Great cinematic horror is not restricted to the horror genre. Some of the scariest moments on the big screen have in fact come out of dramas, mysteries, adventure films, and even the odd children’s movie. In fact, scary scenes in non-scary movies are an undeniable element of the film genre as a whole. This is because fear is just as elemental a human emotion as glee or empathy, and what’s more just as titillating. (For proof of that, just look at Inside Out.) It’s natural to imbue stories of comedy, romance, and coming-of-age with scary scenes and concepts, as our worldly experiences with the lot likely come with their own share of frights.
Looking back over the past 15 years, we can find features of all kinds that have employed moments of horror — shocks and chills that help us remember these movies, and their varied themes and messages all the better. After all, nothing will stick with your long-term memory like a truly haunting moment… especially during late night hours, or quiet home-alone evenings. I've put together a collection of some of the 21st century’s standout examples of frightening scenes from within movies that lie outside of the horror genre — cinematic episodes that really got the better of all of us who took in an otherwise pleasant movie without any idea what we were getting ourselves into.
1. Mulholland Drive
Much of the unease in Mulholland Drive comes in not being quite sure what, exactly, is going on — a phenomenon that carries straight through to the end, mind you. A ceaseless thoroughfare of anxiety follows Naomi Watts and Laura Harring’s chilling pursuit of the cause behind the latter’s sudden onset of amnesia in David Lynch’s penultimate feature film. (Can you believe he hasn’t directed a picture since Inland Empire?) But the dread just might peak during Patrick Fishler’s recollection of a haunting dream to friend Michael Cooke in, of all places, “this Winkie’s.” The conclusion of his unsettling story offers quite the jump, both to the viewer and to Fishler himself.
2. Requiem for a Dream
A decade and a half out from release, Darren Aronofsky’s drug abuse picture carries out the legacy of aiming to scare every American high school student from experimenting with hard narcotics. It’s tough to choose a paramount fright in this altogether haunting experience, considering the multitude of dark alleyways through which heroin users Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayons continuously drag themselves. But Ellen Burstyn’s story of pill addiction might be the most unsettling, packed with instances that illustrate her quick decline into psychosis.
You might look at Contagion as a sort of spiritual companion to something like Requiem. Both movies unearth horror from within the human mind and body. Steven Soderbergh’s outbreak thriller is horrifying from the ground up — simple glances at a suffering Gwyneth Paltrow, playing “Patient Zero,” are enough to incur violent shudders.
As any of us who grew up with The Secret of NIMH know, children’s cartoons can be some of the scariest pieces of entertainment on the market. Laika’s debut feature inherits the “creepy claymation” angle from pioneers like Tim Borton, Henry Selick, and the folks behind (the slightly merrier, but duly recognizable as off-kilter) Aardman Entertainment. Adventurous Coraline’s union with her possessed parents in a twisted fantasy sequence is likely to chill any young (or not so young) viewer to the bone.
5. Spirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki has never shied away from darker textures in his cinema, with Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke all exhibiting his proclivity for severity before his Academy Award-winning Spirited Away even came to be. Like Coraline, this animated feat plays on the displacement of a jostled child from the comfort of her parents’ watch. In Coraline, the titular heroine’s mom and dad turn into haunted doll monsters. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s turn into ravenous pigs.
6. Upstream Color
And speaking of pigs! Have you ever seen yards and yards of tapeworm extracted from the belly of a slaughtered hog in a diabolical effort to infect, hypnotize, and emotionally enslave a pair of wanton human beings? No, I don’t suppose you have. Well, if you’re into that kind of thing, and don’t mind being befuddled to the point of hopeless terror, then Shane Caruth’s beautiful, albeit petrifying fever dream is the movie for you.
7. Computer Chess
It is probably a stretch to rank the upbeat and kooky Computer Chess among films like the aforementioned in a discussion about the 21st century’s pinnacle frights; in fact, the late-in-movie scene featuring a 1980s desktop computer slowly “coming to life” in front of a lone user in a dark, quiet room is probably funnier than it is frightening. The mockumentary makes this list not by virtue of the degree of the described scene’s fear, but the mastery of its use. By the time we reach the scene in question, we’ve endured a symphony of silliness courtesy of director-writer Andrew Bujalski. His paving of this climactic sequence with the slightest apprehension, the faintest bit of gravity, in the wake of so much farce is what really drives home the ultimate gag with such oomph.
8. The Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson’s first (and far superior) Tolkien trilogy is filled with moments of great danger for beloved heroes Frodo and Sam, all of which imbue us with due apprehension. But nothing is more terrifying than when an otherwise right-minded character — Bilbo Baggins, for instance — becomes so consumed by the powers of the ring that it transforms him into an utter monster.
Images: Kino Lorber (2); Toho; Warner Bros