Some movies are so bland they pretty much leave your head as the end credits roll. Others contain such unnerving scenes… like the opening of Jaws … that they are never forgotten. The horrifying death of that helpless skinny dipper is the perfect example of how a movie can worm its way into your brain and lay eggs, eggs that may one day burst into maggoty life, especially if about to be confronted by a similar situation. In other words, steer clear of the below movies if you’re about to do any of the following:
1. Undergo an Operation
Based on Robin Cook’s excellent medical thriller and positioned at the start of Michael Douglas’ stellar acting career, Coma taps into the indisputable fact that not everyone who goes into hospital comes back out. Just imagine lying on the operating table, the anesthetic is taking hold, the doctor’s face is peering down and… that’s it. Your life is done. There are some really excellent moments in this 1978 classic, including a chase through a room full of cadavers and an oddly beautiful array of suspended comatose patients at the mysterious Jefferson Institute. It’s a creepy picture that explores our unease over bodily invasion as well as our morbid fascination with organ transplants. The 1990 British movie Paper Mask about an ambitious hospital porter shakily impersonating a doctor is probably best avoided before a checkup, too. Both should only be watched in rosy-cheeked health.
2. Pick Up a Hitcher
“My mother told me to never do this,” a hopelessly naive C. Thomas Howell tells a rain-soaked Rutger Hauer getting into his car at the start of the high-octane The Hitcher. And for good reason … within a few minutes Hauer is running a switchblade up and down the kindly driver’s cheek while waxing lyrical about puncturing an eyeball. What follows is a wild ride, filled with explosions, car chases and frankly ludicrous moments as the hitcher’s stealth and amazing timing mark him out as the world’s most bad-ass ninja. Still, it’s an unsettling flick, dominated by Hauer’s icy but playful performance that must rank as his most famous after Blade Runner. And while it might prompt you to rummage through every pile of French fries placed in front of you ever again, The Hitcher is more likely to start replaying in your head the next time you consider giving a lift to that lonely roadside figure in the distance.
3. Sleep with a New Partner
In It Follows Maika Monroe sleeps with her new boyfriend only to wake up and find a demonic entity relentlessly pursuing her. Like many horror movies, this 2014 effort links sex with punishment. Unlike others, it remains open to a wide variety of interpretations. Why is it on her tail? Sure, sex is a minefield, sometimes leading to guilt, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, self-disgust and shame, but this methodically paced chiller goes a step further by suggesting that your next carnal encounter might just be the biggest mistake of your life. It Follows is an icky-filled treat that will never become an acceptable first-date movie until Durex starts making demon-repelling condoms.
4. Catch a Plane
About as likely to turn up on a flight’s inboard entertainment package as the passenger chomp-fest Alive, United 93 is a decent film that continues to be a sobering reminder of what can happen after you walk down a jetway. Takeoff and landing are bad enough for some people, but what if your luck well and truly runs out in midair? Frustratingly jettisoning any characterization or religious/geo-political comment, director Paul Greengrass instead chooses to go with a straightforward depiction of the awful events. Perhaps this is the right decision, but the omission of a wider context (and any mention of Islam) does feel like a PC whitewash. Whatever the case, you still cannot help but put yourself in the passengers’ doomed shoes. What would you do in such a terrifying situation?
5. Scuba Dive
Based on a tragic true story that led to major safety changes in the Australian scuba-diving industry, the plot of Open Water could not be simpler. After an inaccurate headcount of returning divers, a romantically involved couple resurface to find their dive-ship long gone. They are all alone in the big blue sea with only the horizon, the sun, dehydration, circling sharks and mounting terror for company. Open Water did well at the box office but is still dismissed as lame by some. It wisely keeps its run time short because there is only so much you can do with two people bobbing around on the waves, but I feel it generates an existential jolt like no other. Most of us think our life matters, that it has some purpose and a little meaning, yet I can’t ever recall sitting through a movie that so effectively obliterates such lofty notions. In the great scheme of things, we really are puny, insignificant life-forms.
6. Visit the Dentist
A dentist’s surgery is never top of anyone’s favorite places, usually because there is one visit you can never quite forget. For my part, I was thirteen and in pain from a sporting accident when a dentist put a couple of stitches into my upper gum without anesthetic. Yikes. The only explanation I have was that he was a sadist. Or drunk. Even so, he paled next to Laurence Olivier’s ex-Nazi in Marathon Man. Based on William Goldman’s well-written novel, Marathon Man sees Dustin Hoffman impressively in shape, his commitment to the role’s physical demands matched by excellent direction and Roy Scheider’s solid support. However, it is the dental torture scene that everyone remembers. The interplay between a dead-eyed, drill-wielding Olivier (alternatively inflicting horrendous pain and blessed relief) and a screaming, utterly bewildered Hoffman is a squirm-inducing piece of cinema par excellence. So, no, it is not safe to watch this flick before going to the dentist.
Wolf Creek remains the only movie in which I have felt dread. No doubt this is because I used to backpack, sometimes finding myself in the middle of nowhere accepting the kindness of strangers just like the three unlucky sods in this hardcore Australian terror-fest. Boasting a great villainous turn by John Jarratt, Wolf Creek was also given a surreal frisson when I attended its Brisbane premiere as a journalist. This included a post-event soiree with the star. One moment I was wincing at a celluloid serial killer’s head-on-a-stick antics, the next I was in the same room with the guy. Watching him sip a glass of white wine with his murderous mayhem fresh in my mind was the perfect testament to how cinema can fog reality. I knew he was only an actor and yet I still wanted to flee. I’ve not been backpacking since. Cheers, mate!
8. Get a Job
Whether it is the infuriating commute along traffic-choked roads, the idiotic colleagues who cannot be escaped, the malfunctioning technology or the smarmy boss who wants you to do an extra shift on Saturdays, Office Space touches many a nerve with its depiction of quiet, cubicle-dwelling insanity. Its inclusion here is obviously intended as a bit of light relief, but the frequent laughs it generates are still borne out of deep, deep despair. Perhaps your next job will not be too dissimilar. Hell, perhaps you already have a workmate called Michael Bolton. Maybe embezzlement and burning the place down are the next logical steps in your ‘career’. Simply put, it only takes one viewing of the great Office Space to grasp that all the wondrous possibilities of life really can be reduced to this pointless drudgery. Some jobs will take your soul.
To paraphrase the song, if you go down to the woods today, you’re bound to get a big surprise… To be honest, I was spoiled for choice when it came to thinking of movies that portray hellish camping trips. Perhaps it’s the isolation, the numerous places for ambush, the elemental forces of nature, and the city-dweller’s sheer lack of nous in such surroundings that attract movie-makers like John Boorman. His tremendous Deliverance swats aside efforts such as Blair Witch because its depiction of human savagery and the primordial will to survive make it worryingly plausible. Four guys go deep into the woods on a canoeing trip to appreciate the awe-inspiring majesty of a Georgian river before it’s dammed. One moment they are enjoying male camaraderie and a bit of inspired banjo playing, the next they are enduring a sexual onslaught (that might very well end in murder) from two of cinema’s most dementedly convincing hillbillies. Life, my friend, as the movies continually show us, is most definitely not a teddy bears’ picnic.
“You’re pregnant,” a barely credulous Mia Farrow tells her reflection in Rosemary’s Baby, but in the fraction her face falls you can tell darker thoughts are already intruding. It’s a fleeting scene that expertly captures the seesawing emotions of impending parenthood. Now you will probably not end up with a chalky face, a terrible haircut, satanic neighbors and a gnawing sense of unease, but it is possible that your nine-month journey and beyond may not quite go as hoped. What if your partner can’t be relied upon? What if little Andy or Jenny fails to make life complete and is just a nightmare from day one? Then again, as the tortured Farrow eventually discovers, perhaps the scariest thing about becoming a parent is that even if your child turns out to be diabolical, you still have to love the little brat. Hail, Satan!