Movies, at their finest, may elicit a wide range of emotions from the audience. They make you forget that what you’re viewing isn’t genuine by finding a method to appeal straight to your heart and soul in order to ensure that their emotions outweigh any remaining scepticism that you should care at all. In this manner, we succumb to the will of the movies.
As a result, some of the most unforgettable sequences are those that make us feel the type of terrifying anxiety and suspense that most people, happily, never have to experience in real life. Why would a piece of entertainment ever make us feel the way these moments do? Because there is nothing else like sitting there with a bead of perspiration trickling down your brow, gripping your seat, and hoping beyond hope that everything would turn out okay.
A Coin Flip (No Country For Old Men)
“Look, I need to know what I stand to win,” says the gas station owner to hitman Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men after being challenged to guess the outcome of a coin flip for unknown stakes. He finds the concept of a client asking him what the most he’s ever lost on a coin toss (shortly before being asked to call the outcome of a coin toss) strange at best – and exceedingly unsettling at worst. He acts as if he has no idea what’s at stake, yet both he and the audience understand what’s going on without anybody having to say anything.
What makes this scene so memorable isn’t necessarily the coin flip that determines whether the attendee survives or dies, but the buildup to it. The actual suspense in this scene comes from witnessing Chigurh demolish this man’s life in that calm, menacing tone with which he talks before putting that same life on the line. We can only watch helplessly in these moments of seemingly ordinary discussion filled with hate and wonder when the violence will strike.
Kitchen Raptors (Jurassic Park)
Although Jurassic Park’s conception of velociraptors isn’t fully accurate (the beasts’ morphological traits are really closer to those of the Dromaeosauridae), there’s no doubting that they were the film’s breakthrough stars. While most childhood dinosaur phobias concerned being attacked by a terrifyingly big beast that you would never be able to defeat, the velociraptors taught us that the far more deadly circumstance includes a predatory gang of hunters that are as swift as they are intelligent.
The iconic scenario in which Lex and Tim are accosted by two raptors while locked in a kitchen emphasizes this dread. In some ways, this scenario is comparable to many other horror movie situations involving stalkers and victims. What makes it so tense is that Spielberg doesn’t try to disguise the pursuers (as is customary in these types of scenarios), but instead emphasizes the tight confines of the setting and how few choices for the escape it provides.
Desperation (127 Hours)
In a way, practically the whole film 127 Hours is a terrific example of sheer tension. This (mostly) true story of a hiker named Aron Ralston, who becomes hopelessly trapped between rocks while mountain climbing for the amount of time noted in the film’s title, is quite simply one of the more harrowing tales of human endurance in the face of constant terror that’s been made available to the public in recent years.
However, the ending, in which Ralston decides to amputate his own limb with a pocket knife, “highlights” the entire horrifyingly dramatic plot. Some will undoubtedly regard this clip as a type of torture porn that is only unsettling to see because it is so graphic. It’s a reasonable interpretation, but the actual suspense of the scenario comes from the fact that you’re not sure the procedure will even succeed. Can a human arm be severed with such a little blade? Will Ralston pass out from the pain, maybe dropping his knife in the process? These questions bring the action home, lingering in the minds of spectators long after they leave the cinema.
One of the mobsters in the real-life criminal family depicted in Goodfellas once stated that their leader Paulie possessed a yacht that was a hidden source of fear for everyone who worked with him. Why? According to the myth, if you were allowed out aboard the boat, you had a 50/50 chance of spending the day fishing or getting murdered. It’s the type of scenario that really emphasizes how volatile and brutal the criminal world is.
Simply watch this legendary dinner scene starring the short-tempered Tommy DeVito for additional confirmation of that notion. Although the suspense of this moment is lessened when you know how it ends (as is the case with almost every scenario on this list), witnessing Tommy suddenly come unglued after being told he’s hilarious is still unsettling. It’s funny that in a film full of incredible violence, an apparently misinterpreted compliment feels like the most terrifying moment, but Joe Pesci’s great acting and the nature of his character truly do make it seem like young Henry Hill may lose his life over a simple discussion.
Tavern Scene (Inglorious Bastards)
The editor of Inglorious Basterds (the extremely excellent Sally Menke) once stated in an interview that the tavern sequence, in which a small number of the Basterds disguised themselves as Germans in order to meet their contact in a basement bar, was going to be too long. How were they going to introduce a dialog-heavy 25-minute sequence in the midst of a movie and expect the viewer to experience the entire tension it was designed to portray instead of being bored?
The basic solution to that issue is to make certain that the stakes are raised at all times during this action. The instant the Basterds come into the tavern and find it isn’t as empty as they had been made to think, their tremendous serenity evaporates. Because they are nervous, the audience becomes nervous. Every second, their strategy gets more brittle and threatens to fall apart at the drop of a hat. That pin drop comes in the shape of a German officer, who quickly sees through the Basterd’s disguise. While his game has only just begun at that point, we know that our heroes’ game has already begun. This scene is a work of art.