GREAT HORROR MOMENTS IN NON-HORROR FILMS

Your movie’s not horror, right? What’s it got, superheroes? Was it made for kids? Are there muppets? See? Not horror.

Well, you’re probably wrong. As John Carpenter so wisely and flippantly said,

“horror is a reaction; it’s not a genre.”

However true you hold that statement to be, one thing is sure. Horror is often peppered into films not necessarily considered to be part of the overall genre. In fact, it is so ubiquitous that the line between what is and isn’t a “horror” film is often blurry and arguable. 

So an article like this first has to establish its key metric: what makes a horror film, and by extension, a non-horror film? I’ve always defined a horror movie as one that is mainly trying to scare you. It might use a number of methods to get there, like gore, horrific monsters, or terrible personal choices, but the aim stays the same. It might also include elements of drama or comedy, but those things are typically secondary.

Likewise, a non-horror film is one that chiefly concerns itself with another reaction. A comedy, drama, or action-adventure might scare you periodically along the way, but that’s not its central purpose. Still, some of the most frightening moments in cinema come from this idea. Whether the intent is to demonstrate the lethal capabilities of a supervillain, the deadly naivete of a childlike creature, or a character’s grizzly connection to the protagonist’s past, a skillfully executed horror scene can elevate the stakes of any genre of story.

This first film is a cheat. Sam Raimi is a legendary horror director, helming films like the Evil Dead series and Darkman. It should have been a surprise when his first superhero film, Spider-man (2002), passed with very little in the way of horror movie moments (short of those weird organic web-shooters—ew). But he made up for it in 2004 with a specific scene in the sequel…

Spider-man 2

The tragic Dr. Otto Octavius, played to pin-point perfection by Alfred Molina, is brought to the hospital after an accident in his lab leaves him unconscious (dead?). The doctors are about to perform surgery to remove the four massive robotic arms Octavius attached to his own spine as part of the ill-fated experiment. They don’t know, however, that the little chip that inhibits the AI that controls the arms was broken in the accident, and the arms are now fully sentient. What follows is a series of grisly murders as one by one the surgeons attempt to flee or fight the arms only to be viciously torn apart and flung about the room. The whole thing ends as Octavius regains consciousness, sees what his creation has done, and howls “Nooooooo,” as the arms stretch behind him, the backlit shot a visual nod to Silence of the Lambs. 

Spiderman 2 movie poster

Big horror energy for a kids’ superhero flick. And it’s important, too. Raimi uses this scene to set up the stakes of the rest of the film. Better than just about any superhero movie short of The Dark Knight, you know right away what the consequences of crossing this villain will be. When those mechanical arms reach for innocent bystanders, Aunt May, or even Spider-man himself, the possibilities are intimidating. Through the power of a single well-executed horror scene, Raimi elevates his villain far beyond the vaguely ominous sky-lasers and megalomaniacal monologuing of almost any other comic-book movie baddie to date.

Let’s switch gears and head even deeper into children’s film territory.

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986)

A childhood favorite of mine, cementing my emo-cred and love of puppets for years to come. And even though it’s widely considered a children’s musical fantasy, it’s absolutely brimming with moments intended to scare and unsettle. However you feel about the Helping Hands, the Cleaners, the Goblin King tossing a baby twenty feet into the air, or David Bowie’s bulge, there’s one scene that, for sheer terror, is unmatched in the rest of the film.

It comes when Sarah, separated from her friends, stumbles into a group of creatures called Fireys. They’re gangly, orange, beaked creatures with skeletal, bird-like limbs and hands that can best be described as talons. They seem friendly enough at first. When Sarah asks for their help, they launch almost immediately into a catchy upbeat musical number entitled “Chilly Down,” that is chiefly concerned with their opinion that Sarah shouldn’t be so darn worried. But the scene quickly turns unsettling when one of the Fireys rips off its own hand, tosses it in the fire and promptly grows a new one. This starts a chain reaction where all of the creatures disassemble and reassemble themselves into various nightmare configurations (at one point one of the Fireys is just a head with legs), and then swarm Sarah, trying to yank off her head like she’s one of them. 

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) movie poster

Like most of the obstacles in the Labyrinth, the Fireys represent a childlike trait that Sarah will need to shed in order to face the final challenge. In this case, it’s the tendency to assume that everyone should or even can just do things your way. The Fireys want to take off Sarah’s head because they naively assume that, since that’s something relaxing and fun for them, that it will be for her, too, and if she’d just do it she’d be able to get rid of all that stress. They just can’t fathom that she’s not only incapable of removing her own head, but that doing so would end in her grizzly death. It’s the first time on her adventure that Sarah faces a direct, intentional, physical threat to her person, and it changes the trajectory of the entire film. The helping hands and the oubliette threaten starvation, but that’s eventual and abstract. The cleaners are just doing their job, clearing debris from the sewer tunnels. The bog of eternal stench will just make you stink forever. But the Fireys make a physical threat, whatever their actual intent, and show through action that they intend to follow through. And by virtue of stating the possibility, the scene asks us to imagine what would happen if they got their way—they’d wrap their spindly fingers around her head and yank, leaving behind a gushing stump, and Sarah’s adventure ends in the bloodiest way imaginable. What a price to pay for childish narcissism.

Okay, last one.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 

A family comedy with a gritty noir bent in which cartoon characters are real and interact with humans on a regular basis, mostly in and around Los Angeles, which is adjacent to a magical place called Toon Town. The worldbuilding is fantastic. Bob Hoskins does a hell of a job playing Eddie Valiant, a hard-boiled detective who hates Toons (an unknown Toon killed his brother) but is forced to look after Roger, a harebrained cartoon rabbit, when he’s framed for a high-profile murder. The horrifying Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd, and his squad of toon enforcers hunt Roger with the intent of executing him for the crime using their invention, a sludge called Dip, that can melt Toons—which is apparently totally legal to do.

Most of the movie is a goofy combination of detective noir, murder mystery, buddy comedy, and Looney Tunes cartoons, with the really scary stuff only hinted at (except for a gnarly scene where the Judge uses Dip to murder an adorable cartoon shoe). But when the horror shows up in the movie’s final act, it is pure nightmare fuel.

The Judge has Roger and his beloved wife Jessica tied up in a warehouse and is aiming a stream of Dip at them. Eddie comes to the rescue and in the ensuing battle sends an out-of-control steamroller in Judge Doom’s direction. The Judge fails to get out of the way in time and is slowly crushed by the machine, all the time jerking and screaming. Christopher Lloyd’s voicework is immaculate, carrying the Judge’s screams into a frantic register that seared the sound into countless childhood memories.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? movie poster

But if that isn’t enough, when the steamroller passes, the judge hops to his feet, wobbling like a chittering paper doll. The judge has revealed himself to be a toon, albeit a terrifying one with red swirling eyes, murderous intent, and an extremely lifelike rubber human suit. And, not only is he a Toon, he’s the Toon who killed Eddie’s brother, a fact he reveals in his high-pitched screeching voice that Eddie can’t help but recognize. He then proceeds to punch Eddie in the face with an anvil and attempt to saw him in half before Eddie, finally free of his aversion to Toon paraphernalia, uses a gag to open the floodgates on the Dip tank, soaking the Judge and causing him to melt, shrieking, into the sludge, leaving behind only his clothing and his rubber Christopher Lloyd mask. With his true foe vanquished, Eddie is finally able to move past his prejudice against Toons and deal with the death of his brother.

Another favorite quote of mine is from author Joe Hill.

“Terror is the desire to save your own ass, but horror is rooted in sympathy.”

Truly, in all these examples, regardless of the central intent of the movie, horror is essential, because, like no other emotion, fear deepens our connections to characters, makes us root for the good guys and hate the bad guys, and feel relief and excitement when the threat has passed. We all fantasize about overcoming our fears, vanquishing our demons, and being confident and strong in the face of overwhelming odds. When used in the context of a non-horror story, horror can give us that, and let us experience vicarious victory beside our triumphant heroes. So, on behalf of horror, to all those other genres, you’re welcome.

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