Everyone remembers the first time the shark appears in Jaws, the shower scene in Psycho, and "They're coming to get you, Barbara." There are a vast amount of iconic fright moments people are still talking about decades later.
But there are some moments that don't get the same attention. While these scenes are just as well crafted and frightening, they don't match the cultural importance of others for one reason or another. That doesn't prevent of us from giving them their due respect.
Here is a list of my favorite underrated scary movie moments.
1) Death of Dallas Alien
The chestburster scene is the defining moment not only of this movie but the entire series. It's such an out-of-nowhere moment and really illustrates the ferocity of this creature. But my favorite scene is when Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is hunting the alien in the air ducts. The pacing, buildup, lighting, sound effects, music, and acting really come together. With only the glow of his lamp and flamethrower, Dallas huffs and puffs his way through the cramped darkness while the crew monitors his and the creature's movement with those beeping devices. Then, the tempo picks up as they realize its moving toward him. They scream for him to get out. He turns around, and there it is, for all of half a second. The signal cuts out, and Dallas is gone.
2) Police station shootout The Terminator
Drop all the pop culture baggage, and forget that's the future governator on screen. The Terminator is a frightening movie. Say what you want about Arnold, but he gives an excellent performance as emotionless killing machine. There are so many physical mannerisms he does to suggest he's not human, and the best scene to demonstrate this is when the terminator storms the police station. Everyone thinks of it as just an action scene, but it's really shocking to see dozens of officers (good men protecting Sara Connor, even though they don't trust Kyle Reese) get mowed down. If these trained officers with machine guns and shotguns can't stop this thing, what can?
3) Lightsaber duel The Empire Strikes BackA fantasy-adventure space opera, you say? When Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader for the first time, you can see how valiantly and desperately he fights, but Vader just toys with him. The whole setting is a weird futuristic Gothic chamber with the carbon freezing machine, pits, catwalks, mist, dark corridors, and hissing machinery. Then, Vader uses the Force to hurl objects at Luke and just pummel the holy hell out him. He could kill him in an instant if he wanted to but instead drops that famous bombshell after slicing Luke's hand off over a chasm. The atmosphere is unrelenting. You can feel the weight of the Dark Side of the Force oozing out of the screen.
4) Ghost haunts a woman Black Sabbath
Not many people know this as anything other than a Boris Karloff movie that inspired the name of the first heavy metal band, but it's an effective anthology in its own right from Italian director Mario Bava. Heavy on gloom and doom, the film concludes with a tale of a nurse who steals jewelry off her elderly charge's corpse and is haunted by her ghost. There's are dark, bright colors in the lighting that give the sequence an otherworldly feeling, but what really sets it apart is how we never see the corpse move. It appears unexplained in various places, but it never seems to be alive, and for some reason, that makes it more effective. Nothing shatters the illusion, and our imagination does the rest.
5) Unmask the monster The Funhouse
So four teenagers decide it would be fun to stay over night in the carnivals funhouse when they witness one of the carnies murder a woman. This carnie is a massive mute lug wearing a Frankenstein mask, and he gets his father, the barker, to help him cover up the death. The barker, angry at his son for the trouble he caused, yells at him and tells him to hit himself. In a fury, the carnie yanks off his mask to reveal a deformed mutant, a grownup version of the deformed baby in a jar the kids saw in the freak show. Beneath the harmless facade, show business has a seedy, dangerous underbelly.
6) Knock, knock children The OrphanageOur protagonist Laura discovers the way to summon the ghost children who took her adopted son is to play their favorite game: face the wall, knock several times, then turn around (sort of a variation Red Rover). Each time she turns around, they get closer and closer. No music, no jump cuts, and if I remember correctly, it's all one take because the camera moves with Laura. Once again, we don't see or hear the ghosts moving; they just appear. There are no special effects here; it's very subtle and keeps the mystery intact.
7) Courtroom drama It's Alive III: Island of the Alive
Ridiculous? Yes. Convincing? At least for this scene. The movie itself is campy, but the third film in the It's Alive series opens in convincing fashion. Stephen Jarvis, as played by Michael Moriarty, is suing for his son's life, one of the mutant babies born around the country that kills when threatened and the government has been putting to death. The government lawyer has the child brought into the room in a cage and demands Jarvis get close to it. If he can prove the child's father is afraid, he'll win the case. When the child breaks free, Jarvis pleads for his son's life and in a moving, passionate speech, wins his case. The scene works because of Michael Moriarty. He captures perfectly how petrified Jarvis is of his son and his decency to want him to live. That sells the whole scene, more so than the stop-motion baby monster.
8) There's a Kruger in my closet Wes Craven's New Nightmare
To this day, this scene still gets me to jump. Following an earthquake, Heather opens her closet and peers inside, suspecting the demon inhabiting the Freddy Kruger's visage (long story) is around. He leaps through a rack of clothing and attacks. We know Freddy's in there, we know he's going to leap out, and we know when he'll do it, but it's still effective. There's a sense of inevitability and dread built up. Every time I see it, I'm thinking "Don't go in the closet!"
9) Creeping shadow Nosferatu (1979)Not many people seem to be aware of this remake of F.W. Murnau's masterpiece, and that's a shame. Starring Klaus Kinski as the count, it's an interesting take on the Dracula legend by Werner Herzog. In this scene, Lucy is brushing her in front of a mirror, and in the reflection, we see the door open and shut behind her. She's paralyzed with fear as a striking shadow falls across the wall, looming larger and larger. Then, the vampire appears. It gets under your skin.
10) Giant Ants Them
To a degree, Them kicked off the giant atomic bug craze of the 1950s, and because of that, it's often lumped in with the rest as a cheesy, goofy enterprise with unconvincing effects and hokey acting. Having watched it for the first time several weeks ago, I'm amazed how well it held up. Sure, some aspects are dated, but the overall effort is effective. The ants are kept hidden for the most part, and their threat is suggested. The creepiest part doesn't actually involves the ants. Scientists and military personnel are discussing how to take out a hive, and they reason they can't bomb at night because most of the ants are out. Just the idea of a horde of giant ants, marching unopposed through the night gobbling everything in sight is tense and unsettling. The power of suggestion at its finest.