In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating with a series of features that look back at the brightest moments on screen of the past two decades – and one year – and the things that have us excited for the future.
Jump scare! Are there two more reviled words in the modern horror genre? (Well, maybe “human centipede.”) Built on slapping the volume around and throwing up some intrusive imagery, the jump scare’s reputation as the ultimate low-effort, low-grade scare tactic hides an uglier truth. They’re effective. Especially a well-placed one. You know the kind: The movie is creeping along, you’re into the characters and story, when the lights begin to dimmer and the soundtrack drops out, as the camera hangs innocently for a touch too long, and then BAM you find yourself looking down at your seat, having leapt two feet into the air.
Since Rotten Tomatoes’ inception in 1998, there’s been no shortage of horror flicks and their endless bag of dirty, freaky tricks. (In fact, this April has been a big month, with Pet Sematary and The Curse of La Llorona!) We’re celebrating turning 21 in a myriad of ways, and today it’s all about the screams that have echoed over the last two decades, as we present the 21 best jump scares of the last 21 years!
Concerned that we didn’t have enough zombies on this list, or nothing from A Quiet Place (a.k.a. Jump Scare: The Motion Picture)? Tell us all about it in the comments!
Up to this point, the Paranormal Activity movies reserved all their scares for night, allowing the daytime as a sanctuary to do a little character work and tension-relief as the demons slowly draw in. This scene demonstrates sunlight is no safety as your normal sit-down at the kitchen counter transforms into a loud cacophony of cabinets blowing open and clattering china. Though it’s been done already to great effect in the likes of Poltergeist and The Sixth sense, the second Paranormal Activity finds a new way to bring heat to the kitchen.
“Atmosphere” is the first word that comes to mind with Ti West’s horror films, and certainly “too much” is the phrase that comes next for the Ti West critic. Slow burns his films may be, but West is also enough of a genre fanboy-disciple to know when to pepper in a big jump scare to jolt the audience. Enter The House of the Devil, his breakthrough film, which did the whole ’80s nostalgia before Stranger Things was even, well, a thing. Greta Gerwig, still then but a mumblecore muse, plays the babysitter’s best friend, characterized, as always, innocent and ill-fated. When she stops for a cigarette, a stranger shows up, identifying her as the babysitter. After some terse talk, the stranger realizes his mistake and makes a quick exit out of the conversation.
The only thing more shocking than seeing Harrison Ford play a bad guy? (And we mean a bad guy, not like space rogue bad guy – also, whoops, SPOILER.) This moment, with Ford thinking he’s just gotten away with murder again, when the ghosts of ill deeds past and a schnockered Michelle Pfiffer use the transdimensional force to scare the bejeezus out of Ford, sending him for a bloody bonk on the bathroom sink.
Musty old mansion. Soft steps in darkness by candlelight. A British guy. Oh, yeah, we got a bona-fide, literary haunted house story here! Daniel Radcliffe takes a cautious look-see from an upper window into the yard, where a child emerges from a grave in the rain and trudges toward the house. And, OF COURSE, suddenly a screaming woman appears in the window reflection. It’s a reminder why these stories still chill in the 21st century, and why we’ll always be hooked on classics.
The Association’s “Cherish” is the prelude to this prelude in the 1967-set story within The Conjuring franchise. After Annabelle “No Relation To The Murder Doll” Wallis stops the record player, a subtle shadow appears on the wall behind it, turning the music back on. As Wallis investigates, the rumble of the soundtrack slowly builds, sewing machines clatter, hallways feel longer than ever before, and a girl in a white dress materializes in the background. Suddenly, she’s sprinting towards Wallis and suddenly the little girl doens’t look so little anymore.
Though infamous for its penetrating torture scenes, Audition actually performs as a mystery-thriller for most of the runtime. It’s this third act sequence that keys viewers in that things are about to go off the deep end. This sack is ominously one of the few items in the villain’s apartment, and when what’s inside leaps out, it’s quite the shock: A starving man with feet, ear, and fingers missing. And you thought you’ve had bad dates before.
Scream 3 took a pretty epic Tomatometer tumble from the first films in the franchise – Scream is Certified Fresh at 79%, Scream 2 is Certified Fresh at 81%, while this movie is Rotten at 36%. And though the tone of the movie is even jokier than Wes Craven’s first two Ghostface outings, there are still some solid scares to be found here. Chief among them, this moment in which Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is on a movie-set recreation of her teenage home. Just as fans are thinking, “Hmmm, I think I’ve seen this before” – including the door-in-door block – Ghostface pops up in her bedroom window. Ah, just like old times.
The Orphanage is a movie that’s confident enough to know that it doesn’t need jump scares: It’s slow-mounting dread, central mystery and performances, and the deep wellspring of aromatic despair it draws from is more than enough. It’s also a movie that knows, hey, why not give the people what they want? Thus, Orphanage‘s only major jump scare comes when Geraldine Chaplin is on the ground after a traumatic collision, jolting from beneath the cloth, lower jaw akimbo. The scene feels out of place in the movie, which only adds to its effectiveness, and it works because of how, er, tastefully done the shot is.
The Final Destination series is more famous for its Rube Goldberg-like death sequences than its heart-racing shocks, but this one from the first film still has us looking left, right, and double checking before crossing the road. Is it as good as the infamous Meet Joe Black car-a-palooza that felled Brad Pitt? Maybe not. But we give Final Destination extra credit for maxing out on that special brand of heavy-handed late 1990s/early 2000s teen-slasher irony by having Terry tell her boyfriend to “drop f–king dead” right before Fate sends a bus right through her.
You either die a hero…or live long enough to see yourself get eaten by a mutated shark while trying to give a heroic speech. Such was the fate of one Samuel L. Jackson, who finds himself trapped in an undersea laboratory with other scientists, menaced by one their very own fishy, lethal experiments. Jackson had steadily built his reputation in the ’90s as the King of Cool and, using his leading-man capital, dunked on audiences by allowing his character be killed in the most surprising, hilarious, and gratuitous way possible.
One way to figure out the how a jump scare works is watching it with the sound off. By killing a key component (LOUD NOISES!), does it feel earned? Can it still spook? Watch Herediatry‘s big scare with the sound off and it’ll seems like nothing is happening, which actually reveals how good the movie is getting at subverting seemingly normal tics, like clucking your tongue, into something demonic, and just how fortunate it is that it has Toni Collette’s all-in performance.
This atmospheric home invasion thriller is known for its quiet reveals more than its jump scares – figures appear slowly in backgrounds rather than bursting out of closets. But it does deliver one jolt for the ages, as Liv Tyler’s Kristen opens the curtain to discover the “Man in Mask” right there! The rest of the film’s relative quietness only adds to the moment’s effect.
Film projectors: Something almost inherently unsettling about them, with their grainy footage and the repetitive clack-clack-clack of the spinning reels. Certainly they’ve made their mark in horror history, involved in memorable scenes ranging from Peeping Tom to IT. Sinister added its own celluloid to the highlight reel, featuring Ethan Hawke as he investigates the doomed previous occupants of his new house. The search leads to a box of film (which something is insistent he watch, leading to its appearance everywhere around the house), whose content includes POV footage of a person looking down at a lawnmower, as its pushed over grass at night. The lawnmower strays in and out of the camera’s light, putting the viewer’s eye into a trance, before it suddenly become clear this yard was not cleared before this chore was undertaken.
How good was the nun scene in Conju’ 2: Valak Boogaloo? It only took four minutes to convince moviegoers, and the people who make movies, that this sister of the unholy cloth deserved her own spinoff. The buildup to the jump scare, with the nun charging at the camera, involves the standard figure-in-the-hallway and eyes-peering-from-shadow tropes remixed into a true nerve-rattler.
A fine example of misdirection, the scene begins with Barbara Hershey describing a nightmare to her son and his family. The narration and the slow, drifting camera ratchets up the tension in an obvious way for the viewer – with the pay-off of a gangly, pointing figure embedded within the dream. Snapping back to the real world, Patrick Wilson’s Josh, wearing a shirt the same grey-blue tone shirt of the bland marble painting behind him, sits unaware as the red-faced demon appears behind him, revealing that the movie’s threat aren’t just restricted to the somnambulist’s realm.
Two sisters are found alive in the woods five years after their father went on a post-2008 crash killing spree. They’re taken in by their uncle and his wife, but something must’ve kept the young kids alive all those years, and that something is now inside their home. The apparition Mama, who tilts back and forth like she’s constantly under water, suddenly leaps forward to attack. The camera tracks the children as they run up the stairs and seek safety, with plenty of dark corners and walls to conceal edits as director Andy Muschietti (IT) aims to present this at first as a horrific, unbroken single take.
A residential building is mysteriously under quarantine. A tenacious, lightly unscrupulous news reporter and her cameraman get into the building to find the reason: an outbreak of fast zombies. The claustrophobic setting of [rec] teems with jump-scare potential, and the movie certainly cashes in, with hordes of blank-eyed, frothing bitey runners around every corner. The best one comes when they ascend an attic in search for an escape route or outbreak source, lifting the camera up and pivoting the camera – slowly, of course – in a carousel of darkness before coming lens-to-face with a young zombie, who screeches and swats at the screen.. Never mind, we’ll take our chances with the radon in the basement, thankyouverymuch.
Director Neil Marshall’s friends-stuck-in-a-cave movie is claustrophobically terrifying long before the monsters show up – but when they do, the tension ratchets up to levels that have some calling The Descent the best horror movie of the 2000s. The director combines two effective distraction techniques for this terrifying “boo”: we’re both emotionally invested in the argument and trying to follow it as Marshall’s camera – the action already obscured with night-vision – swings from person to person. When it swings back to find a beastie standing behind Alex Reid’s Rebecca, we’re completely unprepared. Cue piercing growl.
You can argue that this kind of cut-away is the cheapest trick, randomly popping up in the middle of a compelling conversation, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. And in The Ring, it’s all the more effective for offering one of our earliest looks at the contorted, disturbing, Munch-like expressions with which Samara leaves her victims. We saw her face, too, and we won’t be forgetting it any time soon.
It’s the jump scare so good they built a teaser trailer on it. In this scene, the scariest moment in the universe-spawning first Conjuring movie, director James Wan plays us brilliantly: there’s the slow lure down the staircase, the bouncing basketball, the exploding lightbulb, and then a moment of silence before the out-of-nowhere hands reach in for a quick clap-clap. A brilliant callback.
Just about the last place you would expect one of the most effective jump scares ever, but in a franchise of talking trees, magic rings, and all-seeing fire eyeballs, you ought to expect the unexpected. After being stabbed by a Ringwraith, Frodo awakes healed in Rivendell, believing he’s completed his journey to deliver the One Ring to the elf stronghold. Oh, sweet summer child. Frodo then reunites with Bilbo and they engage in nostalgic conversation. Even after retirement far away from the Shire, Bilbo feels the corrupting pull of the ring, transforming into a snarling freak who grabs at Frodo. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, like the books it’s based on, has an intoxicating quality, drawing viewers deep into Tolkien’s universe through simple, quiet dialogue between old friends, so this jump scare feels like the ultimate violation of a moment’s respite.