The Halloween season has us revisiting some of our favorite horror movies ever, including some older classics that we haven’t seen in years. And while we love these films as much as ever, some scenes and elements just don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the works. Some have attempted scares that don’t quite pull it off, or individual elements that introduce humor, intended or not, into the ostensibly terrifying proceedings.
These things don’t completely ruin the experience for us, but they do take us out of them for a minute. From adorable werewolves to hilarious exploding bodies, here are The 15 Least Terrifying Moments in Classic Horror Movies.
15. Dancing ghost boy – Insidious
This 2010 fright-fest from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannel (Saw) may not be old enough to truly qualify as a classic, but it made a pretty strong impression right away. Insidious features a terrifying cast of spooky ghosts, including a creepy old woman in black, a black and red demon that looks like a crazier version of Darth Maul, and … a small boy who really loves the music of Tiny Tim.
We know that the filmmakers are going for surprising, eerie humor, and they succeed. But the sequence up to that point builds the tension up so well that it’s still jarring when the payoff happens. A long tracking shot follows Renai (Rose Byrne) through her house as she does chores. At one point (33 seconds into the video we linked to above), eagle-eyed viewers might even see the ghost boy off to the side, facing the wall. It’s scary as hell.
Renai leaves the house to take out the trash, and we hear somebody messing with the music. The ukulele starts up, and we think, “Well, this is a little odd, but we’re still pretty freaked out.” But then, Renai looks in the window and sees the spectral intruder rocking out to his old-people tunes, and it’s over for us.
14. The armadillos of the damned – Dracula
A throwaway shot when John Harker arrives at Castle Dracula reveals that bats aren’t the only strange creatures haunting the creepy place in Tod Browning’s 1931 classic. It also has a slight vampire problem, but that’s not what we’re getting at.
No, we’re referring more to the pair of armadillos who scurry out from under some furniture at about the one-minute mark in the video above. They seem happy enough, considering whom they live with and the fact that they’re over 6,000 miles away from their natural habitat. They’re also adorable, so they don’t contribute to the creepy atmosphere at all.
Castle Dracula is also home to some opossums and Jerusalem crickets, and despite the fact that these North America natives are also ridiculously far from home, they don’t stand out as much because they look mostly terrifying. We’re not sure how Dracula came into possession of any of these species, since he’s apparently never left his home in Transylvania. But, evil, bloodsucking vampire or not, if someone shows up offering us some cute-as-hell armadillos, we’re going to take them up on it. They really liven up a room.
13. Everybody look under your seats! – The Tingler
Director William Castle’s The Tingler is about a gross slug that lives on everyone’s spine, including yours. It’s responsible for the proverbial “spine-tingling” sensation you feel when you’re afraid; that’s the feeling of it feeding on your fear to grow ever larger until it crushes your back from the inside. But you can stop this from happening by screaming.
We’re juggling a lot of rules here.
Castle was famous for incorporating fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks into his films, and The Tingler‘s is one of our favorites (keep reading for our top pick). At one point, a Tingler removed from one character gets loose in a movie theater — just like the one you’d be watching The Tingler in — and the hero, Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price), takes command by turning off the lights and instructing everyone in both audiences to scream.
The real-world audience had some help, as the studio paid to install electric buzzers underneath some seats in larger theaters. Castle called the gag “Percepto,” and he doubled up on the illusion by planting people to scream and faint on cue.
But those of us watching The Tingler now don’t get any of that spectacle, so we just get to watch the screen go dark and the silhouette of a centipede puppet crawl around. We still love it, of course, but it’s the exact opposite of terrifying.
12. Johnny Depp explodes – A Nightmare on Elm Street
Director Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street kicked off a movie franchise that spawned seven sequels, a terrible anthology series, an even worse reboot, and at least one bizarre comic miniseries crossover.
But before all of that, we just had the one movie in 1984 to start the mania. It features modern megastar Johnny Depp in his first film role as Glen, the boyfriend of protagonist Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). And as we’ve come to learn from these movies, being the main character’s boyfriend typically marks you for certain death, so he’s got to go. And boy, does he go.
Glen’s supposed to help Nancy with her plan to drag Freddy from the dream realm into reality so that they can kill him (obviously), but he sleeps through his alarm, leaving him vulnerable to attack. Freddy pulls Glen down into own bed through a hole that soon thereafter releases a fountain of so much blood, people. And the bloodcano is still erupting when the kid’s mom shows up to see what’s up with all the ruckus, thus fulfilling Nightmare‘s rule of having a woman present to scream at every murder.
It’s an improbable amount of blood, really. We’re not even sure where it all came from, but considering that even in the real world, Freddy has some level of magical powers, we’re not putting it past him to have juiced it up. So to speak.
The laserdisc includes an extended version of this scene that has Glen’s bloody — but otherwise unmarked — body emerging from the bed. And he still looks like Johnny Depp, so we still have no idea where all that blood came from.
We have to give an honorable mention to the final scene, in which Freddy pulls Nancy’s mom through the tiny window in her front door. That effect has held up even worse than the blood geyser, but at least we could just say that it takes place in a dream.
11. I loathe a parade – The Wicker Man (1973)
Legendary actor and heavy-metal god Christopher Lee appeared in well over 200 films over the course of his career, and he cites The Wicker Man as his favorite. We certainly appreciate the original more after having seen the Nicolas Cage-starring, “Not the bees!” remake, but we aren’t entirely sure where Lee is coming from here. To his credit, at least the final act of his version doesn’t involve its hero running around in a bear costume and punching everyone he meets in the face. The main character, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), does still dress up as a character named Punch, though, so he’s kind of halfway there, maybe? But that brings us to the moment that lost us.
All of that masquerading comes when Howie infiltrates the remote island of Summerisle’s annual May Day parade, for which Lord Summerisle himself (Lee) has decided to dress in drag. We assume that he’s Mother Nature or something, to celebrate the coming growing season, but we found his capers too baffling to read too much into it.
The silly procession’s goal might be to throw viewers off-balance and distract them with its bizarreness before Wicker Man‘s horrific climax, but mostly, it’s just weird.
10. We’re slashing Prices! – The Last Man on Earth (1964)
1964’s The Last Man on Earth was the first — and best — film adaptation of writer Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend. In this version, the legendary Vincent Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, the eponymous final, non-vampire human, who spends his days scavenging for supplies and killing monsters and his nights under siege. It’s a hard life, but his routine helps distract him from the fact that he’s just going through the motions until his inevitable, lonesome death.
And that comes at the end, of course, but it loses some impact due to some unfortunate decisions from the filmmakers.
A squad of people who are infected but have access to treatment chase Morgan into a church, and then, despite the fact that most of them have guns, they kill him with a spear. It’s supposed to be ironic, because of all the vampires he’s staked, but the silliness of Vincent Price clutching a giant stick someone just hurled into his body takes the effectiveness of his death and final, astonished words (“They were afraid of me!“) down a few levels.
9. Behold the face of bore-or – Tales from the Crypt
The second segment of director Freddie Francis’ 1972 anthology film, Tales from the Crypt, adapts “Reflection of Death,” a story from the eponymous horror comic from the ’50s.
Its main character, Carl, survives a terrible car accident only to find that people scream and run away as soon as they see him. The audience doesn’t know what’s going on because the movie, like the original tale, shows events entirely from Carl’s point of view. But it’s pretty obvious what’s happening, because why else would they switch from a third-person perspective to a first-person one?
Carl eventually tracks down the other person who was in the car with him — the woman he was leaving his wife and children for — and she doesn’t react like everyone else has because the accident blinded her, and he doesn’t bother identifying himself. She tells him that her friend Carl had died in the crash, and two years had passed, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because it means that Carl’s body had just been sitting out there, unburied, even though someone had clearly arrived to help his girlfriend.
But we didn’t have time to think about that, because Carl looks into a mirror and screams upon seeing his mostly unimpressive makeup.
The odd thing is that Tales from the Crypt shows off some far superior zombie effects in the very next segment, “Poetic Justice.” But it could be that “Reflection of Death” fails because the entire story is about intentionally hiding Carl’s face and building up to that final reveal, and it’s possible nothing could possibly live up to that.
8. The cutest werewolf ever – The Howling
Director Joe Dante’s The Howling is an odd, semi-humorous horror movie with some impressive makeup work by Rob Bottin (The Thing, Robocop). It’s about news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace), who ends up in a colony of people who can turn into wolf monsters at will, full moon be damned.
But it takes a really long time for them to transform, so we aren’t sure they’re a huge threat. The only real issue is that society at large doesn’t know that these monsters are real.
At the end, Wallace’s character takes to the airwaves to prove to the public that werewolves exist, and she does this by staging her own transformation on live television. See, earlier in the movie, her affected husband bit her, thus making her the embodiment of that Duran Duran song, ignoring the fact that it is totally about creepily wanting sex. But that’s a bit off topic.
Dante frames Wallace’s transformation as a tragedy; we get sad music, and tears stream down her face as she becomes a beast. And then, before she can totally wolf out, her friend Chris Halloran (Dennis Dugan) produces a rifle loaded with silver bullets and kills her in front of everyone. We don’t know how he got that rifle into the station without anyone asking about it, but that’s maybe the third least probable part of this scene, right under the producer not cutting the feed as soon as Karen goes off-script and that part where she’s a werewolf.
And about that: Karen’s transformation and death occur with the utmost sympathy for her character, and that even extends to her monster form. Wolf Karen is adorable; she looks like a Brussels Griffon, and we’re pretty sure that if more werewolves looked that cuddly, we wouldn’t even mind if they killed someone every once in a while.
7. Can you dig it? – Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A death scene late in director George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is one of the most terrifying in the entire zombie genre — provided you watch it with the sound off. We’re talking, of course, about the part where a very young girl, now a zombie, murders her mother with a trowel. It’s just creepy all over, but the sound design ruins it.
We aren’t surprised that Mom screams, but Romero throws in some bizarre distortions and echoes that water down the horror with some slight annoyance. And then we have the death screams themselves, which are overly dramatic even by late-’60s acting standards. We also can’t help but notice that despite the fact that little Karen is stabbing her mom repeatedly (and pretty hard, presumably, since it works), the older actress doesn’t react to the impacts at all. She just kind of lies there wailing while it all happens, which unfortunately makes the scene a little more humorous than it should be.
6. Well, this is awkward … – The Shining
The Shining is one of the best and scariest horror films ever made, but it’s not without its oddities.
We aren’t talking about things like the theories presented in Shining documentary Room 237 about impossible spaces or hints that director Stanley Kubrick helped NASA fake the first moon landing. But some scenes were equally confounding.
Take the one in which Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall), on the run from her now-murderous husband (Jack Nicholson), happens upon something weird in one of the Overlook Hotel’s rooms. Specifically, she interrupts a man in a tuxedo receiving oral sex from someone wearing a costume that is some combination of a bear and a dog. And we’re not sure how that works with the mask, but we know what we saw.
This scene throws us off not because of what’s going on in that room — the world is large, with room for everyone — but it’s just very strangely timed. We’re already a little stressed about the part where Jack Torrance wants to murder his wife and son with an axe, and then Kubrick throws this at us. It’s significant in that Wendy is the first non-psychic person to see ghosts in the Overlook, and it’s the final dismissal of any doubt that all of the paranormal goings-on are just in Jack’s head.
Just a simple sighting would have been enough for that, but apparently the permanent residents of the hotel are big on maximum effect. They could close the door, though. Ghosts are rude.
5. Everybody shop now – Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Director George Romero knew exactly what he was doing when he picked “The Gonk,” a polka-style (we think?) instrumental track, for use as the ambient mall music in his classic film. You might also recognize it from the closing credits of director Edgar Wright’s horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead or as the ending theme of Adult Swim’s stop-motion series Robot Chicken. It’s like a nerd standard.
It plays after the big, final battle between the three remaining protagonists and a gang of raiders who invade the commercial sanctuary and destroy the island of relative calm that our heroes built there. When it’s all over, the mall once again belongs to the undead, who wander aimlessly through stores and up and down escalators as a chilling reminder of who the real zombies are.
We are, in case you didn’t get it. Go to a mall sometime.
Dawn of the Dead still has a few minutes of movie left in it after that happens because it’s not the best idea to end your horror movie on the most hilarious image possible. But Romero still plays “The Gonk” over the closing credits, because it’s just the best.
4. Evil kid goes boom – The Bad Seed
The horror genre is full of creepy kids doing murders to people because children are often horrifying. But 1956’s The Bad Seed is an especially effective example.
It tells the story of Rhoda (Patty McCormack), an eight-year-old girl with a penchant for killing. Her mother, Christine, eventually catches on to the fact that she’s taken out three people in increasingly disturbing ways, including the family’s gardener, whom Rhoda burns alive in his bed. Christine fears that she may be powerless to do anything about her insane daughter, so she tries to murder her with an overdose of sleeping pills before shooting herself in the head.
They both survive, however, and Rhoda ventures out in a rainstorm to retrieve a token from one of her victims from a lake. But suddenly and inexplicably, a bolt of lightning blasts down and obliterates her, providing one of the most abrupt and random endings ever.
The quickie resolution differs greatly from William March’s original novel and the earlier stage play, which have the gunshot from Christine’s suicide alerting neighbors; they rush over in time to get Rhoda to the hospital, saving her life and leaving her free to kill again. But in 1956, Hollywood had to adhere to the Production Code, which enforced moral standards in film and required that crime must always be punished. So instead of an ending that makes sense, the movie calls down the thunder, giving viewers a cheap, silly conclusion that is far funnier than it is effective.
3. Thanks for the heads up, Grandpa – The Lost Boys
The Lost Boys is far from a straight-up horror film, but we’d consider it more of a scary movie with funny moments than the other way around. That’s why we were so pleasantly surprised when, after showing up to save everyone by killing the main monster at the end, Grandpa puts a bow on the movie by revealing that he’s known about the town’s vampire problem for at least as long as he’s lived there.
It’s glorious, especially since director Joel Schumacher draws the moment out, following Grandpa as he wordlessly exits his car and walks to the kitchen with his family following him. This could be leading anywhere. Was the Head Vampire one of Grandpa’s best friends? Oh, crap; is Grandpa the real Head Vampire? That would have been a lot to take so late in the story.
But no; he’s just a cranky old guy whose main problem in life is not skateboarders or kids on his lawn, but the undead drinkers of human blood infesting his town. That’s a real problem, though, so we’re with you, Grandpa.
2. The Fright Break – Homicidal
William Castle returns to our list with his answer to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Homicidal involves a murderous woman (Jean Arless) and the shady dealings of a super-rich family. But that’s not really the important part, because the gimmick in this one makes Percepto seem simple.
Just as the heroine is about to confront the killer at the end, the camera pans away, and a 45-second timer appears on screen. This is the Fright Break.
The idea was that anyone who was too afraid to keep watching the movie at this point had until the timer expired to leave and receive a full refund. Reportedly, 1 percent of filmgoers took advantage of the offer, which inspired Castle to make the prospect of leaving so unappealing that people would just take the financial hit and get their quarters’ worth.
Anyone who tried to leave during the Fright Break would have to follow a path of yellow footprints up the aisle, in front of everyone, while a yellow light shined on them and a recorded voice encouraged the rest of the patrons to “watch the chicken.” But that wasn’t all.
Out in the lobby, the refund-seeker would have to sit in “Coward’s Corner” and sign a document to certify what a wuss they were. And that apparently wasn’t worth the 25 cents their ticket was worth, because refund requests stopped happening. All it took to protect the box office was a dumb, elaborate setup that theater owners (and moviegoers) probably hated.
1. The trees … what? – The Evil Dead (1981)
Most of the entries on this list are here because the filmmakers weren’t trying to be scary. But here’s one that just fails because it’s so gross. And we’re talking about something being too iffy for an early Sam Raimi movie, so that’s how serious this is.
The Evil Dead starts with a group of five college kids heading up to a weekend at a cabin in the woods. We have Ash (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda, friends Scotty and Shelly, and Ash’s sister Cheryl. At one point, Cheryl investigates a mysterious sound outside because she is a young person in a horror film. While she’s out there, trees rape her.
We don’t actually recommend you click on that link; we’re only including it in case you haven’t seen it and think we’re kidding. But we’re completely serious: The Evil Dead contains a protracted scene in which sentient tree branches remove a woman’s clothes, hold her down, and then assault her.
It isn’t scary so much as it is weird, ill-advised, and needlessly shocking, and it’s not just Raimi; plenty of directors confuse disgust with horror. Enough outlandishly bad things happen to everyone else in The Evil Dead that it’s gratuitous to try to make entertainment out of a violent, sexualized attack on a woman. It’s like Raimi goes out of his way to make it happen, and it’s hard to stay on board with something so repulsive and unnecessary.
What other classic horror movies featured show-stoppingly not-at-all-scary moments? Let us know in the comments.
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