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Ranting & Slashing: Top Ten Tearjerker Moments In Horror

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The horror genre isn’t exactly known for its breadth of tearjerkers. Whenever “sad” movie moments are dissected in lists or discussions, horror is generally excluded. It’s a ridiculous notion, of course, considering there’s no genre of movies quite as emotional as this. Granted, tearjerkers like Terms of Endearment are easily relatable because the majority of us know what it’s like to lose a loved one to cancer or any number of other unfortunate diseases. But horror films love to put their characters through the ringer and, as such, we’re often privy to emotional moments strong enough to rival any Hollywood Oscar bait.

Here are ten of the saddest, most upsetting or moving pieces of horror history. Each of them responsible for bringing a tear or two to this author’s eyes. It should be noted that massive spoilers are included for all of the films mentioned on this list…

10. The Others (2001): Nicole Kidman learns the truth…

It was something of a ballsy move to release this film two years after that other He was dead the whole time movie, but The Others is better in every respect. And the climax, in which Nicole Kidman discovers that she and her children are the ghosts in this haunted house story, is positively heartbreaking. It might not have worked with a lesser actress, but those final minutes with Kidman huddled together with her son and daughter are quietly spooky and unforgettable. The dire expression on Kidman’s face as the truth sinks in elevates this into tearjerker territory. That a seemingly simple ghost story concludes with such emotional impact is just one of the many reasons this is among the best horror films of the 2000s.

Tearjerker

9. The Host (2006): Hee-bong’s defense of his son…

The Host functions as a great monster movie, a surprisingly moving family drama and a pitch-black satire – all in equal measure. There are many things that resonate throughout this roller coaster ride of emotions, but nothing is as striking as the mid-point family reunion where, just prior to his death, family patriarch Hee-bong chides his youngest son and only daughter for being so cruel to their simple-minded brother, Gang-du. His admission of parental mistakes, coupled with a subtle reiteration of the importance of love and family is the reason the film’s climax (where all the siblings contribute to the monster’s demise) satisfies in spades, but it’s also a raw and honest moment – expertly written and perfectly acted in a way that’s hard to forget.

Tearjerker

8. Blow Out (1981): Nancy Allen doesn’t make it…

There are cynical endings and then there are cynical endings. Brian DePalma’s masterpiece ends on such a stark, nihilistic note that it’s incomprehensible to imagine it was ever allowed. It’s like some forgotten relic in this age of test audience-approved, happy endings. But when John Travolta fails to rescue the bubbly and likable Nancy Allen from the clutches of a deranged John Lithgow, it’s a genuine surprise. But the real kicker comes in the film’s closing seconds, when we discover that Travolta’s character (a movie sound man) has utilized Allen’s final scream in a slasher film he’s working on. Travolta was never better than in this film, and it’s his anguished expression that DePalma chooses to close with, leaving audiences as scarred as our tortured protagonist.

Tearjerker

7. Halloween 5 (1989): Jamie finds Rachel dead…

Having survived Big Mike’s return to Haddonfield just a year prior, it was a huge surprise when former final girl, Rachel Caruthers, was offed in the first act of Halloween 5. A bold move on the part of the filmmakers, and one that literally makes us fear for the fate of Michael’s little niece, Jamie Lloyd. Late in the film, the battered nine-year-old girl makes her way to the Myers house, only to find her ‘sister’ and protector butchered. Danielle Harris’ reaction is so raw and real that it’s impossible not to feel the loss of this character. Couple that with the hell we saw these girls go through the last time around and you have something that’s surprisingly weighty and tragic in this unfairly maligned slasher sequel.

Tearjerker

6. King Kong (1933 and 2005): Kong’s Empire plunge…

No surprise here, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to make Kong’s death at the end of his three-hour remake even more touching. Both instances, however, feature a demise that should tug at the heartstrings of all but the most jaded of humans. Plucked from his natural habitat, exploited, threatened and terrified, one cannot hope for a different outcome each time they view King Kong. It never does, and we’re left trying to dry our eyes seconds before the house lights come up.

Tearjerker

5. The Mist (2007): Just wait a little while longer…

Oh man. Even some seasoned veterans of horror cinema have issues with the grim, mean-spirited ending that Frank Darabont opted to tack onto his adaptation of Stephen King’s novella. The author liked it so much he later wished he’d thought of it. But what a kick to the ribs. Thomas Jane does such a brilliant job of embodying the everyman throughout the course of The Mist that it’s actually difficult to revisit this one in repeat viewings. What begins as a royally fun monster movie soon turns into an unsettling commentary on fanaticism and the human condition before concluding with an ending so ballsy it’s hard to believe it, like Blow Out, was allowed. Bad enough Jane has to do the unthinkable, but the cruel Twilight Zone twist of fate that happens directly afterward really sticks it in and breaks it off. How could you be such a jerk, Darabont? Now to complain though – The Mist is the kind of cinematic experience one never forgets. Even if you want to.

Tearjerker

4. Psycho II (1983): Norman Bates remembers toasted cheese sandwiches …

There are numerous reasons why the first two Psycho sequels are great films, but there’s nothing else in the entire franchise quite like this. When recently released Norman Bates fears he’s relapsing into insanity, he barricades himself in his boyhood room with newfound acquaintance, Mary. Sweet and unexpected, this scene works brilliantly at reminding us that Norman was a victim of a terrible childhood (an interesting parallel since he’s ultimately a victim in Psycho II), clinging desperately to the few pleasant memories accrued along the way – toasted cheese sandwiches being one of the few that remains. Anthony Perkins plays this perfectly, and the scene holds even more tragedy once the surprise is revealed that Meg Tilly is actually in on pushing Norman over the edge.

Tearjerker

3. The Exorcist (1973): Chris MacNeil’s plea to Damien Karras…

The subject of astonishing performances is a fitting segue into Ellen Burstyn’s tour de force throughout the course of The Exorcist. There’s no shortage of power in William Friedkin’s film, and while the last rites of Damien Karras might be the most logical choice for this list, it’s the desperate mother’s first meeting with the priest that really clicks. For 80 minutes we watched modern medicine and science fail Regan MacNeil, dashing her mother’s hopes for recovery time and time again. She’s forced to turn toward religion – an institution she has zero faith in – out of sheer desperation to save her daughter’s life. And when the emotionally and physically battered mother finally breaks down in front of Father Karras, desperately begging for help, it’s the kind cinema modern genre filmmakers seem to have forgotten about. Few actresses have ever been as good as Ellen Burstyn, and The Exorcist – this scene in particular – proves that effortlessly.

Tearjerker

2. The Fly (1986): Death of Brundlefly…

The entire final act of Cronenberg’s The Fly is ripe for this list, but damn if those closing moments don’t push it over the edge. The swell of Howard Shore’s music, a devastated Geena Davis and the brilliant grotesquerie of Chris Walas’ special effects – all of it culminating in what may be the horror genre’s greatest tragedy. David Cronenberg’s work was scarcely better than this, while Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis had that special kind of chemistry that can only be described as ‘magical.’ Not only is The Fly arguably the greatest remake of all time and one of the best horror films of the 80s, it remains a stunningly emotional love story and, frankly, a bona fide tearjerker.

Tearjerker

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Body (2001): The entire episode…

A 40 minute punch in the gut. So many unforgettable moments throughout this remarkable series, but there is nothing quite as affecting as watching The Body. The whole episode is a flawless examination of grief, but those first ten minutes are a prime candidate for the most effective piece of television there ever was. Sarah Michelle Gellar carries this first act with a heart-wrenching performance weaving in and out of hysteria, and Joss Whedon directs this brilliantly by focusing on the disorienting nature of tragedy. The rest of the episode (and performances) are every bit as good, but there’s really nothing quite as honest or horrifying as the first ten.

By no means is this list comprehensive. In whittling it down to a mere ten choices, some honorable runners up found themselves extricated from this discussion: Pet Semetary (Gage’s death is effective, but Dale Midkiff’s slow-motion scream is a bit too over-the-top), The Changeling (opening) and Martyrs – all strong contenders. But the films included here represent what I feel are strong examples of powerful, teary-eyed moments occurring in the most unexpected of places.

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Matt Serafini

Author (Under the Blade, Feral), slasher movie enthusiast, N7 Operative. Plays games, watches movies, reads books. Occasionally writes about them.

  • Sirand

    Great list!

    Yup, The Body was traumatizing. Definitely deserves the top spot.

    • Morgan Elektra

      The Body makes me cry every time I watch it. I always tear up a little, but as soon as it hits the bit where Anya has her ‘I don’t understand’ speech, I’m a blubbering pile of goo. It’s friggin brilliant.

  • Terminal

    “The Body” is SUCH a cop out! GEEZ. ALL movies and whoa a TV show! What about when Bub broke from his necklace and showed Dr. Frankenstein noticing he’d died? What about most moments in the original Frankenstein movies?

    Sorry bro but MAJOR cop out in number one.
    ———-
    “We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do other than bullying companies. It’s fun to lead a bad man’s life.”

    • Masked Slasher

      I see where you’re coming from. And I love those suggestions you mentioned, too.

      Just had to go with the stuff that got me the most misty.

      • Terminal

        I could think of five sad moments in horror better suited. Frank’s death in 28 Days Later for one. Bub breaking free from his shackles only to find his master dead.

        Just seems like more Whedon fetishizing as always. I wouldn’t have gone with that. Not by a long shot. But hey it’s your list. Good list in spite of the first entry that’s not even a horror film.
        ———-
        “We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do other than bullying companies. It’s fun to lead a bad man’s life.”

  • Minion

    Also worth the mention in my mind, the goodbye between Shaun and Ed always gets me upset. Another big one for me is Fred and her exit from Angel. That whole episode is still hard for me to watch to this day.

    • Morgan Elektra

      Both really good mentions.

  • kiddcapone

    The scene in I Am Legend when the dog dies is tough for me to watch. Mostly because I own a German Shepherd who is always by my side (my girl Samara, such a great dog) and partly because you really feel for Will Smith’s character when he loses the last thing on Earth that he loves. You can see his will to live taken away from him…

    • Pestilence

      Good call on that one. Smith sold that scene admirably.

    • ambear913

      I watched that movie while I was pregnant, and that scene triggered the only hormone-induced emotional breakdown of my whole pregnancy. I sobbed uncontrollably for about 45 minutes, knowing full-well the whole time how ridiculous I was being. Luckily, I didn’t care for the movie enough to try watching it again.

  • LifeMi

    Another great list, though I have to dispute Halloween 5 being an unfairly maligned sequel. That piece of shit deserves to get slammed on, although there are a couple of cool moments.

    • Masked Slasher

      ^ Fair enough! LOL

      I’ve always been a big fan of H5, although it does have some problems. I find the bleak tone of it kind of unsettling, even to this day.

  • Vanvance1

    Excellent article. Personally I’d eliminate The Body from the list and replace it with the briefly mentioned ‘The Changeling’. I’d also save a spot for the The Descent, the moment in the hospital after the car accident twists me up inside.

    • The Buz

      The Body beats them all.

      Though I definitely would have included The Changling in the list rather than a runner up. But great list none the less.

      Really glad you used The Body, as that is one of the most gut wrenching things I’ve ever seen. I remember just collapsing afterwards into a big cry after the episode was over. It was like a great big exhale.

      • LSD Zombie

        I stopped watching Buffy like 15 years ago. The praise for this particular episode has peaked my curiosity though.

        • Masked Slasher

          Thanks gents! Appreciate the kind words.

          I love The Changeling and that opening is incredible. It just didn’t affect me quite as personally as the stuff that made the list.

          • Pestilence

            Great list, dude.

            It might be an extremely cheap one, but the fate of the dog in The Fly 2 gets me every time.

  • LSD Zombie

    Great list! I totally agree about Halloween 5. Flaws aside, it was a brutal and bold film that was stamped with French aggression.