My Take by Jim Carl - July 1, 2013

My Top 5 "Gotcha!" Moments in Movies

A great "gotcha!" moment in a scary movie is one you never saw coming, one you never suspected was on its way.  It jerks you upright in your seat and instantly turns you stone- cold sober.  In other cases, it petrifies you.  This is not the same as suspense or fear which, if I have to define for you, probably means you're too wet behind the ears to be reading my blog and should go back to gnawing on your Orbit gum and analyzing the differences between the book and latest movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby.               

You have to be of a certain age and mindset for a "gotcha!" moment to really work.  And by work, I mean make a lasting impression beyond just giving you a good startle for a few minutes.  I'm talking the type of psychological scar that carries into adulthood and keeps drug manufacturers in business.  Kids know "gotcha!" moments better than adults.  Adults argue that's because kids are so impressionable.  But no, I would say it's because most children can't believe their parents took them to see a movie that screwed them in the head so bad.  Kids never forget those moments.

Like a dog that’s been trained to sense when there's a ghost in the house, I've become psychically-conditioned over time to recognize when a "gotcha!" moment is coming, whether it's the editing, the framing, or just plain old-fashioned common sense.  You've seen one madman with a knife jump out of a closet, you've seen 'em all, I'm only saying.  But once upon a time when Carter and Reagan were in office and Bo and Luke Duke were throttling the General Lee all over Hazzard County and back, I was much more naive about such things, and there were moments in movies that made me lose my mind.            

Here are the ones my doctors find most fascinating:

JAWS (1975)
"The head pops out of the bottom of the boat."
It says something about my West Texas upbringing that some of my earliest movie-going memories are of The Exorcist, Escape from Witch Mountain, Ode to Billy Joe, and this movie.  I could not have been more than seven years old.  When I unlock this memory, the Texas Theatre in Sweetwater is filled with a packed and rowdy audience, mostly cowboys, gunslingers, and outlaws.  I'm sitting between my Aunt Eva and my mother, somewhere in the center of the dark auditorium.  The screen is huge, it seems, maybe 200 feet.  And when Richard Dreyfuss swims under that sinking boat to investigate its hull...well, the next few moments in my mind's eye resemble those advertisements about 3-D they used to run in the early 80s.  The cowboys are screaming, buttered popcorn is flying, and searchlights are scanning the room for escaped criminals in bloody, orange jumpsuits.  My memory resembles something like that. Jaws holds the distinction of having the first "gotcha!" moment in my life.  It was also the first---and last---time I ever held my mother at the movies.            

THE THING (1982)
"The blood jumps out of the petri dish."
It's all about misdirection, isn't it?  Have your characters talk, talk, talk until the audience grows complacent and then---BAM!---strike when they least expect it.  That's what happens here.  I've come to recognize this technique in lots of other horror movies but, for me, The Thing got there first.  John Carpenter's remake has an example of this technique, brilliantly executed.  That the blood screams as it jumps out of the petri dish makes the memory even more disturbing.  Nowadays, whenever a character starts yapping on and on during a scare flick and the camera doesn't cut away to a reaction shot, I grow fidgety and start scrutinizing the edges of the frame for something to pop into view, and I'm rarely disappointed. I suppose I shouldn't bitch too much about this technique being overused---although I take great joy in doing so, especially to anyone who thinks Paranormal Activity is a scary movie---because it's hard to improve something that effectively works.              

"The nurse gets it."
Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re being set-up for a whammy until it’s too late.  The camera just sits there, silently observing from a distance, as characters move through the scene without much ado on their daily routine.  This is a reversal from the technique I described in The Thing.   Here, serenity is the whore that sells you out.  Exorcist III has probably the last true "gotcha!" moment I ever experienced at the movies. I was 22 years old and saw this in a Times Square theatre with a sold-out crowd on opening night.  If you've seen the movie, you'll probably agree when I write that it's a fairly competent thriller with one truly frightening and brilliant scene.  It involves a nurse, a hallway, and a hooded figure carrying a really evil set of clippers.  I've shown this movie to friends over the years just to gauge their reaction to this single scene, and it's never failed to deliver the goods.  It amazes me that this scene hasn't been ripped-off in countless other movies, but no, it remains a true original.        

CARRIE (1976)
"Carrie comes out of her grave."
My mother and Aunt Eva had an earnest discussion about whether or not to take me to see this movie.  I must have been eight years old.  Of course, what I didn't know then was that their conversation had centered around the explicit nudity during the menstruation scene in the girl's locker room and not the film's violence which, as most West Texan Catholic women in the 70s imagined, was perfectly fine for non-Baptist children, what with crucified Jesus hanging over our heads every Sunday morning in church.  They made me stand in the theatre's lobby and hold their purses during Carrie's first 10 minutes, just to embarrass me, but the joke was on them because there was a crack between the swinging doors that permitted me to see the entire shower scene without their distractingly adult-guardian glares.  I thought I'd gotten away with murder.  And I probably looked it, too; grinning from ear-to-ear in the dark for the rest of the movie.  That is, until Carrie's hand popped out of her grave and my heart blew out.  I'm pretty sure I stopped grinning at that exact moment. 

FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)
"Jason jumps out of the lake."
Here is the mother-of-pearl of "gotcha!" moments.  The movie is over.  The killer has been dispatched and the final girl has paddled in a canoe to the center of the lake.  Look, there's the sheriff's deputy, standing on the shore as soft, misleading music cues the end credits.  And then...WHAM.  When I saw this at a drive-in with my mother in 1980, the people in the car beside us leaned out their window and---in that impeccable good taste associated with West Texans----offered my mother a roll of toilet paper, saying, "Maam, I think your son just shit his pants."  I am not making this up nor exaggerating in the slightest.  This really happened.  Psychological scars are made of this.

Nowadays, I'm a lot more cynical when it comes to horror movies.  I'm not saying that I haven't had a good jolt here and there, but I'm not prone to remember those "gotcha!" moments for very long, and am more likely to smile and think, "That oughta play well for an audience during Nevermore."

How about you?  What are the best "gotcha!" moments you've ever had?


It is quite true most children can't believe their parents took them to see a movie that screwed them in the head so awful. thanks

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I enjoy reading these articles, because it's fun reliving a good "gotcha" moment. But perhaps it's my age; in no article have I ever seen a reference to perhaps the greatest "gotcha" moment ever.

"Wait Until Dark".

I don't want to give away too much for those who haven't experienced it. I will say it's one of the best because ot occurs near the conclusion, and after a long brilliant scene of slowly ratcheting tension. You're allowed to relax, thinking the worst is done. Then. BANG!

I first saw the film at a revival at a local college. A group of us went, including a friend who'd just worked two shifts and was so tired he ended up drifting off halfway through the movie. The audience's scream sent him shooting to his feet, which was just icing on the cake.

I thought about "Wait Until Dark," too. I love that movie! Alan Arkin's Harry Roat is one of my all-time favorite villains. And, you know, not to give too much away, either, but I've wondered before if that's the first time where *that*--such a cliche now--happens in a thriller movie.

WAIT UNTIL DARK is one of those films (alongside DON'T LOOK NOW and PHASE IV) that I've wanted to run at RetroClassics for years. Unfortunately, there are no good 35mm prints and a decent digital copy has yet to be made. When one is created, however, you can pretty much guarantee that the audience at the Carolina Theatre will be experiencing the "gotcha!" moment you're writing about.

It's been a few years since I saw WAIT (and even then it was on VHS in my home rather than in a theatre with an audience),but I do remember the scene you're talking about. But it really is about the audience's reaction, isn't it? To be swept along with their terror is a large part of the experience. Back in the mid-80s, the camp counselors one summer screened William Castle's I SAW WHAT YOU DID, and those of us in the audience had a moment similar to the one you described. What fun.

The one I always think of is from "American Werewolf in London": when David McNaughton thinks his Nazi monster nightmare is over but then it turns out not to be. Oh, and the guy tearing his own face off in "Poltergeist." And the chest-bursting scene in "Alien," of course. Those all blew my teenage mind in the theater in the early 80s.

Oh, man. AMERICAN WEREWOLF has a great "Gotcha!" moment, doesn't it? I 100% agree. That scene scared the crap out of me in '81. That was probably the first time I'd ever seen a "dream-within-a-dream" sequence in a movie.

Unfortunately, I was too young to see ALIEN in theatres but caught in on HBO in the early 80s. Watching it in a living room with your folks just isn't the same as seeing it in a packed theatre, so the chest-bursting scene didn't impact me as much as it should have. BUT that moment when Tom Skerritt turns around in the duct and the Alien reaches out its arms for him sent me running.

I suppose this is a sign of the times (and expectations that have been set by earlier films gotchas): last week, my wife and I were watching Night of the Hunter on streaming video (I know, Jim, we missed it at Retro). It's a great movie and full enough of genuinely scary moments. At the end, when the "family" is at home sharing Christmas gifts and love, we were both waiting for Robert Mitchum to make that one final appearance that is so common today in suspense films. In fact, he didn't, and the film went quietly off into the sunset. We both let out a sigh of relief. The happy ending itself was the gotcha moment and was no less effective for not involving the boogey man jumping out. Now THAT's filmmaking.

Robert, I 100% agree with you on all your points. I watched Night of the Hunter last year at Retro for the first time and, during that final scene, I was checking the edges of the frame for Robert Mitchum to jump into view, too! Once the movie ended, I reflected on how I'd become so conditioned for one last "scare" in horror movies that I'd forgotten those didn't come into style until the late 70s and early 80s. Once upon a time, horror movies really ended once the killer was brought to justice! :-) I really enjoyed Hunter, nonetheless. Jim

I don't really like the movie, but there was one scare in Insidious where there is a shadowy figure pacing out on the balcony, stomping back and forth while the wife watches terrified- the instantly it is in the room, pacing back and forth.

I was watching at my home, where I spilled an entire glass of red wine directly into my lap (not a drop was left in the glass) and let out a grunt I can only describe as what would come out after getting punched in the gut.

Yep, that certainly counts as a "Gotcha!" moment. I agree, some of the best moments aren't always necessarily in the greatest of films. But sometimes, a single scene can redeem an otherwise average movie (See Exorcist III above in my blog.)

I was ten when "Child's Play" first ran on TV. It was during this period when horror films were only available on cable channels at the stroke of midnight: the perfect time to watch a film in the dim, quiet bedroom.

As is expected in horror films that deal with the unexplained, the main characters encounter bizarre events--murders even--but don't believe the pleas of a little boy who warns that his toy doll alive--and a KILLER! But then the boy's mother (Catherine HIcks) discovers that no one ever put the batteries in the doll! What occurs next is a wonderful moment when the director milks the suspense. The mother opens the battery slot and finds it empty and then, suddenly, the doll's head does an "Exorcist"-style head rotation and sardonically exclaims, "Hi, I'm Chucky...wanna play?"

She drops the doll and--again milking the suspense--reaches under the couch to fetch the doll. She demands the doll talks. It doesn't, so she threatens to throw it in the fire. Then...Chucky springs to life; his smile suddenly turns into a demented, evil demeaner.

It all sounds cheesy today. But for an impressionable 10-year-old sitting alone in the dark bedroom--at that moment--I was never more terrified by a pair of gotcha moments.

That's a good scene, Chris! I saw CHILD'S PLAY while on a date at a theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska. (It says something that I can recall WHERE I saw the movie, but have no clue as to whom my date was. LOL I love old age.) It may be my favorite scene in the entire movie.

I've seen SO MANY horror films over the years they kind of blur together. That plus a craptastic memory means I can't come up with great scenes without thinking it about a while or getting reminders. Carrie, OMG.

There is a movie moment that defined my expectations of shock and it always peeps into my head when discussions like this come up. I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first when I was about 12 on USA Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried. My jaw rolled off my bed and down the stairs when they popped Ben at the end of that film. I never saw it coming and just couldn't believe it! I swear, I didn't sleep for a week!

Seems like I missed your last few blogs. I'm always interested in what you have to say so I added it to my RSS feed to not be missed again! FYI - I've talked about you a few times on my own blog. Check it out if you're interested:

Thanks so much, Susan! My mother and Aunt Eva used to talk about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD being the scariest movie either of them had ever seen. This would have been the early 70s before VHS and Cable, so I didn't see the film til sometime in the 80s. It's still a great film with an unforgettable ending.

And Thank You so much for the shoutouts on your own blog. You know what? I actually agree with you on the preferred ending for LITTLE SHOP. I liked the original theatrical cut better. :-)


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