You only have to watch any of the thousands of shit horror films that have been vomited into existence over the years to appreciate that establishing tension in a scene is no easy task. Proper tension - the sort that causes you to shrink into a foetal position while your bumhole clenches to the size of a helium atom - is an artform, and it requires some considerable flair to achieve.
Here are twelve scenes that do just that. And they’re not all from horror films, either: tension can be wrung from any genre and sometimes, with the right script and proper direction, all it takes to get the pulse pounding is two people simply standing and talking to each other. Any clips and descriptions that might ruin a viewing experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the film in question have been flagged up, and if you’d like to share a few scenes that gave you a bit of the old squeaky bum time then you know what to do...
Steven Spielberg’s middling 2005 sci-fi has plenty going for it but it falls well short of brilliance, firstly because of the wonky, stupid, feelgood ending, and also because of the presence of more plot holes than a pilled-up mole’s allotment. Yet this scene, coming in the middle of a truly unhinged Tim Robbins’ involvement, is a fair reminder that Spielberg, when he feels like it, is a true master of suspense.
The finale to Jaume Babagueró and Paco Plaza’s superior found-footage horror is a masterclass in screw-tightening tension: it’s simple zombie horror, but it relies on a gnawing sense of dread to deliver its scares rather then jumps, although it certainly has a few of those too, to just, you know, make sure that you’re adequately shitting yourself. This scene isn’t exactly subtle, but it succeeds as a truly buttock-clenching four minutes of film.
Basterds contains a couple of proper knuckle-whiteners, most of which centre around Christoph Waltz’s terrifying Jew Hunter Hans Landa, and the opening scene is probably the best example. It begins benevolently enough, yet around the ten-minute mark we’re shown what’s at stake and, by the end, it’s become almost unbearably nerve-shattering.
The first two entries in the franchise in particular enjoy some amazingly tense set-pieces (Ripley and the Alien in the escape ship, the motion trackers in Aliens), yet the demise of Dallas in the first film shows what can be achieved with little more than a dot on a screen, some atmosphere, and a bit of darkness. Brilliant.
Another entry for Quentin Tarantino (although Tony Scott was on directing duties) sees two acting heavyweights face off in grand style. Christopher Walken’s don Vincenzo Coccotti interrogates Dennis Hopper’s Clifford Worley, but Worley knows he’s dead no matter what happens, so he attempts to rile the don with a spot of racial abuse. The results are excruciating: you know Walken will pop, but you just don’t quite know when.
A brilliant example of good old fashioned edge-of-the-seat suspense, which doesn’t need monsters, aliens or psychopaths in order to give you heart palpitations. Will Doc make the connection in time? Will Marty get back to 1985? Will Scott be great? We all know the answer, ofcourse, but that doesn’t stop bum cheeks sliding to the edge of the seat when you see it for the millionth time.
Everyone’s got a mate like Begbie, haven’t they? Erm, well, no, not really, because Begbie’s an absolute fucking maniac. It’s the stifling silence that follows Begbie’s attack that gives this scene its power; Renton’s clearly petrified, unsure (as are we) whether Robert Carlisle’s nutter will finally lose it and kill him, yet it’s this fear that gives him the impetus to finally betray the psycho and start a new life.
Another entry for Spielberg, this time from Jurassic Park’s inferior (but still pretty bloody good) first sequel, in which a maternally consternated T-Rex unleashes her woes on the sardine tin which houses her child’s captors. Such a simple idea – the snaking, expanding cracks on a pane of glass – executed perfectly, with Spielberg using the slipping satellite phone to wring a little bit of extra sweat.
Not the most famous scene of Jonathan Demme’s superlative sequel-of-sorts (that honour belongs to the infamous ‘chianti’ two hander between Starling and Lecter), yet one which, again, uses the conceit of night-vision to startling effect. Jodie Foster’s FBI agent is stalked in pitch darkness by sadistic, skin-wearing serial killer Buffalo Bill, and viewing proceedings from the point of view of the killer rather than the protagonist (we see Bill’s hand practically stroking Starling’s face) imbues the sequence with palpable malevolence.
In this Oscar-winning adaptation of chuckle-factory Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Anton Chigurh is an unstoppable force of evil, without fear, remorse, or anything better to do then scare the bejesus out of perfectly innocent strangers. In this scene, he takes exception to an affable gas station attendant (whose gradual appreciation of the gravity of the situation becomes etched on the clammy crags of his face), and the resulting exchange is one that pins you in your chair, terrified and fascinated in equal measure, wondering just what Chigurgh is about to do.
Enough time’s now passed since its release that there’s no longer any need to pretend Blair Witch isn’t scary – it IS scary, and the final scene is the propulsive culmination of the increasingly unpleasant series of events that ends in the popping of many clogs. The silence, the screams, the handprints, the realisation as to why Mike is standing in the corner - everything comes together, and it’s a nerve-shredding sequence, much imitated, but arguably never bettered. (Sadly, the footage isn't embeddable - but if you're hell bent on being frightened, you can watch it here.)
How could number one be anything else? Joe Pesci turns a jovial conversation on its head and, in a matter of seconds, the colour has drained from the room, the city, the country and the entire universe, and Ray Liotta is left wishing he was somewhere far, far away. Just…agonising.