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The 25 Scariest Moments in Non-Horror Movies

The 25 Scariest Moments in Non-Horror Movies (photo)

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When you sit down to a horror film, you know, at least on a basic level, what you’re getting into. Whether or not the movie delivers, what you’ve been promised, and what you’re braced for or looking forward to, are scares. Which is why, when we look back on those truly traumatic movie memories, the titles that come to mind often are not horror films at all.

The most frightening movie moments can arrive out of nowhere, in the midst of where they shouldn’t belong, catching you when you’re vulnerable — which is why there are a few alleged children’s films on this list. But they can also creep up on you, working a different kind of dread, which is where some of the documentaries included below fit in. Fear is a funny thing. It comes in different varieties, it can work its way on you in unanticipated, and, as our collection here proves, it definitely doesn’t always stem from things that go bump in the night.

10262009_Safe.jpg25. Carol gets a perm
“Safe” (1995)
Directed by Todd Haynes

Never has Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” been used to more chilling effect than when it’s blaring at the hair salon where Carol White (Julianne Moore) awaits her hair stylist. In what is supposed to be a respite from the pollution of urban life and the confines of a predictable life as an upper class housewife, Carol attempts indulging herself after other late ’80s panaceas like New Agey meditation videos and strenuous workouts don’t do the trick. (As one of Carol’s exercise partners notice, she doesn’t even break a sweat.) Yet when Carol arrives at the salon, it feels as inviting as one of those elaborate Rube Goldberg death traps — even Carol’s stylist’s (Janel Moloney) tentative agreement to fit Carol’s perm into her schedule after a cancellation sounds foreboding. After an afternoon of having her hair tightly wound around rollers and drowned in chemicals, Carol sits unfazed by her new wavy do as a rivulet of blood drips from her nose in a confirmation that she has been somehow poisoned by modern life. Producer Christine Vachon complains of Moore’s hair on the DVD commentary, “This was the day the hair would not curl.” Hair? No. Toe-curling? Yes. – Stephen Saito

10262009_BourneUltimatum.jpg24. The wrong man is disappeared
“The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)
Directed by Paul Greengrass

The dogged pursuit of Jason Bourne through jam-packed Waterloo Station is one of the “Bourne” trilogy’s great set-pieces, but it’s also a profoundly unnerving comment on the impunity with which covert government agencies operate in the “war on terror” era. The sequence climaxes with Paddy Considine, a journalist for a major British newspaper, being gunned down in broad daylight — no surreptitiously cut brake cables or undetectable poisons here — but even that’s not as unsettling as the matter-of-fact manner in which an unsuspecting civilian who’s been mistaken for Bourne is grabbed, drugged and thrown into a van, never to be heard from again. The abruptness with which an innocent bystander is converted to enemy combatant is breathtaking, not least because the film lets the moment pass unremarked upon. Bourne never mounts a rescue operation to rescue the poor soul, nor is there so much as a stray line indicating he’s been found unharmed. In the government’s pursuit of extralegal justice, ordinary citizens are just cannon fodder, and even the good guys don’t have time to save them. – Sam Adams

10262009_DeliverUsFromEvil.jpg23. Father O’Grady takes a walk in the park
“Deliver Us From Evil” (2006)
Directed by Amy Berg

Ten minutes into the documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” when the film has just begun to hint at the full scope of the crimes committed by Father Oliver O’Grady, it cuts to a shot of the former priest walking toward the edge of a playground full of young children. To this point, we’ve only heard vague allusions to the “trouble” O’Grady got into some 30 years prior. From the shot of him watching the children, we cut to the innocent looking old man standing in what looks like the same park, talking to the camera about his sexual proclivities. “If [someone] said to me… ‘Do you feel aroused when you see children?’ [I’d say] well, maybe… ‘How about if you saw children naked?’ I’d say ‘Mmhmm, yeah!’ ” O’Grady isn’t embarrassed or ashamed; he’s downright cheerful in a way that suggests he has no conception of the heinousness of his behavior. The most sickening part involves O’Grady describing his preferred victim, someone on what he calls “a younger level.” To indicate that he likes smaller children, he makes a yea-high gesture with his hand, just as an oblivious child of almost that exact height walks through the shot. Berg essentially ends the scene there, maybe because she felt as uncomfortable shooting it as we do watching it. – Matt Singer

10262009_FannyandAlexander.jpg22. Alexander and the puppets
“Fanny and Alexander” (1982)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Dylan Walsh may have recently dispatched a swinging table saw on his new brood in “The Stepfather” remake, but he’s got nothing on the Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), the silver-haired man of God who wastes no time in doing ungodly things to his recently inherited stepchildren. Compassionate only in the sense that when he catches Alexander in a lie, the bishop offers the child a choice of “cane, castor oil or [to stay in a] cubbyhole” as forms of punishment, so when the children are snuck out of the house by an antiques dealer and taken into his home, where he lives with his nephew Ishmael, Alexander is filled with fear and contempt. Surrounded by Ishamel’s creepy collection of puppets, Alexander believes he’s found God when he hears a voice from behind a locked door as the other puppets tremble. “Is this is the end of me,” asks a resigned Alexander, as director Ingmar Bergman ratchets up the terror with only the pluck of violin strings to pierce the silence. When a bearded puppet emerges and falls to the floor, Alexander realizes Ishmael was only playing a joke on him, with the puppeteer whispering to the child, “I didn’t mean to scare you. At least, not that much.” Tell that to the audience. – Stephen Saito

10262009_RaidersoftheLostArk.jpg21. Opening the Ark
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

For every kid growing up in the 1980s, there was one childhood-defining test of your movie-watching cojones: could you keep your eyes open during the Ark-cracking sequence from “Raiders”? Few scenes in movie history have been watched with more hands in front of more faces than the icky, melty, explody fate that awaits Belloq, Toht and the rest of the Nazis at the end of Indiana Jones’ first adventure. Hell, even Indy himself keeps his eyes closed for as long as the Ark is open; who could blame anyone for following his lead and doing the same? The disturbing imagery — skin peeling away from skulls, while white pus and red blood pour out of every orifice — was so grisly that the MPAA initially slapped “Raiders” with an R rating. In order to secure the PG he needed to convince our parents that it was okay to sit their children in front of this nightmare fuel, Spielberg superimposed a wall of flames over the most intense shots. Still, as potentially traumatic as the images are, the scariest part is the fact that the movie invites you to do what Indy doesn’t, to look into the Ark and perhaps share the Nazi’s fate. Once you’d watched the scene and survived the initial fright, you still had to endure an interminable, panic-stricken night waiting for the Ark’s spirits to show up at your house and melt you into a big pile of goo. – Matt Singer

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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