win. He died. You don’t see it coming, and yet you think to yourself, “how did I not see it coming?” Everything in the film seemed like it was heading toward redemption. But no, it was leading up to tragedy which makes the film far more disturbing as a result. This film, like many others on the list, is not for everyone. It is challenging and it is uncomfortable, but for those who don’t mind those attributes just might love it.
The Movie: The Sixth Sense(1999)
M. Night Shyamalan’s debut film, The Sixth Sense, is easily his most celebrated. It’s about a depressed and lonely child psychologist who earns the trust of a young patient who can see the dead. This movie still resonates with audiences over 20 years after its release because it is about the burden of loss, and the weight of that burden on those you love. It is also about being unable to let go of the past and how old trauma still haunts us. Perhaps no other movie since Psycho has a single scene caused this much chatter within popular culture, and for good reason. It’s a stone cold classic.
The Scene: Malcom Was Dead the Whole Time
It feels like a lay-up having this on the list, but the truth is, when it comes to shocking scenes, no list is complete without it. No one saw this coming, and I mean, NO ONE! The genius of The Sixth Sense is that you are never given a reason to question the reality of Malcom (Bruce Willis) being among the living. Mainly because the story revolves around Cole’s (Haley Joel Osment) issue with seeing dead people.
The story of Malcom’s wife and the former patient who killed him is the B and C story to Cole’s A story. We were so consumed with Cole, it never occurred to question whether or not Malcom was alive, even though he literally has no other contact with anyone else in the entire movie after he is shot. So when the reveal happens, That Malcom was dead unbeknownst to him, it’s a jaw dropper because it was right there the whole time. Rarely does a film evoke so much wonder and excitement and for that, it’s a timeless classic.