Back to IndieWire

The Best Movie Jump-Scares of All Time — IndieWire Critics Survey

"A Quiet Place" cleverly weaponizes one of the horror genre's favorite tricks, but its jolts aren't nearly as nerve-fraying as these ones.

“A Quiet Place”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

Last weekend saw the release of “A Quiet Place,” the premise of which is a fiendishly clever mechanism for celebrating the time-honored art of the jump-scare. Some of us love them, some of us don’t, but there’s no denying that they get the job done.

In that light, we ask: What’s the greatest jump-scare of them all?

Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba / Riot Material

“Jaws”

“Jaws.” There’s no jump scare as thrilling and iconic as when the shark pops out of the water while Brody is grousing and shoveling chum. Spielberg abandons that chilling theme that played as warning that the beast was coming. He breaks the contract with the audience that they will be warned. And it takes the terror of Jaws to the next level, sold by Roy Scheider’s shocked expression, not even a scream. It’s a scene that plays on complacency and visuals alone. And no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it still makes me jump.

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice, Slash Film

“The Fellowship of the Ring”

Show me someone who says anything other than Bilbo Baggins lunging at Frodo with those Devil eyes in “The Fellowship of the Ring” and I’ll show you a filthy, lying Hobbitses. Let’s see Jeff Bezos try and top that with his $1 billion dollar “Lord of the Rings” series shot with Amazon drones.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Film School Rejects, Nonfics

“Signs”

Two jump scares come to mind that are relevant to “A Quiet Place,” actually. And they both have very different effects on the characters, which I find interesting. The first is when Alan Arkin jumps out from the darkness in “Wait Until Dark.” The audience gets the scare a second before Audrey Hepburn does, because of her blindness. But then he grabs her leg and shares our screams. As far as the fear of having limited senses goes, the moment is right there with Millicent Simmonds’ deaf character in “A Quiet Place” being suddenly stalked by a creature she can’t hear and doesn’t realize is behind her. The other movie is in “Signs,” M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly set, similarly small-scope alien invasion thriller. When Joaquin Phoenix is watching a clip on TV and the alien first walks into view, we jump and he jumps at the same time. That identification with the character makes us even more aware of what’s just happened to us. Both instances were very effective in the theater as a shared experience with the rest of the audience (so I hear with “Wait Until Dark,” but I did experience that with “Signs”) as well as the people on screen.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Harper’s Bazaar, IGN, /Film

“The Ring”

While it’s certainly not the only great one, “The Ring” jumps immediately to my mind. I just remember watching the movie for the first time the year it was released and the scene when Samara crawls out of the TV screen. It was everything about that moment in the movie. We finally see more than the relatively harmless well scene we’d seen several times before in the movie, so just like Noah (Martin Henderson), we’re watching the screen intently to find out more about what happened to Samara. As she crawls closer and closer to the screen, never was I thinking that she was going to actually come out of it and into Noah’s living — essentially crossing the boundary between horror footage and reality. I think I was shocked into silence at that moment. It remains an utterly crazy yet effective sequence.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“Diabolique”

From the start of my movie days, I’ve preferred jump cuts to jump scares, which are generally easy tricks underlined by a blunt music blast. (Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony got the jump on them all, in 1792.) But the first one that made any impression on me, at at impressionable age, is the climactic bathtub scene near the end of Clouzot’s “Diabolique”; to that point, I found the film dull, but I’ve never forgotten that jolt, or the second shock in quick succession that sustains the jump as if holding its breath in mid-air.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

“Se7en”

In my opinion, a truly effective jump scare should be able to pass through all five levels of inception. Meaning, the screaming Nana in M. Night Shymalan’s “The Visit” (2015) shook me up (much like the jump scares in classic horror films), but — during a first viewing — she didn’t have the same effect as the Sloth victim in David Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995). That jump scare still gets to me; I’m like Dom Cobb waking up on the beach, confronted by an image that permanently lives within my subconscious. It’s all about the narrative context.

Back in ’95, “Se7en” instilled a real-life sense of cinematic horror that I hadn’t previously experienced as a naive 15-year-old kid from small town Minnesota. When detectives David Mills and William Somerset approach the “Sloth” crime scene, one can anticipate something gruesome. Furthermore, the dark visual aesthetic strengthens the overall mood. But the inherent horror is the “WHY?” — what’s this all about? It’s a slow burn as the pieces come together… and then the skeletal victim comes to life, leaving one to process the visual, along with the backstory.

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

“Mulholland Drive”

Maybe they’re shameless, but a well-deployed jump-scare requires timing and craft. I respect filmmakers who can pull them off. It’s part of what makes horror a stylish genre—not for those who simply want to plunk down the camera and roll. My favorite comes in “Mulholland Drive” (yes, David Lynch isn’t above jump-scares): It’s the moment when we see the monster behind the diner. (This isn’t a “hobo” and I refuse to call it that.) Two technical elements make the instant especially effective. First, Lynch’s droning sound design creates a carpet of unease long before we’re shocked: echoey footfalls, smeary orchestral strings, that “whooshing” noise Lynch must have a bottomless supply of. Second, when we cut back to the alley (did we actually just see that?), you notice a hint of the creature sliding away. Ruinous.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

“Amour”

As pretentious as my answer might sound, the truth of the matter is that the individual “jump-scares” that tend to stick with me are the ones that aren’t in traditional horror films (where the jolts have a way of blurring together). For me, the two jump-scares that gave me the biggest fright came from very unexpected places. The first comes from the last shot of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love,” the late auteur — who was always happier to put an audience to sleep than he was to shake them awake — ending his final narrative feature by shattering a glass window. The second one announces the opening shot of Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s fiercely anti-sentimental love story beginning with the BANG of a police team bursting into a musty Paris apartment that hides a morbid surprise.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

“Jaws”

I am neither a horror aficionado (nor particular fan) nor lover of the jump-scare, though like any cinematic device, it can work if used in moderation and in the right place. I happen to be one of the few film critics (3%, according to Rotten Tomatoes, a percentage I am proud to have contributed to!) who did not much like “A Quiet Place,” either, though I enjoyed much of Krasinski’s direction (it’s the script I found profoundly wanting). I did not, however, enjoy the directors trite use of jump-scares. And there’s the rub: when you sense the obviousness of the manipulation (of anything, really), it makes it a lot less fun. Bah, humbug.

So, take that as you will as I offer up the following as the best jump-scare of all time. My absolute favorite comes in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975), when we are under water with Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) as he is looking for signs of the killer great white, at night, along the hull of what appears to be an abandoned boat. We keep expecting the shark, itself, to show up, so when, instead, the severed head of the boat’s owner pops into the gaping hole in the hull, it comes as a complete shocker, terrifying … but also kind of funny (as amusing as human death can be, anyway). We scream, but then laugh with relief, because it was a true surprise (the best kind of jump-scare) and … not the shark. Chalk one up for Spielberg and his terrific editor, Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for her work here).

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance

“It Follows”

The Tall Man Through the Door in “It Follows.”

Maligned because they are often overused and cued in by overbearing musical scores, jump-scares are the bread and butter of plenty of horror films. In fact, many of these movies exist solely to house a series of jump-scares forcefully written into the plot, and most of them are included in the trailer. However, when a jump-scare is executed with an imaginative and inconspicuous approach, it can become the highlight of a film that will have audiences reeling long after the piece is over. One of the greatest examples in recent memory of an ingeniously terrifying jump-scare is in David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows.”  When Jay (Maika Monroe) and her friends are in her room in a state of panic, there is a knock at the door. Reluctantly, after hearing their friend’s voice on the other side, they decide to open it, out of nowhere a horrific tall man with empty black eyes walks through the door making the protagonist (and the audience) scream. Mitchell’s fantastic “It Follows” has several unexpected and highly effective jump-scares like those during a beach sequence or every time one of the otherworldly entities appears. He manages to fit the trope into an inventive concept. We’ve come expect jump-scares and have become almost desensitized to them, but when a director turns them on their head with a clever set up, they work.

Stephen Whitty (@Stephen Whitty), Freelance

“Phantasm II”

I’m not a huge fan of jump scares, which strike me as about as creative as the director suddenly jumping up behind me in the theater and shouting “Boo!” (Actually, I might prefer that. It sounds very William Castle-y.) Certainly they have their place, but it’s been a long road down from Val  Lewton’s “bus” in “Cat People” to the endless parade of slammed medicine-cabinet and refrigerator doors, revealing a menace on the other side. Or the obligatory sudden shocks at the end of long, protracted walks through the spooky house/abandoned factory/empty building (in which the editing has gotten so predictable you can practically count the beats). That said, they occasionally do work — best, I think, when they have a certain mocking self-awareness. Like the end of “Phantasm II,” which seems to wrapping things up with the comforting assertion “It’s just a dream…” Until the Tall Man appears with a sudden, snarled “No… it’s not!”

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board

“The Orphanage”

I don’t want to spoil it, because I feel that there are people still discovering Juan Bayona’s “The Orphanage” and maybe even more will after seeing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” It’s a great little Spanish ghost story that’s going on at a quiet but eerie clip, and then something happens out in the real world that isn’t necessarily scary. But as you’re watching this real-world event, Bayona throws in an unexpected jump scare, and I remember watching this, I think at the Park Avenue Screening Room, and when that happened, I literally exclaimed “Holy Shit!” very loudly, to the point where I looked around me to see if anyone noticed because this was a press screening filled with mostly quiet critics.

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair

“Drag Me to Hell”

There’s a nifty moment in “Drag Me To Hell,” in the parking garage, where the camera slowly pans back to the car to reveal that the creepy old lady is in the back seat. It is very effective because there is no pinpointed jump. She is just simply there. When the jump happens is entirely dependent on when YOU realize that something scary is happening.  I saw the movie is packed theaters twice and the shouts (“oh shit!”s to be more precise) happened at different times.

Another weird one is “The Dreamlife of Angels” (seriously) which I saw on opening night at the old Quad. One main character sees something horrible and yelps but does it in such a real way that the audience yelps with her before we even see what she sees. Once we see it, we yelp again! (Maybe I just went to that with a jittery crowd.)

Also: “Jaws,” naturally. Saw that at the Ziegfeld, packed house, and the place went bonkers. Good times!

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “A Quiet Place”

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,