There are horror movies we watch just because they’re gruesome. Films like Hostel, Saw, or even extremes like Cannibal Holocaust take us to a dark, dark place if we’re willing to go. Not every feature has to do that, of course. There are plenty of good, relatively tame features that are considered to be classics of the genre. Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre both feature very little gore.
There are plenty of solid PG-13 horror films and even PG horror as well. But even those, every now and then, will feature scenes that you don’t expect. Sometimes they’re shocking because they’re unexpectedly gross or gory, sometimes they’re just scarier than you would expect to find in a movie of that type. These scenes come out of nowhere, but they can be great.
You don’t expect moments like this. When a film is relatively tame, it’s often expected to be safe. Sometimes it’s not and that can completely catch the audience off-guard.
It’s the unexpectedness of these movies, though, that ultimately makes them so memorable. Here are a few of our favorite examples.
“I saw her face,” in The Ring
Up until this point, The Ring is creepy. We’re still hanging on the suspense of that opening because we don’t entirely know what happened. We’re at the funeral, Naomi Watts is piecing together information, and as she’s getting the gaps filled in about what occurred here from the girl’s broken-hearted mother we’re treated to a quick glimpse of the corpse. It’s horrifying. It’s so quick that we can’t tell what happened, yet the image is practically burned into our minds.
Gremlins has moments of horror, absolutely. But it’s never gory or gross until the end, which spirals into Evil Dead territory as Stripe attacks Billy with a chainsaw before being blasted by sunlight. His death is long and leaves nothing to the imagination. He melts before our eyes, turning from an evil little monster to a pulpy puddle of puke. His bulging white eyes, crumbling skull—it’s all classic horror stuff.
The gunshot boy in The Sixth Sense
Stephen King’s general rule of thumb is that when creating horror, you try to scare people by building dread and tension, if that doesn’t work, you try to creep them out, and if that doesn’t work, you go for the gross-out. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was labeled as a fairly classy movie, but even it wasn’t above the gross-out. In this scene, we can kind of already tell that this kid is a ghost, but aren’t totally sure what’s wrong with him until he says “I’ll show you where my dad keeps his gun” and turns around to reveal that the whole back of his head has been blown off.
The body in the boat in Jaws
As much as Jaws might be a PG movie, it packs the punch of R-rated horror in several scenes. This sequence in particular feels right at home in an ‘80s slasher as Hooper, diving for evidence of the shark, bites off more than he can chew—pun intended—when he comes face to face with a corpse’s head in this gruesome jump scare. Seeing the film in theaters a couple of years ago, I can happily confirm that the moment still works.
That funeral interruption in Drag Me to Hell
It’s hard to defend Christine too much in this movie when she barges in on the funeral of the woman who cursed her, totally overturns the coffin and knocks the old woman’s corpse over on top of her. Appropriately, the dead body vomits all sorts of gross Sam Raimi crap into her mouth. It’s such a refreshing scene. This is probably the moment when the audience truly understands that they’re seeing classic Raimi horror, even if it’s PG-13, as everything about this moment screams of Evil Dead 2.
The face melting scene in Poltergeist
There are tons of horrifying scenes in Poltergeist. There are so many that could have made it onto this list. But even with a swimming pool full of corpses, there’s only one scene that’s truly gruesome and that’s the scene in which one of the paranormal investigator pulls off his own face in front of a mirror. It’s gory and genuinely unsettling, even if it turns out to just be a nightmarish projection.
The drowning scene in Frankenstein
The early Universal monster movies were all very tame. We never saw the Wolf Man tear anyone limb from limb. He just kind of strangled people. Dracula never even got to have fangs, we never saw him bite anyone, even some of the vampires he made never appeared on screen. And then there’s Frankenstein. This iconic scene has, in some ways, never truly been equaled. The Monster kills her by accident. He doesn’t understand what he’s done. As unnerving as the drowning is, the true horror is watching the girl’s father carry her lifeless body through the town.