We believe it was Frank Capra who said, and we're paraphrasing here, "If you want to film someone looking genuinely terrified, you have to scare the shit out of them. If you want your actors to cry, make them sad. And above all else, never tell them what's going on."
Directors have been taking those wise words to heart ever since. After all, why trust your actors' "training" or "decades of acting experience" when you can just subject them to actual trauma and turn on the camera? That's how we got scenes like ...
#5. The Chest-Burster Scene from Alien
Previously on Alien, an astronaut was face-raped by an alien. It was tough going, but he recovers, until in the middle of a meal he starts convulsing like a doll being shaken by an invisible giant toddler. The crew is just about to give him space CPR when suddenly, a penis-headed alien punches through his chest and everyone is spattered with an eruption of blood and organs.
What sells that scene isn't the creature effects, or the fact that if you were an audience in 1979, it was the absolute last freaking thing you expected to happen right then. No, it's the apeshit reaction of the crew when the little bastard comes ripping out.
If you think the other actors' horrified and shocked reactions were convincing, it's probably because they, like their characters, had absolutely no idea what was about to occur.
"Yeah, I'm looking forward to many more long days of shooting."
Prior to shooting, the actors had all been removed from the set except for alien-pregnant John Hurt, who was hooked up to an elaborate device that involved a spring-loaded cavity filled with rancid pigs' organs, multiple hoses to pump stage blood and the puppet for the alien itself, all crammed into a false chest that was bolted to the table. Hurt was placed underneath, creating the illusion that his neck really was attached to the body cavity.
So the rest of the cast showed up on set knowing only that the script for this particular scene read, "The thing emerges." That's it. And the only thing the cast was told about the "thing" was that "its head will move and it will have teeth."
"Hey, it does have teeth and a moving head!"
When the rest of the actors were brought in, they evidently didn't notice that the entire film crew was wearing rain gear and hiding behind plastic shields. On the first take, the false chest convulsed slightly and a tiny bit of blood popped out. This was a false start to get everyone to lean in really close for the next take. Then, boom, they were hit with the full force of an internal organ eruption. Everybody lurched backed in shock. Veronica Cartright got it the worst, with a full-on blood bukkake.
Her scream of disbelief and subsequent desperate, hysterical sobbing was all completely unrehearsed. She actually passed out before the scene was finished and they had to complete it the next day. Yaphet Kotto had to retire to his room and get his blood pressure down or he might have had a heart attack.
Because this is a horror movie, so one way or another, the black dude is going to die.
If that sounds like the grossest prank any director has ever pulled on his cast, we think we can top it ...
#4. The Exorcist: The Vomit Scene
The Exorcist was another landmark film in the horror genre. In place of cheesy heroes, you had a pair of relatable middle-aged men, and the "monster" was nothing more than a bedridden girl. All of this made audiences in 1973 absolutely shit their pants.
Its iconic scene starts with Father Karras interviewing young Regan to determine whether or not her possession is psychological or demonic in nature. When she brings up his dead wife, he tries to stump her by asking for his wife's maiden name. Backed into a corner, she projectile vomits on him. This instantly wins any argument.
The shock you see there is quite real. Now, obviously the actor knew there was going to be vomit -- it's hard to miss the hoses hooked up to the actress. So if you're director William Friedkin, how do you get a genuine reaction out of actor Jason Miller?
Why, tell him that the spray is supposed to hit in the chest! Then, at the last moment, have the hidden pump mechanism secretly recalibrated so that the puke hits him square in the face.
Jason Miller soldiered through the scene, covered in tepid pea soup, and finished it in one take, spending the rest of the day furiously pissed off.
Fear of God
An impossibly complicated setup for a Nickelodeon-level payoff.
In The Fear of God, a documentary on the making of The Exorcist, we learn that Friedkin pulled shit like this quite a lot. During the exorcism scene, he actually refrigerated the sets so the shivering and frozen breath would be more realistic. He kept several loaded guns around and would fire them off at random intervals to keep the actors on edge, though whether they were anxious about the sudden noise or concerned that Friedkin was one remark away from plunging into shoelace-eating jackfuck lunacy is unclear.
"If this scene needs one more reshoot, I'll trade this camera in for a Kalashnikov."
When Regan's mother was to be yanked back in a harness, Friedkin led her to believe that it would be a very gentle tug. Then he caught her off guard and had it set to fling her backward at maximum strength. This actually resulted in a broken coccyx and permanent spinal problems for actress Ellen Burstyn. But the look on her face was totally worth it!
#3. Willy Wonka Delighting, Horrifying Children
The interesting thing about Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is that the "keep the actors in the dark" approach wasn't really limited to a specific scene -- the kids essentially went through the entire production without ever being fully briefed on what was going to happen at any given moment.
For example, in the very first scene with Willy Wonka, that was actually the first time any of the kids had met Gene Wilder.
The gag where he pretends to be gimped, loses his cane and tragically falls to the ground? According to the DVD commentary, the kids experienced it firsthand. This was actually Wilder's idea, thinking it would make the kids more at ease with him. Because nothing puts children at ease like watching a crippled man fall.
Likewise, much of the film involves capturing the wide-eyed wonder of the children as they take in each new area of the fantastic chocolate factory. So, the kids weren't shown any of the lavish sets or props until the cameras were rolling -- what you see in the finished movie are completely genuine reactions from children having stepped onto a set the size of a football field made entirely of candy.
Lead-based candy, but nevertheless.
In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious that the candy was all inflatable plastic, and the "chocolate river" looks like an unflushed rec center toilet. But for a few glorious seconds, those giant candy mushrooms and gumball ferns were real.
If this sounds like a sweet, harmless version of what the Alien and Exorcist crews did to their casts, don't worry -- the kids got to experience their moment of horror, too. We're talking about the infamous boat ride of nightmares through the tunnel of brain-eating insanity, where an epileptic horror light show flashes on the screen while Wonka screams acid-baked poetry at the children.
The kids knew their lines and that they were going to have smoke and lights flashed at them, but there wasn't one word in the script about Willy Wonka's mind-boggling verse where he screams that they're all going to die:
We swear there's a point in that scene where everybody kind of stops acting and just stares, like they thought Wilder had just shown up to the set stoned and having forgotten that he was an actor in a movie.
"Uh ... is that man about to pull out his dick?"