At their best, movies are capable of making you feel a full range of emotions. They make you forget that what you're watching isn't really happening by finding a way to speak directly to your heart and soul in order to make sure that their reactions override that lingering doubt that you should really be caring at all. We submit ourselves to the will of movies in that way.
As such, some of the most memorable scenes are those that make us feel the kind of horrible tension and suspense that most people thankfully never have to encounter in the real world. Why would a piece of entertainment ever make someone feel the way these scenes makes us feel? Because there really is nothing like sitting there with a bead of sweat dripping down your forehead as you grip your seat and hope beyond hope that everything will turn out alright.
These are the 20 Most Intense, Hold-Your-Breath Movie Scenes Of All Time.
20 No Country For Old Men - A Coin Flip
“Look, I need to know what I stand to win,” says the gas station proprietor in No Country For Old Men to hitman Anton Chigurh after being asked to call the result of a coin flip for unknown stakes. He finds the idea of a patron asking him what's the most he’s ever lost on a coin toss (shortly before being asked to call the result of a coin toss) to be unusual at best -- and highly unnerving at the worst. He plays like he doesn’t know what’s at stake, but he and the audience have a good idea of what's going on without anyone needing to say it.
What makes this scene so great isn’t necessarily the moment of the coin flip that will decide whether the attendee lives or dies, but the build up to it. The real tension of this moment comes from watching Chigurh tear down this man’s life in that calm, intimidating manner that he speaks in before putting that same life on the line. In these moments of seemingly casual conversation laced with venom, we can only watch helplessly and wonder when the violence will come.
19 Children of Men – The One Shot Escape Sequence
In most films, action scenes are used as an escape. They’re the moments of the movie that allow the audience to finally stop thinking about all the plot and prelude in favor of simply watching everything come to a head in a moment of intensity. It may not always be pleasant, but is darkly satisfying. Tension can exist in action scenes, but it’s often tempered by the knowledge that something may just be settled after everything that’s happened.
That isn’t the case in Children of Men’s iconic escape sequence. During this scene, our heroes find themselves caught up in the middle of an uprising without weapons and still very burdened by their tasks and worries. They’re not engaging in an action sequence to settle the score; they’re almost caught up in someone else’s action scene and are very much at risk of becoming victims of someone else’s violence. As they wind their way through a chaotic war zone, the director refuses to make a single camera cut that might actually offer a form of relief. Instead, we’re left feeling just as helpless in the chaos of the moment as the characters themselves.
18 Back To The Future – Sending Marty Back Home
It seems so silly to worry about the conclusion of a movie like Back to the Future, doesn’t it? After all, it’s ultimately just a summer blockbuster movie, and if there’s one type of movie where you can usually rest assured that our characters are going to escape from, it’s a summer blockbuster. Part of the reason that the tension in Back to the Future is real, however, is both because we care deeply about the characters involved in the climactic scene and because the movie has already established that there are consequences to even the smallest of actions.
Ultimately, however, the reason that Back to the Future’s finale doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion is the way that it’s shot and sequenced. From the moment that Marty realizes he’s late to the rendezvous, it feels like everything that can go wrong with him and Doc Brown’s plan does go wrong. While that iconic pulse-pounding score plays in the background, we watch in disbelief as one catastrophe follows another. For a movie that’s all about time, it’s appropriate that its nail-biting conclusion successfully has us believe that there’s no time left.
17 Marathon Man - "Is it Safe?"
There’s no such thing as a pleasant movie torture sequence. Nobody walks out of a movie saying “Well that scene with the bamboo poles under the fingernails had me in stitches!” Still, at least most torture sequences in movies allow the audience to be clued into the situation. Whether it’s watching our heroes engage in torture for information or watching them be tortured in order to protect something valuable, we the viewers at least get to feel that we are on some kind of even footing with the characters.
Marathon Man’s famous torture scene operates a little differently in that regard. By that time that Thomas Levy is confronted by Dr. Szell and tied to a dentistry chair and asked “Is it safe?”, the viewer knows that Szell is referring to a bundle of diamonds, but Levy does not. When watching this scene, you want to shout at the screen to tell Levy what exactly is happening so that the pain will end. Your inability to do so, combined with the relatable pain of dental torture, makes this scene unbearable.
16 Jurassic Park – Raptors In The Kitchen
Although Jurassic Park’s interpretation of velociraptors isn’t entirely accurate (the physical characteristics of the creatures are actually closer to that of the Dromaeosauridae), there’s no denying that they were the breakout stars of the movie. While most childhood fears involving dinosaurs involved being confronted by a terrifyingly large creature that you would never be able to beat, the velociraptors clued us all into the fact that the far more dangerous situation involves a predatory group of hunters that are just as clever as they are quick.
It’s a fear that’s driven home by the memorable sequence in which Lex and Tim are confronted by two raptors when they’re trapped in a kitchen. In a way, this scene plays out like many other similar horror movie scenes involving stalkers and victims. What makes it so particular nerve-wracking, however, is the way that Spielberg doesn’t necessarily try to hide the pursuers (as is typical in these type of scenes), but rather emphasize the claustrophobic conditions of the environment and how few options for escape it offers.
15 Sicario – Border Crossing
It’s a shame Sicario flew under the mainstream film radar when it released in 2015. Due to a poor marketing campaign and a somewhat limited release, many people failed to discover that this film -- about a group of agents trying to diffuse a hostile drug war creeping into American across the Mexico border -- is one of the most exciting and engaging works of its kind since 2000’s Traffic.
Still, you don’t even need to see the whole movie to appreciate the brilliance of this border crossing scene. What should be a routine crossing into the Mexico border by a group of highly-trained and heavily-armed operatives becomes a masterclass in film tension when a car breaks down ahead and stalls them in traffic. What makes this scene so memorable isn’t necessarily the idea that the main characters might die, but rather the way a routine traffic jam transforms into a war zone before we are even allowed a moment to really process what's happening..
14 Full Metal Jacket – The Sniper
Full Metal Jacket is, rightfully so, best remembered for its opening half. Led by the frighteningly magnetic performance of R. Lee Ermey as Sgt. Hartman, the film’s depiction of a marine training camp has long served as the golden standard of the concept. It’s not that Full Metal Jacket invented the idea of the abusive drill sergeant and the effects his discipline can have, but it did show that the horrors of war begin long before a soldier ever steps onto the battlefield, and it did so better than any other movie out there.
However, the most intense sequence in the movie takes place shortly before the film’s conclusion, when a band of soldiers encounter a lone sniper in an abandoned part of town somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. They’re alerted to the presence of the sniper when one of their own is shot in the neck, and from there they're forced to engage in a brilliantly paced game of cat and mouse with the lone gunman. No other war movie has ever done such a masterful job of showing how a lone sniper can pin down a group of soldiers quite like this one does. Our heroes’ every decision feels like the wrong one, and their every step feels like the last.
13 Trainspotting – Going Cold Turkey
There are two scenes in Trainspotting that deal with the process of getting clean from heroin. The first, famously referred to by Renton as the “Sick Boy Method,” involves mushroom soup, tomato soup, some valium, three buckets, a television, ice cream, various stomach aides, and is accompanied by a jovial classic score that just hammers home how even this awful process of sobering up is just another part of the lifestyle for these longtime junkies.
The other instance of this process is significantly less routine. Later on in the film, when Renton is forced to get clean by his parents, he is deprived of all the comforts of home that come with his chosen method. Forced to go cold turkey, he is left to endure the full mental and physical horrors his body can produce. This scene is usually classified as being more unsettling than traditionally tense, but it does rely heavily on the core of tense movie scenes, which is the ability to make the viewer squirm in their seats, bite their nails, and nervously wonder what’s going to happen next.
12 127 Hours - Cutting Loose
In a way, almost all of 127 Hours is one great instance of pure tension. This (mostly) true story of a hiker named Aron Ralston -- who finds himself hopelessly trapped between rocks while mountain climbing for the amount of time you see noted in the film’s title -- is quite simply one of the more harrowing tales of human endurance in the face of constant terror that’s been released for public consumption in the last several years.
However, the entire horribly intense story is “highlighted” by the finale that sees Ralston decide to amputate his own arm with a pocket knife. Now, some will no doubt see this sequence as a form of torture porn that’s only uncomfortable to watch because it’s so gory. It’s a valid interpretation, but the scene’s true tension lies in the fact that you’re not quite sure the process is even going to work. Can such a small blade cut off a human arm? Will Ralston pass out from the pain and possibly even drop his knife in the process? These questions drive the scene home, staying with viewers long after they've left the theater.
11 Pulp Fiction – The Adrenaline Shot
Quentin Tarantino may not be opposed to drawing inspiration from various film sources, but when it comes to creating scenes of tension, the man is in a class of his own. There are actually a few scenes in Pulp Fiction that are up there with the all-time greats in that regard. For instance, there’s the scene where Jules and Vincent confront the room of thieves and toy with them before killing them. And then you have the unfortunate encounter in the basement involving the gimp, which is wholly unsettling even without the nail-biting tension.
The winner, though, has to be that iconic adrenaline shot given to Mia Wallace. Early on, it was established that Vincent Vega was ordered to take out his boss’s wife in part to make sure that nothing bad happened to her. As such, the viewer understands the stakes of the situation. What really makes this scene work, however, was the choice to have the camera fade to black shortly after Mia overdoses. Even though the passage of time between that moment and when Vincent finds her was likely a matter of seconds, the implication that it is already far too late only drives home the uncertain urgency of the entire process that follows.
10 Dial M For Murder – Attempted Murder
The master of suspense had to show up at some point on this list, but this entry is far more than just an honorary nod to one of the all-time greatest film directors. When asked to describe his process of crafting a tension-filled scene, Hitchcock infamously gave an example of a two people talking at a table that has a bomb under it. If you show them having a normal conversation before the bomb suddenly goes off, then you create a moment of shock. Show them having that same conversation but letting the audience know about the bomb from the start gives the scene a sense of tension the whole way through.
This sequence from Dial M For Murder perfectly exemplifies that theory. In a scene that involves a killer, the victim, the husband that set the whole thing up, and the audience, the only person unaware of what is about to happen is poor Margot. She goes to answer her phone like she has a thousand times before, and has no idea that a killer is feet behind her ready to strike. It’s the ultimate in everyday nightmare scenarios.
9 The Blair Witch Project – Into The Basement
It’s easy, a bit too easy, to write off the accomplishments of The Blair Witch Project simply because of the legion of parody films and ripoffs it inspired. Before all that, though, The Blair Witch project was simply a creative horror film that showed how much scarier movies could be when you dropped all the production pretenses of the genre and simply used a basic home camera to focus on a group of friends in a nightmare scenario.
Whatever the reputation of The Blair Witch Project has become, the brilliance of the movie’s ending never has been in doubt. The set-up is straight out of the horror movie playbook (the protagonists prepare for a climactic showdown at the lair of the monster), but the twist here is that the young heroes are not actually entirely sure what they are walking into. The camera they carry showcases the situation in such a way that it feels like the worst thing in the world may appear at any moment. The tension only ceases when they find their best friend quietly facing the corner in the basement, confirming the nightmares of everyone involved.
8 Alien – The Death of Dallas
There are many ways for a director to achieve a feeling of helplessness in a horror movie. One of the most popular combinations of factors, however, involves pitting a cast of helpless and unarmed characters against an overwhelming force that they are criminally unprepared to face off against. That’s not the set-up for this scene, however. Here, a reasonably well-trained individual is armed with a flamethrower and has the support of a group of friends monitoring a motion detection system, allowing them to alert him to anything that may be approaching via headsets.
This set-up shouldn’t lead to an unbearably tense moment, but that’s exactly what we get here. By this point in Alien, the Xenomorph has been established as a nearly unbeatable creature with the ability to isolate and destroy any target it chooses. Even with everything Dallas has going for him, you fear for his life the moment that he enters that shaft. It’s a fear that only grows when the motion detector beeps slowly to indicate that something is near. The way that the creature manages to bypass so many protections just reinforces its ability to invade our comfort zone with ease.
7 Misery – Paul’s Attempted Escape
Stephen King has previously said that the story behind Misery was really just a clever metaphor for his cocaine addiction. He is the story's writer Paul Sheldon (naturally) and crazed fan Annie Wilkes represents the death grip that cocaine had on his life. It’s an interesting hidden meaning for the author, but you don’t need to be aware of the subtext to appreciate the simple horror of a person being held against their will by a psychopath that would go so far as to break their legs just to ensure that they do not leave them.
Paul Sheldon’s situation is so desperate, in fact, that even if he were able to escape, he would likely still die out in the wild. Still, when he tries to make his escape after Annie leaves to get some paper, it’s impossible to not root for him. His attempted escape is intense enough, but where this scene really hits hard is when Paul tries to crawl back into his chair as Annie come homes. Suddenly, the very worst place that Paul could be is the very best place he could be. Watching him sweat buckets as he tries to crawl back to his prison as though nothing happened will have you perspiring as well.
6 The Deer Hunter – Russian Roulette
It’s a strange fate that a movie that addresses so many themes regarding humanity, war, and life should be best remembered for a scene involving a game of Russian roulette played at a POW camp. Even if you’re never seen The Deer Hunter, you are likely familiar with the moment where Vietnam soldiers Mike and Nick are forced to play the game by their captors. It’s a scene that not only inspired one of the film’s original posters, but that's entered into the realm of pop culture like few sequences of such brutality ever have.
Still, it’s easy to see why such a brilliant film is so often remembered for one scene when the scene in question is impossible to simply forget. The tense and violent nature of the game itself certainly has something to do with what makes this scene so unbearable, but to really appreciate its full terror, you must view what happens leading up to this moment. The sudden way our heroes found themselves in this situation makes it so that you can’t be sure that either one will actually find a way out of this jam.
5 Silence of The Lambs – Basement Stalking
It’s funny how certain movies can bring a particular item into the public conscience through the effectiveness of a single scene. E.T. helped make Reese’s Pieces one of the best-selling snacks in America. Pulp Fiction taught simple-hearted folks the basic purpose of a gag ball. As for Silence of the Lambs, it helped establish most people’s interpretation of how night vision goggles functioned, thanks to its memorable finale where Clarice Starling must navigate the dark basement of Buffalo Bill while he's armed with a pair of them.
There’s plenty more going on in this scene than just the goggles themselves, of course, but there is something haunting about that soft hum they emit, as well as the green hue that the wearer sees the world in. The ability they give to Buffalo Bill to see in the dark while Clarice stumbles around blindly only strengthens the idea that this is his world and that she's completely out of her element. This is one of those rare times that we are able to view such a stalking scene from the perspective of a killer, and that change in viewpoint makes this already tense scene all the more unnerving.
4 Goodfellas – “Do You Think I’m funny?”
One of the mobsters involved in the actual crime family portrayed in Goodfellas once said that their boss Paulie owned a boat that was a secret source of dread for everyone that worked with him. Why? Well, as the story goes, if you were invited out onto the boat, you had about a 50/50 chance of either spending the day fishing or being killed. It’s the kind of story that really highlights how unpredictable and violent that criminal world really is.
For further proof of that statement, simply view this classic dinner scene involving the short tempered Tommy DeVito once more. Although the tension of this scene is diminished somewhat when you know how it ends (which is true of just about every scene on this list), watching Tommy suddenly come unglued after being told he’s funny is still troubling. It’s strange that in a movie filled with such outrageous violence that a seemingly misunderstood compliment feels like the most shocking moment, but the brilliant acting of Joe Pesci and the nature of his character really do make it seem like young Henry Hill might lose his life over a simple conversation.
3 Boogie Nights - The Drug Deal
The general rule about creating tension through a film scene is that the audience needs to be able to sympathize with someone involved in the situation. After all, if you don’t particularly like the people you’re watching, you won't likely be lost in the scene since you probably don't much care about the outcome. Otherwise, a director would need to create a scene of such absolute horror that the viewer can’t help but nervously watch, regardless of who is involved.
That’s about what Paul Thomas Anderson accomplished in this scene from Boogie Nights, where Dirk Diggler and his friends find their way into the home of a drug dealer with the intention of selling him some bad drugs. Had Diggler and his friends not essentially forfeited all rights to sympathy by this point, you might worry for them based on that set-up alone. What makes this moment so tense, however, is the carefree nature of Alfred Molina's dealer in relation to the protagonists, his playlist of jovial pop classics, and his mysterious friend occupying his time by popping fireworks. The situation is so well constructed that you don’t need to care about the people in the film to feel nervous, because you already feel like you are the one in that moment.
2 The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - Mexican Standoff
The showdown in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a lot like the final seconds of a particularly great sports game. You’ve got a group of individuals of relatively equal talents (our titular band of cowboys) vying for the same prize (the princely sum of $200,000) in a situation that may have been created by the actions that led to that point, but will ultimately prove to write the definitive conclusion to everything that’s come before.
And not unlike the final seconds of an intense sports game, this scene proves to be so nail-bitingly intense that even those who have seen this movie a thousand times still choose to view it with their faces buried in their hands. That’s due in large part to the set-up, which begins with Blondie’s suggestion that the matter of the disputed money be settled via a Mexican stand-off and continues as the movie’s famous theme blares in the background. A lesser attempt at this scene might have cheapened the actual pay-off by delaying the action for so long, but here, the tension of the gun draw and the violence that will result from it are expertly delayed in order to perfectly convey the feeling of a proper showdown.
1 Inglorious Basterds – Tavern Games
The editor of Inglorious Basterds (the very talented Sally Menke) once noted in an interview that the many people working on the movie felt that the tavern scene -- in which a small group of the Basterds disguised as Germans in order to meet their contact in a basement bar -- was going to be too long. How were they going to insert a dialog-heavy 25-minute scene into the middle of a movie and expect the audience to feel the full tension it’s meant to convey, rather than feel bored?
The simple answer to that question would be to make sure that there is no minute of this scene in which the stakes aren’t being escalated. From the moment that the Basterds walk into the bar and realize that it’s not as empty as they had been led to believe, their considerable amount of calm disappear. The audience gets nervous because they get nervous. Every moment, their plan becomes a little more fragile and threatens to shatter outright with the drop of a pin. That pin drop comes in the form of a German officer who sees through the Basterd’s disguise immediately. While his game has just begun in that moment, we know that our heroes’ game is immediately up. This scene is a master class in filmmaking, plain and simple.
Did we forget your favorite cinematic nailbiter? Let us know in the comments.
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