The seminal moment in the history of cinema came at the turn of the 20th century, when the medium began to move away from the storytelling language of the theatre. Filmmakers like Edwin S Porter began to realise that the camera could do so much more than simply record what was in front of it; such techniques as close-ups and edits to different angles or locations could be used to create drama.
It’s these filmmaking techniques that the masters of cinema use to create suspense and feelings of dread. And while there’s nothing wrong with jabs of violence of gore in movies, it remains the case that anticipation or suggestion of a violent act is more effective than seeing the moment itself.
“Just you wait, the nasty man in black will come,” is the first line uttered in Fritz Lang’s unforgettably disturbing 1931 thriller, and serves as a foreshadowing of the film’s grim events. Its subject matter – the apprehension of child killer Hans Beckert – was controversial for the time, but Lang’s handling of it is subtle and startlingly creative. Peter Lorre’s despicable killer is barely seen for the first part of the film, and presented instead as a monstrous shadow looming up over his victims.
The killer incessantly whistles Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King as he leads his quarry to their deaths or writes taunting letters to the police, and Lang’s constant use of that tune is as effective in establishing the killer’s deathly presence as John Williams’ two-tone leitmotif was to introducing the shark in Jaws. The murders in M are never seen, but their impact hangs over the film like an oppressive cloud.
In one of the film’s earliest and most striking scenes, Beckert is seen buying a balloon for his latest victim while whistling his signature tune. We don’t see the dreadful act that happens next, but the disturbing shots of an anguished mother calling for her daughter, an empty place set at a dinner table, the child’s ball rolling out from beneath some bushes tells us everything we need to know.
There was a time when all it took was an off-screen gunshot to strike horror into young filmgoers’ hearts, and Disney’s Bambi featured one of the most startlingly brutal moments in its animated history. Young doe Bambi and his mother run from a gun-toting huntsman, whose shots come ringing out across the snow.
As Bambi lopes into the protective cover of a nearby thicket, a dramatically loud gunshot informs us of the worst. Bambi’s innocent cry of, “We made it! We made it, mother! We… mother?” is enough to have viewers of all ages weeping into their popcorn.
Peeping Tom (1960)
The controversial film that famously wrecked director Michael Powell’s once glittering career, Peeping Tom is a masterpiece of seedy suspense. Almost entirely lacking in gore, it’s the sadistic nature of the killer at its centre that makes Peeping Tom so disturbing; Mark (a childlike and unusually sympathetic Carl Boehm) is obsessed with killing his victims with a stiletto attached to his camera’s tripod and photographing their faces at the point of death. Worse still, his murderous contraption also has a mirror attached to it, so Mark’s victims are forced to stare at their own horrified expression as they’re murdered.
Peeping Tom’s most disturbing moment is undoubtedly Mark’s protracted scene with his colleague Vivian (Moira Shearer). As she dances before Mark’s leering camera, we know she’s doomed, but Mark – and Powell – draws the encounter out to agonising lengths. A lesser director would perhaps have illustrated the murder itself with a shriek and a splash of blood, but Powell’s far too shrewd for that; he knows that the mere concept of the decidedly phallic stiletto is disturbing enough in itself.
In spite of the considerable restraint Powell showed in bringing Peeping Tom to the screen, the film horrified ’60s critics – an unfortunate side effect of the film’s subtle power.
Perhaps the most famous murder scene in all cinema, Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in mainstream pictures with his 1960 thriller, Psycho. What’s remarkable about its infamous shower scene, though, is how little we actually see – the repeated flashes of Mrs Bates’ knife, the vulnerable skin of Janet Leigh’s skin behind it, and the keening strings of Bernard Hermann’s score are all that’s needed to suggest one of the most violent scenes in ’60s cinemas.
Brilliantly, the violence lies in its sound and editing rather than gore or iffy effects work, which makes this highlight of thriller filmmaking almost as powerful now as it was over 40 years ago. In Psycho, it’s Hitchcock’s cutting, rather than Bates’ knife, that supplies the violence.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
In spite of the sensational bloodshed the title hinted at, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic is incredibly restrained, and despite the BBFC’s decision to lump it in with a long list of ineptly shot, gory exploitation pictures in its 80s video nasty witch hunt, it’s extremely well-made.
Hooper could so easily have made the film an exercise in gory murder, as similar but less imaginative films like The Toolbox Murders did. Instead, scenes of gore are largely absent from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This isn’t to say it isn’t violent, or that various teenagers aren’t despatched in horrible, creative ways – rather, Hooper uses sound, rapid cuts and abrupt action to give his violence more impact. Just look at the scene where Kirk (William Vail) rather foolishly enters the remote house belonging to Leatherface and his demented family.
Apparently unperturbed by the faint squealing noises from within, Kirk stumbles into a bright red doorway, and is promptly smashed around the head by Leatherface’s hammer. What’s disturbing about the scene is its framing and sound design; we see the incident from several metres down the hall rather than in close-up, allowing us to take in the surreal horror of the crimson doorway, with its skulls hanging on the walls, the hideous squelch as the hammer strikes, and the violent twitch of Kirk’s stricken body.
And just as our brain registers what our eyes have witnessed, Leatherface slams shut a shiny metal door, cutting us off from the nightmare. It’s the horrific things that may be happening to Kirk behind that metal door that rank among the film’s most terrible concepts.
You don’t need us to tell you the oft-repeated legend that a malfunctioning shark prop meant that Steven Spielberg and his team of filmmakers were forced to suggest the creature’s violent attacks with sound and editing rather than gory special effects. Jaws’ classic opening sequence is one of the perfect examples of this: suspense builds and builds until the shark brings the horror, entirely unseen beneath the water’s inky surface.
It’s a scene that perfectly sums up the primal horror that Jaws evokes; even today, it has the power to shock. We may not see a drop of blood, much less the wounds or the shark itself, but Chrissie’s visible anguish, the sense of power implied by the way her body’s dragged to and fro, make Jaws’ opening as powerful today as it ever was.
A horror masterpiece that drips with a raw, oily atmosphere, Alien is the sci-fi monster movie against which all others are judged. The birth of the alien aside, Alien is far from a graphic film, though director Ridley Scott does allow us a few brief, almost subliminal slivers of violence: the drizzle of blood and brains as the Starbeast’s inner jaws puncture the head of poor Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the gore welling up in the mouth of Parker (Yaphet Kotto) as he comes face-to-face with the monster.
For us, the most disturbing death is the one that occurs almost entirely off-screen. It’s the sight of Lambert, cowering in terror as the unfeasibly tall alien looms over her, its tail curling up between her legs, that really stills our blood. One early version of the story had Lambert in a far more violent fashion – she was supposed to be dragged through a small whole in the ship’s hull, just as the hideous newborn was almost 20 years later in Alien: Resurrection.
Ridley Scott ultimately dropped that idea because the effects to create it would’ve cost too much, and the result is far more effective than another gory “set-piece” death would ever have been. Lambert’s off-screen gasps, that sustained, almost unearthly shriek as the scene cuts to Ripley fleeing through the ship’s corridors – that’s the true stuff of nightmares.
Michael Mann’s synth-infused procedural thriller is a nightmarish exercise in suspense, and yet again, uses editing, stark cinematography and sound design rather than gore to illustrate its violence. There are simply too many great moments in this classic film to list here, but if one sequence exemplifies the film’s ability to disturb, it’s where the film’s serial killer at large, Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan) has luckless reporter Freddie Lounds (a young Stephen Lang) tied to a wheelchair.
From the moment the gaffer tape is torn from Lounds’ eyes, we know he’s doomed, as both he and the audience gets a first look at the towering, unearthly Dolarhyde. “Well, here I am” the killer says, as Lounds splutters with terror. After a lengthy exchange, Dolarhyde eventually leans forward and, with some horrible sharp-looking dentures shoved into his mouth, bites Lounds’ lips off. Rather than focus on the gory devastation wreaked on the victim’s face, Mann abruptly cuts to a remote exterior shot of Dolarhyde’s house, and subjects the audience to an almost inhuman, gurgling shriek of anguish. Although entirely bloodless, the effect is shocking because it’s so wrenchingly unexpected.
To get an idea of how effective Mann’s technique is, compare it with Brett Ratner’s handling of the exact same scene in Red Dragon, the 2002 rendering of Thomas Harris’ novel. Here, we’re treated to a montage of shots that show Ralph Fiennes’ naked, tattooed Dolarhyde graphically tucking into Philip Seymour Hoffman’s juicy face. It’s certainly gorier, but unsurprisingly, has far less impact than Mann’s version.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
It’s somewhat ironic that, in a career of explosively violent and excessive films, it was Quentin Tarantino’s comparatively restrained debut that was banned in the UK, albeit briefly. Its depiction of a botched diamond heist is only briefly shown, and the film deals instead with the gory aftermath and the recriminations between its main characters.
It was the infamous scene between the sadistic Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) and an abducted, bound police officer (Kirk Baltz) that disturbed some critics, in spite of the fact that much of its violence occurs off-screen. The mixture of Madsen’s chillingly casual performance, and the incongruous cheer of Stealers Wheel’s song, Stuck In The Middle With You, is enough to establish a mood of genuine horror. And like Manhunter six years earlier, the subsequent ear-removal incident is still hugely shocking, even though it occurs off-camera.
Tarantino isn’t often described as a subtle director, but his handling of this scene is key to its power, making its audience think it’s seen something far more graphic than it really has.
An exercise in moody restraint throughout, David Fincher’s 90s classic introduces a serial killer whose crimes are so creatively unpleasant that we need only see their aftermath. Fincher builds up the film’s sense of dread so expertly that, by the time Seven reaches its climax, early audiences famously thought they’d seen a gory shot of Tracy’s severed head leering out of a cardboard box, when Fincher had in fact merely spliced in a subliminally brief shot of Tracy from earlier in the film.
A perfect example of a movie that uses minimal gore to maximum effect, Seven would have been an infinitely less disturbing film had it opted for splashy killings rather than suspense.
American History X (1998)
Edward Norton deservedly earned plaudits for his turn as neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard, but Edward Furlong is equally good as the younger brother whose entire life is affected by the violence and racism of his sibling. Superbly directed by former British artist Tony Kaye, the film’s infamous, stomach-churning “bite the curb” scene is made all the more effective because we see it through the eyes of Furlong’s character, Danny.
Kaye doesn’t need to linger on the detail of what Derek does to a burglar attempting to flee his house – the sight of the young man’s teeth against the concrete, Derek’s raised foot and Danny’s haunted expression are all we require. We know, in that single cut, that Derek has done more than murder a man in cold blood; he’s also changed his brother’s life forever.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Given that The Dark Knight was granted a PG-13, it’s extraordinary just how much violence Christopher Nolan got away with in his murky crime epic. It’s fair to say, though, that the film is violent in tone rather than graphic bloodshed – there’s something so unhinged and squalid about Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker that every incident in the film, no matter how outlandish or daft, is shot through with a tone of oppressive nihilism.
For me, the most disturbing moment in the film didn’t involve disappearing pencils, phone-activated belly bombs or tortured Batman impersonators, but the Joker’s two stories about how he got the scars on his face. Ledger’s performance here is such that a violent history is depicted in our minds in a manner that a flashback couldn’t achieve. And the Joker’s unhinged persona leaves it open to the audience to decide which – if any – of his disturbing stories is the truth. The words “Why so serious?” will never seem quite the same after Ledger’s remarkable turn here.
The Witch (2015)
The low-key tone of Robert Eggers’ debut feature may not be to every horror fan’s taste – it’s more of a drama with horror overtones than a gore-drenched genre piece – but it’s nevertheless a thought-provoking, carefully-hewn piece of filmmaking.
The handful of out-and-out horror sequences in The Witch are also handled with restraint – the earliest one, involving a baby, a haggard woman shrouded in shadow and a knife, is such a powerful image that we don’t need to see what happens next. We the scene is already vividly painted in the mind, and it’s shudder-inducing.