Everyone’s sure to have their own idea about what’s the most “intense” movie experience: for some it’s speed, for others action; it could be white-knuckle-terror, fear or good old-fashioned disbelief at what’s happening before their eyes. Still, just as many intense movie moments have come from high-wire suspense, high-stakes drama, or emotional tugs on the heartstrings. Here are 15 of our most memorable.
Martin Scorsese’s a master of intensity and picking a single scene above others is a tough call. Joe Pesci’s funny guy turn in GoodFellas? Any given headshot in The Departed? Nic Cage pinballing through the city in Bringing Out the Dead? All great but it’s 1976’s Taxi Driver that haunts most. In his signature role, Robert De Niro creeps us out with his tough-guy mirror talk and when he first appears with his mohawk haircut. The porno theater date’s pretty uncomfortable, too. But this is all prelude to the tendon-tightening finale, which starts when he gut-shoots Harvey Keitel and heads into the hotel on a homicidal rampage.
Danny Boyle’s 1996 kinetic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s book about Scottish drug addicts is filled with intense moments, starting with the joyous anarchy of its opening sequence in which junkies flee the filth to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life.” But the bit that’s close to unwatchable has anti-hero Renton withdrawing from heroin and hallucinating the reanimation of his dead mate’s baby. Drugs? Just say no… thanks, maaaannn.
It’s no understatement to say that all of Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece is intense. His gallery of real-life freaks have never been equaled in cinematic history. Nor are they likely to. Unless John Waters somehow gets his hand on radioactive material and a human cloning kit. Anyway, the conclusion to Freaks, in which the deformed and the diminutive take grisly revenge on a truly ugly beauty, remains shocking today. It’s a tarring and feathering to leave even hardened viewers’ guts shaken and stirred.
Quentin Tarantino’s films present a similar problem to Scorcese’s in that they reliably turn the intensity up to 11. The cinematic inferno of Inglourious Basterds? John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson blasting away at Brett in Pulp Fiction? The Bride slashing her way through the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1? Muscle car meets girl head in Death Proof? All strong contenders but we’re going with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs‘ three-way shoot-out between Mr. White, Nice Guy Eddie and Joe. After a film-long build up of tension, things end with multiple bangs — and an audience blown through the back of the cinema.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Bernardo Bertolucci’s ground-breaking erotic film in which Marlon Brando tangles with young Maria Schneider in an affair predicated on anonymous sex. The most intense moment comes when anal rape made its art house debut, abetted by a stick of butter. Even in the porn-saturated present day, it’s still uncomfortable viewing. Schneider, who died earlier this year, certainly didn’t get over it. “That scene wasn’t in the original script,” she said in 2007. “The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do some thing that isn’t in the script. I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped. Thankfully, there was just one take. I never use butter to cook anymore — only olive oil.”
This Tobe Hooper-directed, Steven Spielberg horror flick turns 30 next year but it still sends a shiver up the spines of Gen X-ers who saw it back in the day. Arguably the most intense PG flick ever released, this story of supernatural suburbia is a series of superbly intense set pieces, from Heather O’ Rouke’s indelible and oft-imitated cry of “They’re heeeeeere!” to the maggot-in-the-meat, chunks-of-cheek midnight snack sequence. Freakiest of all? The clown that’s most definitely not under the bed!
At the other end of the MPAA scale, The Exorcist reigns supreme as the horror shocker that went where no film had dared. William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book put audiences through the wringer with its graphic depiction of a little girl possessed by an ancient demon. Head-spinning, vomit-spraying and (later) spider-walking little Regan was a one-chick freak show like no other. But the most intense moment saw her reach for the crucifix. Pass the smelling salts, bishop!
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy pivots around a singularly intense scene in which Michael Corleone makes the move that’ll define his life. Having eschewed the family business, he’s drawn into it when an attempt is made on his father’s life. Stepping up, Michael takes out drug lord Virgil Sollozzo and crooked chief cop Mark McCluskey. This restaurant murder scene is exquisitely suspenseful, no matter how many times you watch it.
Okay, so for visceral power it’s pretty hard to beat the shower scene from Psycho. Thing is, most of us don’t encounter Hitch’s handiwork until we’re in double digits. No so with Uncle Walt’s 1942 weeper. So there we are, aged about six, happily following the story of a cute little deer and his sweet mother when — blam! blam! — she’s out of the picture.
This 1895 short by the Lumiere brothers isn’t much to look at today, but as cinematic lore has it, audiences who saw it in theatres freaked out because they thought the locomotive was gonna bust through the screen and kill ’em all. Some say the story’s apocryphal but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Danny Boyle hit audience nerves again with this claustrophobic dramatisation of rock-climber Aron Ralston, played with gusto by James Franco, whose misfortune landed him stuck in a canyon and trapped by a fallen boulder. His only way of escaping death, as he — and the audience — grimly discovers, is to amputate his trapped arm. Reports of patrons passing out in theatres during said scene may have been exaggerated, but watching Franco plunge a rusty pen-knife into his arm certainly makes them easy to believe.
The Coen brothers’ 2007 neo-noir existentialist western adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel nailed us to our seats with its intense set-pieces, from hound-from-hell Anton Chigurh’s life-or-death coin-flipping schtick to opportunistic hick Llewelyn Moss’s dodging bullets and a more literal devil dog down by the river. But the most intense moment? We don’t even see it, just feel its impact as our Houdini-like escape-artist hero runs out of luck at a down-at-heel motel.
Another Euro silent short! This 1929 flick’s effect is anything but a rumour as you’ll find out if you click play and see the spilling of vitreous humour! Made by those noted arbiters of good taste, Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, this free-association Freudian nightmare’s most memorable moment comes right at the start when a young lady has her eyeball razored open.
Yikes! Some celebrate this film as an unflichingly truthful portrait of human savagery, others think it’s a work as noxious as anything produced by Leni Riefenstahl. But anyone who has seen Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 film will agree about its intensity. Much of this “found footage” tale of provocative westerners inciting the wrath of South American tribespeople is stomach churning but the toughest moment to endure is the female impalement. That said, the real-life animal killings run a very close second.
From Wild At Heart to Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, Nic Cage excels at intense, usually serving up the crazy with a side dish of insanity hair. But even if he’d otherwise carved out a career playing bespectacled antique dealers in Merchant-Ivory productions, his loony legacy would’ve been assured on the basis of one scene in one movie. That is, of course, 1988’s excellently nutty Vampire’s Kiss, where Cage plays a yuppie scumbag who becomes convinced he’s turning into a vampire. The scene in question? Our anti-hero does a Renfield by munching on a live cockroach. Which Cage did for real. Yum! The runner up in this category? The live octopus gobble in OldBoy.