Tom Jolliffe looks over some of the most iconic images in horror…
Cinema is full of iconic films and iconic images within those. A moment of hope in Rocky personified by his mangled post fight face screaming ‘Adrian!’ or even in the same film, his victorious beating of those famous steps, holding his arms aloft in celebration. It could be Arnold Schwarzenegger looking through the glass about to utter the immortal words, ‘I’ll be back.’ Plenty of films, in an array of genres have had those iconic shots, be it Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca or Citizen Kane.
If we look at horror though, this is a genre which must inflict the most striking of emotional responses in its audience. Great horror grips, affects you and lingers. Moments burn into your retinas and into your mind and stay forever. Some of the most legendary images will bring with them the memory of terror.
What is the most iconic horror image though? You think of horror, and moments in those films and there are some that are truly timeless. Max Schreck’s lingering shadow ascending the stairs before he emerges in the iconic, Nosferatu. That’s perhaps the earliest, and one of the most enduring horror images. It’s an unforgettable moment in a groundbreaking film which has been copied countless times in almost a century since.
A little further in time and Alfred Hitchcock did something genre defying, and defining with Psycho. A mid film murder of our protagonist was utterly shocking, a powerful moment and the enduring image of Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower is not just one of horrors most iconic images, but cinema as a whole. Psycho of course, had a couple more defining and legendary images, be it the discovery of mother in the basement, or the gut wrenchingly creepy end shot of Norman Bates, who transitions from mild-mannered to psychotic within a lingering shot.
A priest stands before a rather ominous and creepy looking family home in mist and darkness, about to face a demonically possessed girl. The Exorcist’s two most residual images being that shot, and then the image of Linda Blair at the height of the demons grip. This was certainly an era of striking horror imagery. I also think of Carrie, a few years after and that eponymous image of Sissy Spacek covered in pigs blood and about to unleash terror on her tormentors.
Tricycles also have a certain iconic placing in horror. See The Omen or The Shining. In the case of The Shining, and as with a lot of Kubrick’s visually resplendent work, there are several images singed into the memory of horror aficionados. From Danny’s lengthy trike explorations of the overlook hotel, to the twins, to the blood surging from the elevators, to Nicholson axing the shit out of a bathroom door before declaring, ‘Here’s Johnny!’
The masked killer icons of the 80’s, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees of course had their very own iconic images. Jason’s most enduring image, perhaps beside a general image of his masked form, was that of his first appearance bursting from the water (unmasked) at the end of the original film. For Myers it’s the enduring image of him appearing from the dark behind Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
Speaking of masks, it brings me to perhaps my favourite image. It’s one that’s haunting, and it’s not even from one of my favourite horror films. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre redefined what horror was and could be. It essentially started a wave that would explode into video nasties throughout the 80’s, and inspire countless gore filled horrors. The irony is, in retrospect, though Chain Saw has a fair amount of blood and horror, it’s not as overtly gruesome as people remember. The mise-en-scene played a big part. The sound (that persistent rumble of the chainsaw engine and blade) does too. Eruptions of blood and gore are more in the minds eye than perhaps what was actually on film. It brings to mind an aside that was said about The Hitcher, the brilliant Rutger Hauer film, but one point of contention in the test screenings was Jennifer Jason Leigh, tied between a trailer and a truck being ripped apart as Hauer’s titular villain accelerates off. It was deemed gory, gruesome and horrific, only…it was never shown on screen. There was a cut away to black. What we can imagine is far scarier than what the film-makers could have conjured in gruesome gore FX.
So we come to the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Sally (Marilyn Burns) manages to escape a cannibalistic family of hillbillies, none more threatening than Leatherface and his chainsaw. As she is taken off we essentially cut back and forth between two of the most iconic images in horror cinema, Sally screaming in the back of a pickup which roars away, and then the tour-de-force, an oddly beautiful shot of Leatherface dancing against a dawn sky backdrop as he swings his chainsaw tribally through the air. Chain Saw, particularly once it revs into gear, is still a chilling and effective film with a real sense of discomfort, even if characters aren’t too well constructed. Much of the power though, lies in those last (and powerful) shots.
What’s your favourite iconic horror shot? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.