***WARNING! Major spoilers ahead! One image is NSFW***
What follows are twenty of the most shocking, surprising, or scariest scenes horror has served up over the last 90+ years. By no means definitive, this list features fear films that will make you scream, squirm, feel uneasy, or depress you into a state of despair. There are some shock endings, shock reveals, and just outright hair-raising iconography that not only sticks in the mind, make you cover your eyes, but make your skin crawl.
1. Unmasking the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
The silent horror classic based on Gaston Leroux's equally famous novel features not only one of Lon Chaney, Sr.'s prime performances, but one of filmdom's most memorable makeup jobs -- made all the more fantastic in that Chaney applied his ghoulishly unique makeup himself; effectively turning his face into a skeletal nightmare. The unmasking went on to become a pinnacle in horror, and was replicated in diverse ways in horror movies over the years. Assorted remakes and variations on the story came in virtually every decade since.
2. The finale of FREAKS (1932)
Aside from being one of the most controversial films ever made, the entirety of FREAKS is one of the weirdest, yet fascinatingly bizarre movie viewing experiences you're ever likely to see. It's made all the more unsettling during the revenge-fueled finale depicting the title sideshow performers exacting vengeance on the duplicitous trapeze artist and her accomplice, the circus strongman. It's not just the sight of assorted oddities bearing knives and murder in their eyes as they chase their quarry through a raging thunderstorm, but the aftermath of their reprisal that became one of cinemas greatest examples of "just desserts". Banned for decades, FREAKS inspired a number of sideshow theatrics in films of varying quality.
3. Norman and his mother in PSYCHO (1960)
The whole of the slasher genre owe demented Mama's Boy, Norman Bates a great deal of splatt-itude. Not only does abnormal Norman keep his dead mother's preserved corpse in the basement, but he dresses up like her during murder sessions of "sluts" and nosy investigators. Anthony Perkins single-handedly defined scores of psycho-logical thrillers and slasher movie maniacs for years to come. Not only is his cross-dressing reveal a shocker, but Hitchcock's movie was even more successful at making people think twice about closing that shower curtain.
4. Ben's fate in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Aside from being one of the scariest examples of horror cinema ever made, George Romero's provocative piece of zombie paranoia contains one of the finest examples of the 'shock ending'. After a nighttime assault on the farmhouse, the bickering bunch of people trapped there end up as zombie food except for Ben (Duane Jones). In a cruel twist of fate, Ben is mistook for one of the undead shamblers, and shot from a distance by a posse of local cops and zombie head-hunters. "They're dead. They're all messed up." As the credits roll, the still frame images of corpses (including Ben's) being stacked like logs for a macabre funeral pyre complete this gut-punch of an ending. When I first saw NIGHT at eight years old, I couldn't wait for dawn to come.
5. Leatherface slams a metal door in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
There have been many things said about Tobe Hooper's TCM, and all of them are true. It's a special type of horror film that fools you into thinking you've seen more than you really have. One area it doesn't play tricks on you is in its music and sound effects. One such sound is something we're all familiar with, but the way it's done here sets a disturbingly unsettling tone that never lets up. That sound is the reverberation of chills being sent down your spine after everyone's favorite chainsaw wielding maniac slams a metal door shut. Kirk hears what he thinks is a pig squealing, but upon moving closer to a hallway were dozens of animal skulls adorn the wall, he comes face to (Leather)face who bangs his head with a piece of heavy metal. The door is slammed hard, and the stinging music cue rumbles on the soundtrack intensifying the moment. From here on out, it's almost non-stop running, screaming, and roaring of power tools. LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1991) paid homage to this bit during its opening credits. One of the most terrifying films ever made.
6. The finale in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
If there hadn't been a BLACK CHRISTMAS there likely wouldn't have been a HALLOWEEN (1978); at least not in the form famously directed by John Carpenter. There probably wouldn't have been a slasher genre the way we know it today, either. All the staples of that holiday horror classic, and slashers in general are here, plus the absolute most skin-crawling, obscene phone calls you've ever heard. A high-mark in all of goose-bumper cinema, the heart racing is off the charts once it's discovered the maniac has been making the phone calls from inside the house! The terror turbulence isn't alleviated at all upon the audience discovering one last shock before the credits roll. BLACK CHRISTMAS is a 95 minute nerve-jangler.
7. CARRIE (1976) reaches out to Amy Irving
After a spectacularly grim night of telekinetic revenge, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) literally brings the house down on her and her deranged, knife-wielding mother. What follows is totally unexpected, and one of horror cinemas greatest scares. In a dream sequence, Sue (Amy Irving) visits Carrie's grave where a sign reads "Carrie White burns in Hell". She leans over to place some flowers, and a bloody arm reaches up to latch onto her! Nearly 40 years later, this ending still retains the power to grab you. Aside from a handful of CARRIE clones, an extremely mean-spirited sequel came over 20 years later; followed by a 2002 TV movie; and a remake in 2013 nobody wanted.
8. Evil wins in THE OMEN (1976)
Rarely had evil triumphant been so bleakly depicted as it was in Richard Donnor's cacophony of demonic malevolence. An unusual role for Gregory Peck, the star of GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), numerous westerns, and dramas. Dragging his screaming son into a church to pierce his body with the seven Daggers of Megiddo, Robert Thorn (Peck) intends to send the young anti-Christ back to Hell. Cops bust in and... we're at a funeral in the next scene. As the camera pans down, it reveals Damien, the Devil's child, is in fact still alive. The personification of cherubic evil then smiles to the accompaniment of chanting monks via Jerry Goldsmith's chillingly apocalyptic score. David Warner's head cleaving by a pane of glass is among the most spectacular decaps ever committed to screen, too. Three sequels (one made for TV), and an uneventful remake came to pass.
9. The deep end of SHOCK WAVES (1976)
A lot of folks stayed away from the "deep end of horror" upon its theatrical release, but SHOCK WAVES is a film that lives up to its title. Its cult status assured with able support from Peter Cushing and John Carradine, a nerve-jangling score, and ghoulish makeup from Alan Ormsby. The lovely Brooke Adams plays Rose, and the film is told from her perspective in flashback. The major 'shock' comes in the final moments as the movie segues to her -- bearing facial scars from extreme sun exposure -- in a hospital bed seemingly jotting down her words we hear in voiceover. As the camera pans towards her, we notice that her penmanship isn't what it used to be. Driven insane by her ordeal, no one will know just what happened out there -- "It's only now that I remember any of it at all". I remember watching SHOCK WAVES upwards of three times on Shock Theater with a blanket over my face as a kid.
10. Peaceful Verde Valley becomes the KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)
It's William Shatner vs. thousands of tarantulas in one of the 70s best 'nature amuck' movies. Your skin will crawl, your flesh will creep at the sight of actors allowing real spiders to do the eight-legged shuffle all over their bodies. Things reach a fever pitch during the climactic arach-attack, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD styled siege wherein hordes of spiders converge on a cabin where the main participants are trapped. KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERs shock and awe comes during the closing moments when, after an early morning radio broadcast fails to mention any inkling there's been an assault on the town, the remaining cast pull the boards away from the windows to reveal.... the entire hamlet has been cocooned! Yes, Shatner and company have been rounded up for spider food via a poorly rendered, yet effective matte painting. Shatner planned a sequel set in an insane asylum, but this never materialized.
11. The climax of LONG WEEKEND (1978)
A quiet weekend getaway on an isolated Australian beach proves to be anything but for a cranky couple who disturb mother nature, prompting one of the creepiest climaxes in horror history. Nature strikes back in the most unusually methodical, terrifying fashion you've ever seen; and with a dash of the supernatural thrown in for added goosebumps. The suspenseful last 30 minutes crawl all over you where sound effects sell a grim atmosphere of horror leading to an unsettling instance of poetic justice. LONG WEEKEND is wholly underrated, and highly recommended for those who prefer there horror films with a slow build. A totally ill-conceived remake came in 2006 as NATURE'S GRAVE.
12. The ending of HALLOWEEN (1978)
Dr. Loomis makes the horrifying discovery that Michael Myers has got up and walked away after a two story fall and six bullets fired into his body. An iconic horror figure and an iconic score enhance this supreme horror milestone that retains the power to spook with impunity. Recurring sequels and a sloppy remake only manage to reinforce the original movies superiority, as well as its lasting ability to scare the hell out of you. Arguably the standard in creating a humanistic incarnation of evil onscreen. As a matter of fact, it was the Boogey Man.
13. WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) from inside the house.
Fred Walton's movie repeats the shock revelation of BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), but places it near the beginning. It does something else that warrants mention on this list -- the chest-pounding horror of the opening 20 minutes. Armed with tight editing and intense music, this sequence is so formidably sinister, it's virtually impossible for the rest of the film -- worthy as it is -- to maintain, much less match this nightmarish opener. The finale is impressive, but the opener fires on all cylinders. A Made For Cable sequel followed in 1993 and a lousy remake in 2006.
14. The vampires in SALEM'S LOT (1979)
Hands down the Silver Screens scariest bloodsuckers. No glitter, no LOST BOYS glam, no teenybopper vamps here, just pure unsettling undead. Whether it be the sight of a young child floating just outside a window scratching the glass to be let in while smoke swirls in the background; or the yellow eyes of the vampires; Geoffrey Lewis rocking back and forth in a creaky rocking chair before uttering in the most guttural voice imaginable, "Loooooook at meeeee!"; or Reggie Nalder's NOSFERATU (1922) inspired makeup job as Barlow, SALEM'S LOT (1979), especially in its international cut, still has blood in its veins 35 years later.
15. John Hurt has chest pains in ALIEN (1979)
No one in the cast knew just what was going to happen that day on the set of ALIEN, nor did viewers know that something nasty was going to erupt from Kane's (John Hurt) chest cavity. Not just a signature shock moment in the annals of horror history, but a turning point in SciFi with the integration of modern horror and gore. An unacknowledged remake of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), Ridley Scott's benchmark shows signs of Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965), too. Still a powerful sequence all these years later, this live, visceral approach is something CGI simply cannot recreate.
16. Bad things happen on FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
The fake-out ending had been done before, but the first FRIDAY THE 13TH took it to a new level. It not only gave audiences something to scream about, but also inspired dozens of similar finales that gave their viewers a respite from the horror only to surprise them with a "Gotcha!" moment. Alice appears to be safe drifting in the lake after a night of horror that left her friends butchered and the crazed mother Voorhees decapitated. The police have arrived, Alice smiles, and this soothing cue of relaxation fills the soundtrack, then.... well, you know the rest. As a kid, I had no idea what was coming, and this film, named after the unluckiest day in western civilization, was the scariest film I'd ever seen up to that time.
17. The maniac has a member in SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)
One of the poorest slashers of the 80s owes its notoriety to a showstopper of a last scene wherein our title killer is seen cradling a severed head totally naked. Oh, and she/he has a penis. That grotesque face of the killer (played by Felissa Rose) only adds to the disturbing quality. Since its release, every strike against the film is overshadowed by this macabre bit of shock value. Followed by a much better sequel, and an amateurish third entry. A fourth patchwork feature followed. These pale next to this one sequence, stripped bare of conventional horror where camper slashers are concerned.
18. The finale of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Starting an avalanche of 'Found Footage' flicks, this project from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez became one of the biggest cash cows in history. Some love it, some hate it, the film does have its share of creepy moments -- the discovery of dozens of wooden figures (the souls of past victims) hanging from trees; weird sounds in the night; the realization that they are somehow walking in circles; and the bone-chilling climax when the last two documentarians run across a decrepit old house that seems to appear out of nowhere. You'll see bloody hand prints of children dotting the walls, and get the eerie feeling that something is somewhere inside the house. Upon leaving the theater, I had goosebumps the rest of the night afterward. Since its release, the BLAIR WITCH narrative has been cloned to death; most recently with the likes of THE JUNGLE (2012) and WILLOW CREEK (2013). An unnecessary, and worthless sequel followed.
19. The finale of SAW (2004)
Two men wake up chained inside a filthy bathroom with a corpse in the center of the room. Instructions found on a tape recorder from their depraved captor give them clues on how to escape via a sick, twisted game. The big twist being the guy in the center of the room isn't as dead as you think. James Wan's little movie, derivative of the Italian Giallo and SE7EN (1995), became a box office powerhouse that turned brutal gore murders into a mainstream soap opera over the course of six sequels with another being threatened.
20. The ending of THE MIST (2007)
The closing moments of Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's 1980 novella will not make you misty, but either make you furious, or put you into deep depression for a week or two. After a strange mist containing a variety of flesh-hungry monsters envelopes a town, survivors trapped inside a grocery store crumble under the pressure. A few manage to escape the store, taking their chances on the outside. Eventually running out of gas, and with sounds of monsters approaching, the situation appears hopeless. David (Thomas Jane) realizes he has four bullets for five people. He shoots the others (including his young son), exits the vehicle in the hopes the monsters will take him. Unfortunately for him, had he waited just a couple minutes more, he'd of seen the military convoy eradicating the creatures a short distance behind them. They'd literally been moving away from being saved the whole time. A monster movie at heart, it uses these inter-dimensional creatures as a catalyst for expounding on man's innate savagery. If this isn't the contender for most shocking ending ever, it's right up there at the top.