Sometimes, the only way to capture a truly horrifying and brutal moment on film is to horrify and brutalize the actors, as happens surprisingly often.
Yes, even in the age of computer effects and entire sequences shot in front of a green screen with tennis balls, there is still no substitute for gross neglect of human safety.
#5. Inglourious Basterds: The Actors Almost Burn in the Theater Fire
SPOILERS: In the climax of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's narrative veers off course from historical fiction and gives the audience a more cathartic and hyper-violent Hitler death than the boring old suicide in a bunker we're all used to. Specifically, some Nazi-killing Jews shoot him in the face hundreds of times with machine guns while a theater burns to the ground around them.
"Thank God we shot him before the fire killed him!"
Ironically, shooting the assassination of Hitler nearly killed the two actors (Eli Roth and Omar Doom) who were supposed to be doing the assassinating. Who could have predicted that actually lighting the set on fire around them would be so dangerous?
That's right -- while it's possible to use CGI to make a building look like it's on fire, it's far more convincing to actually set it ablaze and yell "ACTION!" So the flames that were roaring in the background during the Basterds' murder spree were very much real, and those actors were actually inside -- that wasn't no goddamned green screen effect. The controlled blaze was supposed to never get closer than 20 feet from the actors, but fire rarely does exactly what it's told.
So, predictably, the flames roared across the theater almost immediately, and the fire was right on top of both actors within 30 seconds.
"Feel free to cut, Quentin. Whenever you're ready. Any time now."
Of course, that's the expensive set that's burning down around them, so this was their only chance to shoot the scene without rebuilding the whole damned thing. So everyone was forced to hurry and grab the shot before the out-of-control hellblaze overtook them.
The temperature of the fire quickly reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and, while Tarantino and the crew were wearing fire suits, Roth and Doom were only coated in a jelly meant to protect their skin. The heat was so unbearable that Eli Roth passed out once the scene was over, and had to spend the next day with his head and hands in ice. But he still got off lucky.
The platform they were shooting on was about 10 seconds away from collapse when Tarantino called cut and everyone fled. Had they shot even a few seconds longer, Eli Roth and Omar Doom would have burned to death. Or almost to death -- it would have been awful either way.
But it might have been worth a handful of sympathy-Oscars.
The only indication in the movie of how out of control everything got is that giant swastika over the stage behind Roth and Doom. It collapses and crashes to the ground during the fire, but it was never supposed to fall. In fact, it was supported by massive steel cables precisely so it wouldn't fall, but those cables promptly melted in the unbearable heat of the fire.
So as you watch that scene, remember that the two actors are standing in a room that's so hot it's melting steel. We can only hope the guy who played Hitler was OK, because at this point we're assuming they really shot him in the face.
#4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Real Blades, Real Blood, Real Insanity
Near the end of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (so, you know, spoiler alert), all of Sally's (the main character's) friends are dead and hanging from meat hooks or crammed into freezers in the basement. Sally is tied to a chair at a dinner table while the family of murdering cannibals sits around, taunting her. The scene is well over five minutes long, filled with screaming, close-ups of her pupils and some almost unwatchable psychological torture from Leatherface and his family.
"Thomas told us all about you. More potatoes, dear?"
As an audience, sitting through the entire scene, from the moment they feed the grandfather some of her blood to the point when they try to kill her with a hammer, is excruciating. Watching it feels a little like punishment, which isn't that surprising, considering it was infinitely worse for the actors shooting the scene.
Because there was some legitimate psychological torture taking place in that house during the shoot, and it wasn't just aimed at Sally (Marilyn Burns). They shot for 27 hours straight in that dining room in the middle of a Texas summer with temperatures outside reaching 110 degrees, so it was even hotter inside the house, since they blocked off the windows to keep out the light. If that wasn't bad enough, there were also piles of festering head cheese on the dining room table that were originally just props, but pretty quickly made the rooms smell like a rotting carcass.
"It's all worth it for what I'm sure will be a Best Picture nomination!"
All of these elements combined in a perfect mind-melting storm for the actors and crew. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, probably caught it the hardest. He was wearing a heavy leather mask that couldn't be washed the entire shoot (that would cause continuity errors if stains vanished and reappeared in between shots), so he was essentially suffering in his own tiny, stinking oven. Supposedly he got so muddled from the heat that he thought he was actually supposed to kill Marilyn Burns.
In the scene where Leatherface cuts Burns' finger so that the old man can suck her blood, the device that was supposed to release the fake blood clogged for several takes in a row. Hansen, whose mind was already broken and who was willing to do anything to get out of that room, turned away from everyone, removed the safety tape from the knife and then just cut open Marilyn's finger for real.
"Quit squirming or I'm going to screw this up!"
So what you're actually seeing is her blood and her real reaction to having her finger sliced open while tied down in a 115-degree house with people around her who can't remember if they sincerely want her dead or not.
#3. Carrie: Actors Were Blasted in the Face With a Real Fire Hose
While most girls will remember standing in the crowd at their high school prom vaguely wishing they could kill the prom queen, Carrie flips that expectation by allowing the prom queen to psychokinetically murder all her classmates at once.
It starts when the social outcast Carrie White falls for that old classic prank: drenched-by-a-pail-o'-pig's-blood-connected-to-a-rope-leading-to-John-Travolta-under-the-stage. While Carrie has no sense of humor about the cruel prank, she does have telekinesis, which she uses to lock all the doors of the prom, and to slowly murder all the faculty and students present.
"You know, in some countries being doused in pig's blood is an hon-ARGH!"
Carrie's primary weapon in the scene is a fire hose that winds around the gym like a snake, spraying students until they fall through tables (there's a type of snake that does that, right?). During the shooting of that scene, director Brian De Palma wanted shots of some of the meaner characters getting hit directly in the face with the water, but the firefighters on set said hitting people in the face, even actors, was too dangerous given the extreme water pressure.
To which Brian De Palma countered, "Ehh," and shot the kids in the face anyway. Check out actress P.J. Soles at 4:40 (the one who inexplicably wore a baseball cap to the prom):
As you can see, they achieved a very realistic "getting sprayed in the head with a hose" shot by actually spraying her in the head with a hose. What's the harm in that? Well, because she had turned her face away from the spray, the water shot directly into her ear, rupturing her eardrum. It was so painful that she collapsed and passed out immediately.
She was deaf in that ear for six months following the accident. So what you're actually seeing in that scene is a young girl who's legitimately unconscious from a shattered tympanum, getting sprayed in the face with a fire hose. And then people paid to watch it! Hollywood magic!