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7 of the Most Stressful Moments in Film History

11 June 22 words: LeftLion Screen Team

From Goodfellas to Funny Games, there have been some proper tense moments on the big screen...


While the popular choice might well be Joe Pesci’s infamous ‘Funny how?’ scene, the moment from Goodfellas I’ve always found the most stressful comes when Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, awakens to find his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), straddling him, calmly holding a Smith & Wesson 64 Snub just inches from his face. She’s a woman that’s been pushed to the limits by a life that’s quickly becoming far more than she ever imagined, and her husband’s incessant lying, cheating and duplicity have tipped her over the edge. 

Scorsese’s framing ramps the anxiety and claustrophobia up, as we suddenly find ourselves staring down the barrel of the firearm, with Karen’s face, iconic hair and steady hands only becoming visible once the focus is pulled from gun to gun-holder as she whispers “Wake up Henry.” But perhaps what’s most remarkable is Henry’s reaction. Evidently a man not unaccustomed to having guns in his face, he peacefully reassures and calms her down, whispering like a cowboy taming a wild horse, before finally persuading her to hand the firearm over. No sooner has the power shifted from her to him that the façade slips, and he explodes in a fit of rage, humiliation and betrayal, turning the gun on her and screaming “I should fucking kill you. How does it feel?” before leaving her a whimpering wreck on the floor, as his anger continues off screen. Ashley Carter (Editor)

Inglourious Basterds

Now, I’m not the biggest Quentin Tarantino fan, but no one can doubt his ability to create a moment. And, for all the director's success on the big screen over the last three decades, no moment is more impactful, more stress-inducing, than the opening to 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.

Christoph Waltz is in sumptuously sinister form as the despicable Col. Hans Landa, toying with the likeable LaPadite family in unnervingly perverse ways as he aims to uncover the whereabouts of their Jewish neighbours. To say there’s an underlying tension here is a colossal understatement; hostilities threaten to boil over at any minute, leaving you on the edge of your seat, praying for the Lapadites to get away safely. Not only is this gripping cinema in its own right, but this scene also lays the groundwork for the joyous sense of relief viewers feel later in the film, as Landa and co get their comeuppance in a gloriously gory fashion. George White (Assistant Editor) 


Empty corridors, an orchestral rendition of Got 5 on It, and white rabbits. In isolation, each of these things might be a little unsettling at most – but when they form the backdrop of a chase scene featuring a vengeful doppelgänger and a pair of scissors, they facilitate a sense of suffocating dread. 

The final face-off between gutsy mum Adelaide and her mirror image, Red (both played by the exceptional Lupita Nyong’o), is the most distressing scene in a film made up almost entirely of fear and stress. Red’s stilted movement – speed-walking, not running – and piercing gaze are the stuff of nightmares, and there’s a sinking feeling that even if Addie escapes her identical pursuer, she’ll never truly be free from the ties that bind. Jamie Morris (Screen Editor)

Silence of the Lambs

Thinking of a tense scene isn’t difficult for me. I watch most films peeking out from behind a pillow, or looking through the gaps between my fingers. Horror films make sleep impossible and thrillers have my shoulders shooting up to my ears. But if I had to pick the most tense scene I could think of, it would definitely come from Jonathon Demme’s Silence of The Lambs which, to be frank, is too scary for this easily-startled writer. Nonetheless, I can appreciate the masterful tension that creeps up on you throughout this film, reaching a peak as James Gumb (aka Buffalo Bill) stalks FBI agent Clarice Starling in the dark basement. Filmed as a first person POV shot, we watch Clarice through the gaze of Buffalo Bill’s night vision goggles. Unable to help or warn her, the technique will have you on the edge of your seat. Lizzy O’Riordan (Editorial Assistant)

Funny Games

Comfortably the most anxiety-inducing film I’ve ever seen, I made the mistake of watching Haneke’s masterpiece (the original German version, not his shot-for-shot English language remake) alone in the dark. The story of two preppy young men messing with a vacationing family progresses at such an unsettling pace, and has always reminded me of Eli Wiesel’s description of how the Nazis managed to implement the Holocaust in Night. Rather than turning up on day one and demanding everyone move into camps, they first demand something far less unreasonable, and slowly build from there until their victims are in a situation they can’t comprehend. 

When the two boys first arrive at the house, their request to borrow some eggs for breakfast seems innocuous enough, but then the eggs are broken and they’re asking for more. And on it goes, until the wife is gagged and bound and the family realise none of them are seeing the day out alive. While there are scenes far more violent and shocking, the moment that sent chills of anxiety running through me comes when one of the two villains, Arno Frisch’s Paul, breaks the fourth wall. The back of his head is centre frame as the family discover their latest escalation of violence – the killing of the family dog. Suddenly, his head turns and his dead eyes lock on ours as he offers a cheeky wink. In that moment, we as the viewer go from being passive observers to somehow complicit in the atrocities. An absolute masterclass in examining social attitudes towards violence in a criminally underseen and underrated film. Jason 'Eddie' Edgar


I had a hard time coming up with a stressful or scary movie moment as I simply cannot deal with horror or anything that makes me nervous, but then I remembered how expertly the Juarez border scene in Sicario is executed. The 2015 release is a decent film that subverts expectations, but the shootout on the highway is the best of the bunch. 

The tension really builds up for about fifteen minutes overall, with beautiful cinematography, panning aerial shots, and a deeply immersive soundtrack - yep, we are definitely in a Denis Villeneuve film. What’s so impressive about this scene is that it is treated like a horror movie in itself; the score builds and builds - akin to the Jaws theme - until it reaches a crescendo culminating in about fifteen seconds of bloody violenceMichael Vince

The Deer Hunter

There are those certain, special scenes where you remember exactly how they made you feel, those scenes that alter you in ways that you never knew possible through the medium of film. The climax of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has one such scene; it was the first time a film actually made me sweat. Picture me sat bolt upright, watching Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken face off in a game of Russian roulette knowing only one of them will be getting up from the table alive. To tell you the truth, I had to pause for a second and tell my friends about my new-found, cinematically-induced perspiration. Cimino’s tender, epic exploration of friendship and loss in the midst of the Vietnam War has not only one, but two exhausting depictions of Russian roulette, but it’s the finale in which all of the emotional stakes are on the line. Aaron Roe

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