most wonderful spookiest time of the year! If you didn’t catch my article last Halloween about my favourite scary movies, then check it out here.
This year, I want to talk about an aspect of horror that is found in all genres… suspense. Excluding horror films, here are my top five tense movie moments…
5. Rear Window (1954) – snooping scene
Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense and essentially defined the cinematic language of it, so he had to be on this list.
You may have heard of the “bomb under the table” theory before but if you haven’t - Hitchcock famously defined the difference between surprise and suspense. If a bomb explodes during a scene, the audience will be surprised for a moment, but if the audience is aware there is a bomb under the table for the duration of a scene, it creates suspense.
All of Rear Window uses this technique but this is my favourite moment because it’s the first time the killer (Raymond Burr) could hurt one of our protagonists, played by James Stewart and Grace Kelly. I bite my nails every time I watch it.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007) – hotel showdown
I think simplicity is a key aspect of creating suspense – if the audience is too busy trying to work out what’s happening, they’ll be less emotionally invested.
I think this might be the simplest scene on the list but it might be the most intense. Our hero, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), is being chased by the terrifying Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Llewelyn has just discovered a tracker in the bag of money he’s stolen, meaning that Chigurh could show up at any moment; a perfectly simple premise for a scene.
The camera stays with Llewelyn for the duration, which allows us to completely empathise with him. He doesn’t know who’s outside the door and neither do we. It plays out in complete silence, with no score to underpin the tension, which makes it all the more creepy.
My personal favourite moment (that makes me actually squeak every time I see it) is when the light goes out under the door.
3. Jurassic Park (1993) – raptors in the kitchen
Children hiding from dinosaurs! If that’s not automatically scary, I don’t know what is.
By this point in the film we’ve already experienced how clever and dangerous velociraptors can be. Trapping the most inexperienced, vulnerable characters in a room with them is terrifying to watch.
In contrast to No Country For Old Men, sound and music are used heavily to complement this scene, which is more in keeping with the tone director Steven Spielberg has established. But it’s not just scary music; every time the kids make a mistake, John Williams’ score reacts to it in the same way we do. It’s music based in emotion.
2. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – pub standoff
Tarantino has said that “suspense is a rubber band” in that you stretch until it inevitably snaps. In this scene, he applies Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” theory.
We all know that Michael Fassbender’s character is English but he’s trying to convince a Nazi Officer that he is German. The characters play a bar game together which would usually be innocuous and potentially boring for an audience but because we feel like we’re participating in the scene, it becomes fascinating.
Tarantino stretches this rubber band for over 15 minutes but when it snaps, it’s pretty spectacular.
1. Back to the Future (1985) – the clocktower
This is my favourite film so maybe I’m a little biased, but I love that everything in the story leads to this climax and Marty’s (Michael J. Fox) fate hangs on this moment.
He has only one chance to get back to 1985, but of course everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. The DeLorean’s engine cuts out, the ledge crumbles beneath Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the cable is pulled apart (several times) and they are very quickly running out of time.
What makes this sequence so special is that director Robert Zemeckis manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, ramping up the momentum whilst maintaining the established silly and larger-than-life tone. It’s funny and suspenseful – a blend that you very rarely see.Jack Howard is a writer, director and actor. He regularly makes content for YouTube, is developing a movie and his sitcom series - Jack and Dean Of All Trades is currently available on the Fullscreen platform’.