For many of us, Spielberg’s films have formed a childhood backdrop. Geeks of a certain age grew up with such classics as Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T., and the director and his films have a familiar, almost avuncular presence. It shouldn’t be forgotten, though, that Spielberg’s pictures have always had a dark edge, and it’s inarguable that, even in his most family-oriented films, there lurks a streak of gleeful horror.
As Jurassic Park makes its high-definition debut as part of the Ultimate Trilogy boxset, what better time than to salute the most unexpectedly grotesque moments in Spielberg’s mainstream career? Those sequences that had youngsters everywhere watching through their fingers, or hiding behind a cushion for protection.
Bear in mind, though, that this list is devoted to the director’s blockbuster movies, and not his more worthy output, such as Saving Private Ryan, Amistad or Schindler’s List, so bear that in mind when you head to the comments for your own suggestions. Now let the shuddering commence…
Although Duel was a spectacular film in its own right (and remains one of our absolute favourites in the director’s career), it was Jaws that thrust the young Spielberg onto the world stage, and also demonstrated his unswerving ability to sneak moments of gore into mainstream picture.
A film that famously keeps its finned antagonist beneath the waves for the majority of its duration, Jaws is nevertheless full of isolated moments that could easily qualify for a place on this list. Who can forget the bit where the aftermath of an early shark attack is illustrated with little more than a shredded, bloodied lilo washed up on Amityville’s beach? The disembodied leg floating to the bottom of the ocean floor? The severed fisherman’s head, added after early test screenings in order to provoke “one more scream”?
For me, though, the death of shark hunter Quint is the most enduringly horrible moment in Jaws. I can still remember the blood draining from my face when I first saw that sequence as a child – the shark, which had remained unseen for so much of the movie, was suddenly right there on the screen, chomping through Robert Shaw’s mid-section like an ocean-going Pac-Man, while blood bubbled grimly at the luckless seadog’s lips.
Okay, so the shark now looks rather rubbery to my jaded, much older eyes, but it’s still a shockingly graphic moment in what was, in the 80s, a PG-rated film on VHS in the UK – interestingly, the DVD release has been reclassified with a 12-rating. It’s hard to imagine such a bloody moment making it into a PG-rated film uncut even today, and the sequence is an early example of Spielberg’s grim capacity for big-screen gore.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Like Jaws, it’s surprising just how graphic the violence is in Raiders Of The Last Ark when compared to modern action adventures. Spielberg’s action adventure has its origins in 30s matinee serials, but there’s a hard, excessive edge to its gunshot wounds and gore that, in places, is rather startling. Just look at the way Spielberg captures the demise of one early character, whose bloodied corpse slumps to the jungle floor, shot full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. Look at Indy’s fist-fight with the hulking German mechanic, which ends with the latter’s face gorily shredded by an aeroplane propeller.
The film’s most horrific moment, of course, is its conclusion, in which the Ark of the Covenant is opened during a late-night Nazi ceremony. Here, Spielberg and his effects team unleashed a series of gory fireworks that surely gave UK censors a moment’s pause; faces melt and screaming heads explode in a shower of blood and fire. It’s a spectacularly horrible sequence, and one that had me open-mouthed with disbelief as a youth.
The Adventures Of Tintin may mark Spielberg’s return to rollicking action adventure, but one thing’s for sure: the sharp, bloody edge of Raiders Of The Lost Ark is nowhere to be seen.E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
After the excesses of Raiders, Spielberg retreated to the suburbs of America for a cosy family drama about an alien’s relationship with a small boy and his friends. But even here, the director displays an uncompromising tone that cuts through the schmaltz and whimsy. Its domestic scenes are starkly shot, with overlapping, fast-moving conversation, and while E.T. is himself a fanciful, wide-eyed creation, the world he interacts with is realistically presented.
More pertinently, though, how could anyone forget that single, shocking sequence where the camera tilts down to show E.T. lying apparently dead in a shallow river? As a child, I remember this moment provoking gasps of horror among the cinema’s audience. In the midst of all the good-natured drama and humour, in stepped the spectre of death.
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
While making Raiders, Spielberg and George Lucas had several action sequence ideas which, due to time or budget constraints, they couldn’t fit in to Indiana Jones’ debut. Given that The Temple Of Doom became the home for all these disparate ideas, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this second Indy film doesn’t hang together quite as well as the first. More so than any other Spielberg blockbuster, The Temple Of Doom has a particularly nasty (and politically incorrect) streak running through it – and if anything, it’s even more violent than Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Characters dine on baby snakes and chilled monkey brains. One bad guy’s crushed between two stone rollers, leaving a streak of crimson in his wake. Several others are later snapped up by crocodiles.
As horrific moments go, none can top the infamous scene when evil high priest Mola Ram tears out the beating heart of a victim during an underground cult ritual. This was understandably trimmed by the BBC during its various Christmas Day TV screenings, but I remember seeing it on a friend’s VHS copy, and being mesmerised by just how nightmarish and horrible it all was – as well as the heart ripping, we then had to deal with the sight of Indy drinking intoxicating blood from the mouth of a severed head. It was pretty full-on stuff.
A little too full-on for some critics, who criticised the film for its excessive violence – one writer even suggested that taking a child to see Temple Of Doom was akin to psychological abuse. Even Spielberg later admitted that it was “It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.” It’s still better than Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, though.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
Perhaps chastened by the critical reaction to Temple Of Doom, Spielberg reined in the gore a bit for The Last Crusade, and the result was the most light-hearted and comedic of the Indy films up to that point. Spielberg couldn’t resist throwing in one or two horror elements, though, particularly in the final act, where Indy, his father Henry (Sean Connery) and the dastardly Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) attempt to breach the booby-trapped resting place of the Holy Grail.
An unwary goon goes in first, and encounters a deadly blade that sends his severed head rolling back to the point where he started. Later, Donovan comes to a sticky end himself when, after foolishly drinking from the wrong Grail, he begins to age at a disturbing rate. It’s a comic horror sequence that’s sure to provoke titters of macabre glee from young audiences everywhere.
“He chose… poorly,” pronounced Robert Eddison’s Grail Knight, as Donovan’s skeleton clattered to the ground – surely one of the great understatements in cinema.Jurassic Park (1993)
Perhaps the last of Spielberg’s truly satisfying blockbusters until his return to form with this year’s Tintin, Jurassic Park had all the elements you needed for a great family film: an engaging, high-concept premise, a decent cast, and some brilliantly realised monsters.
And while Jurassic Park saw the director embrace computer-animation for the first time (though only in brief snippets, by today’s standards), the film still contains all the Spielberg hallmarks, not least in its ability to provide some startling moments of light horror.
Thanks to a mixture of fantastic animatronics, lighting, cinematography and direction, the velociraptors make for tenacious and quite scary little antagonists, and their relentless pursuit of young Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards) is spectacular.
What everyone really remembers, though, is the tyrannosaurus rex attack. It’s a sequence that matches the best of Jaws for sustained terror, and almost two decades later, its mixture of animatronics and CG are still seamless. And to top the scene off, of course, we have the abrupt and blackly comic death of lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), who discovers too late that a flimsy toilet cubicle is no place to hide from a marauding sauropod theropod. Roar indeed.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
An uncharacteristically bleak view of humanity from Spielberg, whose films are normally concerned with the triumph of the human spirit, A.I. is an unusual sci-fi reworking of Pinocchio, with Haley Joel Osment starring as a young mecha who dreams of becoming a real boy. The mixture of the late Stanley Kubrick’s ideas (reworked by Spielberg and co-writer Ian Watson) don’t always sit well with the director’s filmmaking style, but the movie remains a flawed yet interesting one.
If it’s a moment of Spielbergian horror you’re looking for, skip forward to the Flesh Fair sequence, in which unfortunate robots are tortured and torn apart before a braying human audience. Some of the deaths are truly grotesque – one mecha’s set on fire and flung into a propeller, another’s ripped limb from limb on a rack, while another’s hacked into with a chainsaw. The most disquieting bit? The female mecha’s smiling face distorted by a bucket of acid. Harsh.
War Of The Worlds (2005)
HG Wells’ classic invasion novel got a post-9/11 reworking in 2005, and the results were rather mixed. A film almost as bleak and uncompromising as A.I., War Of The Worlds was sadly undone by some misfiring domestic drama and an absurdly happy ending. Nevertheless, the film has its moments, not least when the Martian machines rumble up from their subterranean hiding places, and begin decimating Earth’s population with their death rays.
The film’s first glimpse of murder on a grand scale – where corpses explode into dust, sending empty clothes raining down like so much confetti – is masterfully done, and the Martian war machines are invested with menace.
The most powerful sequence in the entire film, though, is when Dakota Fanning’s character stands on a river bank, and watches in disbelief as first one, then a handful, then dozens of dead bodies float by in the choppy current. If only the rest of the film was up to the standard of that chilling moment of promise.