7. To the curb (American History X, 1998)
The scene: Danny Vinyard wakes up as he hears people attempting to steal the family’s truck. It’s a couple of young black men who had previous altercations with Danny’s older brother Derek, so when Derek goes outside and sees them, he goes bezerk shooting and killing one of the men, as well as curb stomping another.
Why: At this point in the film we’ve seen the neo-Nazi tendencies of Derek, his tattoos, and the people he surrounds himself with, but we haven’t really seen him ‘in action.’ We know the way he thinks and feels and still, when we then see him act upon his words, the rage and inhumanity of his acts comes as quite a shock.
Maybe it is also the brutality and visuals of Derek curb stomping the young man, but there’s something so sudden and immensely hateful about the act that it is a scene that is very difficult to forget, and which has shocked audiences time and time again.
6. The horse (The Godfather, 1972)
The scene: Johnny Fontane wants a specific movie role, so he seeks the help of Vito Corleone. However, studio head Jack Woltz doesn’t want Fontane in his film, and therefore isn’t at first persuaded by the Corleones, and refuses to give the role to Fontane. However, when Woltz wakes up one night to find the severed head of his beloved stallion next to him in bed, covered in blood, things change, and we see the power of the Godfather.
Why: Until this point of the film, we haven’t seen much action from Vito Corleone or anybody else in the supposedly dangerous family, and although a certain uncomfortable and intimidating atmosphere certainly surrounds them, it is in this scene that it goes from being words and threats to being actual action.
It’s not necessarily the fact that Vito acts upon his words – he would fail rather quickly as the Godfather if he didn’t – but it is how out of the blue that it happens that shocks audiences.
Of course, it is also the haunting image and idea of waking up with blood on your sheets and your horse’s severed head by the foot of your bed that is truly terrifying and unforgettable. A very iconic scene that stays with you and marks the beginning of all the actions that have yet to come.
5. Shit (Pink Flamingos, 1972)
The scene: In one of the last scenes of the film, drag queen Divine infamously sits next to a dog taking a shit on the street, picks up the poop in her hand, and proceeds to consume it.
Why: Although this film does carry quite a lot of outrageous, provocative, and shocking scenes and was banned in different countries upon its release, it is especially the scene in which Divine eats a dog’s excrements that stands out and has become somewhat synonymous with the film itself. But then again, she is also trying to prove that she is ‘the filthiest person alive,’ so something shocking was probably bound to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to watch when you then see the film.
The scene is also especially infamous because Milstead (Divine) has revealed that Divine did truly follow the dog around for hours – always with a camera on it – just waiting for it to take a shit, so she could actually eat it on camera.
4. In the tunnel (Irreversible, 2002)
The scene: The scene follows Alex on her way home from a nightclub. She goes through a tunnel where she sees a man (Le Tenia) beating another woman. He sees Alex and attacks her instead, as the other woman flees. Alex is threatened with a knife as she tries to get away herself, and is then consequently pushed to the floor and raped anally. This goes on for several minutes of screen time. Before the man leaves, he brutally kicks and beats Alex unconscious.
Why: When looking upon this particular scene, a word that is almost always associated with it is ‘disturbing.’ And it is. Similarly to the previously mentioned scene in “Wind River,” although this time even more explicit and longer, the viewer is forced to watch human degradation and listen to the screams of a truly helpless woman for several minutes.
It’s vulgar and extreme, the camera is static and thereby doesn’t shy away from showing anything, she is pregnant, and it is altogether simply very shocking and difficult to watch.
Furthermore, a person is seen at a certain point of the scene entering the tunnel, just to turn around and walk away instead of intervening, just as the first woman chose to flee rather than get help. It is infuriating, especially because we as an audience know that these types of things unfortunately do take place.
3. Crucifix (The Exorcist, 1973)
The scene: The 12-year-old Regan has seemingly been possessed by something and in this scene, her mother, Chris, hears strange yells coming from her room upstairs. She goes up to investigate the matter and finds her daughter demonized, attacking her own crotch with a crucifix. Furthermore, a deep voice comes from Regan and spits many profanities as she violently shoves her mother around the room. Lastly, her head turns unnaturally around as she grins broadly.
Why: There are several elements that make this scene so very shocking and well known. There are the disturbing screams that seem to come from Regan herself, which are contrasted with the deep voice that comes from whatever has possessed her; there’s the image of the crucifix that is continuously jammed into the young girl’s bloody crotch; and of course, afterward, when she forces her mother’s head down that very same crotch and says “lick me.”
At last, there’s the infamous head turn with a big grin on her face, which most people know today, even if they haven’t seen the film. The combination of sex, blood, profanities, violence, and just sheer horror that takes over this young girl’s body made for a big outrage when the film was first released, and is no less disturbing for audiences today.
2. George visits Majid (Caché, 2005)
The scene: After George has accused Majid of sending videotapes to his house and threatening him because of how George treated him when they were children, Majid invites George over to his apartment. When George walks in to the apartment, Majid shortly denies ever having sent the tapes, tells George that he wanted him present, and then proceeds to cut his own throat in front of George.
Why: The last Haneke scene to make it on the list, and probably the most shocking of them all. There’s a bit of tension as George irritated and impatient visits Majid, but in essence the scene feels rather ordinary at first. The audience might expect a small confrontation or argument coming, but before any tension is build up, Majid slashes his own throat open. It just happens, then and there.
There’s no warning, and although not justice, there’s some sense of relief that Majid chose such an impactful yet calm way to go. Because surely nothing could traumatize George more than knowing that Majid wanted him present when he took his own life, that George in many ways was the cause of this death.
And this is what makes it so shocking in the end, because it is so very surprising and sudden: because it is without any music or anything else to build up the tension, and because one can only imagine the impact this must have on the person it is directed at.
1. In the shower (Psycho, 1960)
The scene: After Marion Crane has had an enlightening conversation with Norman Bates, the caretaker of the motel she stays at, Marion decides that she will go back to Phoenix and undo her wrongs the very next morning. As she takes a shower in the evening, however, a shadowy figure with a big knife is seen, and Marion screams as she is stabbed to death and her blood runs down the drains.
Why: Probably one of the most famous scenes in all of film history, the scene has in part become so, because it was, and is, so very shocking. There’s, of course, the camera angles and editing that help give the illusion of a naked Marion – which was sensational at the time – but also gives a sense of horror and panic, as well as a creeping feeling that Marion has no idea of what is about to happen to her.
However, most shocking was probably the fact that Marion was actually killed. A character played by a major Hollywood actress (Janet Leigh) that is presumed to be the main character is usually not killed a third of the way through the film, but Hitchcock does precisely this, and it’s both shocking and immensely impactful.