John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) and its sequel, released this month, ratchets up the tension, as the hapless Abbott family once again silently contend with homicidal creatures possessing hypersensitive hearing who will strike at the smallest of noises. As the new film hits our screens, you'll be able to hear a pin drop in cinemas everywhere.
The tensest scenes in the movies tend to conform to distinct tropes, usually involving unknown, lurking terrors, a race against the clock, hiding from tormentors, finite oxygen supplies, interrogations that go awry, or tests of physical endurance.
Music can play a part in stoking up viewers jitters; witness Jaws and Psycho, but other movies rely on silence, punctuated by the sounds of breathing, footsteps, crying, dripping taps, inadvertent coughing and buzzing insects.
As with A Quiet Place, some movies (such as The Shallows, Buried and this year’s French sci-fi movie Oxygen) are almost solely constructed around keeping the viewer in a near constant state of anxiety.
Other pictures include particular sequences in the action that have since become classics in building audience angst, a prime example being Brian de Palma’s adrift pram in Union Station set piece from The Untouchables (1987), itself a homage to the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).
A special mention must go to Steven Spielberg, a master of the art of cinematic suspense, with Jaws (1975), Close Encounters (1977), Schindler’s List (1993) Saving Private Ryan (1998), Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Munich (2005) and Bridge of Spies (2015) all boasting nerve-shredding sequences.
I’ve selected ten motion pictures old and new that illustrate the strangely pleasurable experience of watching nigh-unbearably tense scenes in the movies.
Interstellar (2014) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Christopher Nolan’s sombre space adventure provides many edge-of-your-seat moments, not least when the crew of the Endurance emerge through a wormhole at Miller World, an ocean planet visited by a previous expedition.
Things look fairly serene when they land in knee-high water, but soon face a sky-scraper high tidal wave. Of course, if the crew had conducted a few cursory observations of the planet’s ecosystem, they would have saved themselves the bother and not risked almost certain death.
Matt Damon as astronaut Dr Hugh Mann (geddit?) plays the evil doppelganger of his more genial Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s The Martian a year later.
Flight (2012) – Netflix, Amazon Prime & Rent/Buy
Denzel Washington delivered one of his strongest performances as the drug/booze abusing airline pilot ‘Whip’ Whitaker in Robert Zemeckis’ intense drama. The initial sequence of Whitaker’s pre-flight routine of sex with flight attendant Katerina, lashings of vodka, a bump or two of coke accompanied by a few lungfuls of pure oxygen pre-take off in the cabin doesn’t bode well for the trip.
But, when disaster strikes, Washington manages to perform an almost impossible manoeuvre and saves many of the passengers and crew. The hero of the hour? Very probably, but the results of a drug test by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) administered while he was unconscious cast Whitaker into a legal maelstrom.
127 Hours (2010) – All4, Amazon Rent/Buy
Based on true life experience of mountaineer Aron Ralston, Danny Boyle’s movie is memorable for one excruciating scene. Ralston (James Franco) slips and finds his right hand and wrist trapped behind an immovable boulder in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon. After six days, hallucinating and without food and water, Ralston steels himself to cut the Gordian Knot and amputate his lower right arm, first applying a torque then slowly, agonisingly, severing it with a pocket-knife. Not a scene to watch when preparing to munch a pork chop.
Trollhunter (2010) – Shudder, Amazon Rent/Buy
This excellent low budget ‘found footage’ dark comic fantasy follows a Norwegian student documentary team profiling the exploits of the titular character, Hans the Trollhunter (the excellent Otto Jespersen). The trolls are particularly well-rendered, with some genuinely scary scenes including when they first appear to the terrified students and another when the group are trapped in a cave lair.
And of course, the troll under the bridge…Despite their homicidal tendencies, the trolls are a pretty sad bunch, who are actually quite sympathetic when we discover that many of the giants have a fatal form of rabies.
For other bloodthirsty Nordic folkloric entities, check out the ‘Murder Elves’ from last year’s Netflix movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
A History of Violence (2005) – Amazon Rent/Buy
David Cronenberg’s crime thriller grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. No scene more so than when diffident family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) confronts two murderous robbers in his diner.
Stall’s swift (and deadly) handling of the pair and the resultant publicity leads to an unwelcome interest in him from disfigured Chicago mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris).
Blade Runner (1982) – Amazon Rent/Buy
The iconic sci-fi movie Blade Runner also hits the ground running with the early interview scene, where investigator Holden (Morgan Paull) grills Leon (Brion James) via the Voight-Kampff test to see if he is one of the escaped Nexus-6 replicant fugitives hiding on the now-pollution enveloped Earth.
Throughout the first few minutes Leon plays along with the triggering questions and superior attitude of the inquisitor until…he doesn’t.
Ridley Scott’s visually stunning picture may have the odd longueur, but Blade Runner sets its stall out admirably with this scene, which still retains the power to shock.
Poltergeist (1982) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Tobe (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) Hooper’s classic 1982 chiller has the unique distinction of inspiring Eddie Murphy’s routine from his stand-up movie Delirious (1983) that in turn led to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).
When a greedy real estate company cuts corners and build their Cuesta Verde suburban housing project on a cemetery (not an Indian burial ground as some erroneously believe), you know that things are not going to end well for the Freeling family, whose spanking new abode is located directly above a hellish portal.
In a picture full of scary scenes, one in particular stands out.
Ten-year-old Robbie Freeling can’t get to sleep and is unnerved by his toy clown, which appears to be staring at him from a bedside chair. After covering the toy’s head with a shirt and tucking himself in for the night, Robbie hears the soft whump of something falling. The clown has disappeared. Now where could he possibly be? If, as a child (or adult) you’ve ever been scared to look under the bed, Poltergeist will confirm your worst fears.
The movie was pointlessly remade in 2015.
Alien (1979) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Another Ridley Scott picture, Alien boasts multiple scenes of almost unbearable tension, from John Hurt’s bone-headed encounter with the Xenomorph egg to its subsequent shocking ‘birth’ and stalking of the unfortunate Nostromo crew members.
But for me, the final scene in the escape shuttle when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) at last feels that the nightmare is over is the most nerve racking, as she realises that she has another travelling companion - aside from Jonesy the marmalade cat.
The Eiger Sanction (1975) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Mountain climbing themed films are amongst the most reliable nail-biters in the movies.
Everest (2015), Touching the Void (2003) and Cliffhanger (1993) all have scenes that will have even a non- acrophobic palms’ sweating.
But for my money, Clint Eastwood’s assassin thriller The Eiger Sanction (1975) is the most effective.
Professor of art and occasional hitman Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood) is blackmailed to come out of retirement by his albino/Nazi former boss to perform a ‘sanction’ on an enemy assassin whilst ascending the formidable Eiger in the Swiss Alps.
Eastwood insisted on undertaking much of his climbing scenes, which adds to the veracity, especially during his pre-climb training sequence in Monument Valley and on the Eiger itself, when the weather on the mountain changes for the worse and the actor finds himself dangling on a fraying rope 4000 ft above the valley floor.
Unfortunately, this quest for realism led to the death of 26-year-old British climber David Knowles when filming handheld footage of falling boulders.
If your fear of heights is not sated by The Eiger Sanction, check out Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, which tells the true story of Philippe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in Manhattan.
Don’t Look Now (1973) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Nicolas Roeg’s masterful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name is justly regarded as a classic supernatural thriller. The director’s elliptical approach to the story and ability to unnerve the viewer reaches a crescendo in the final scenes.
Unknowingly psychic architect John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) are grieving for their drowned daughter Christine. On a work trip to Venice, Baxter experiences foreboding visions; all the while, the city is enduring a wave of shocking murders.
When Sutherland sees a mewling little tyke wearing a red mac (similar to the one his child was wearing when she died) lurking in a dark Venetian alley, he sets off in pursuit when she flees. In a scene that has been indelibly stamped in my memory since I first saw Don’t Look Now as a youngster, Baxter eventually corners the apparent reincarnation of his deceased daughter. His attempts to soothe the whimpering child result in an horrific denouement.
And, if you’re game for some more tense moments, don’t forget the night vision scene in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), bomb diffusing in both The Hurt Locker (2008) and Juggernaut (1974), finishing on a high note with the classic sequence in The Godfather (1972) when Michael (Al Pacino) breaks bread in Louis Italian restaurant (‘try the veal, it's the best in the city’) with rival mobster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and crooked cop McCluskey (Sterling Hayden).