White Knuckle Cinema: 25 of the Most Tense Scenes in Film

I love a good, uncomfortable scene.  When all your muscles clench up and you just kind of want it to be over, because it’s so excruciating.  But that discomfort in the heart of the audience is the true power of cinema.  It makes us feel something, good or bad.

I’m not really going for action movie INTENSE, but more steady flowing dramatic tension.  Though, there can be some grey areas between the two.

I’m aware that it’s not every tense scene, and you can point out some glaringly obvious scenes I’m missing; so do so in the comments.  But not all of us have seen that obscure Japanese horror movie that you claim has the most tense scene ever filmed.  So share it, buddy!

Also, it’s safe to say, that this is a very spoilery list for the movies involved.

25.  Zodiac – “Basement”

If you’re investigating a serial killer by yourself, my advice would be to *NOT* go in a potential suspect’s creepy basement.


24.  Rear Window – “Turn out the Lights”

That terrifying moment when you realize that the murderer across the street acknowledgesyour existence, and starts to head over to kill you.


23.  There Will Be Blood – “I’m Finished”

Two guys who hated each other the entire movie meet up years later, with the leverage going the other direction this time.  Borderline silly at times, there’s still no denying that the conversation between the two rivals gets a little heated and pretty uncomfortable.  Kind of want to go bowling now.


22.  Hard Candy – “Castration”

Can it get any  more uncomfortable for a man to watch this scene?  Lesson learned scumbag, don’t try to get down with a minor.


21.  Jaws – “The Kintner Boy”

One of the best edited scenes of all time.  Chief Brody knows there’s a shark near the beach (but no one else does), and is trying to keep an eye on things in a rather scattered situation.


20.  Inglorious Basterds – “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France”

Couldn’t make up my mind with this, the strudel scene, or the card game scene.


19.  Carrie – “Prom”

See, this is why I didn’t go to prom.  NO… IT WASN’T BECAUSE NO ONE WOULD GO WITH ME.  SCREW YOU.  (runs to bedroom)(starts crying)(eats entire container of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream)


18.  Silence of the Lambs – “Night Vision”

If I had to go through a serial killer’s sex dungeon, I’d probably prefer it if the lights were on.


17.  Goodfellas – “You Think I’m Funny…?”

God, I hate Tommy.  He can turn any conversation painfully uncomfortable.


16.  Jurassic Park – “Raptors in the Kitchen”

Childhood favorite.  More tense than the T-Rex scene, because that was more of a “whoa” kind of scene.  But the raptors trying to eat two kids in a kitchen was just a nightmarish situation.  Especially when I saw it as a kid.


15.  Se7en – “What’s in the Box?”

Kevin Spacey, you asshole…


14.  Hurt Locker – “Bombs”

The whole movie is pretty god damn intense.  There aren’t really full clips of it on YouTube, but all of the bomb disarming scenes are painfully excruciating.  Especially the final one, with the bomb strapped to an actual person.


13.  Death Proof – “Ship’s Mast”

Starts off with stunt girl Zoe strapping herself to the hood of a car (which was tense to begin with), then Stuntman Mike has to come along and start ramming their car while she’s still on the hood.  Probably my favorite car chase scene ever.  SHUT UP, I’m not a car man!


12.  No Country for Old Men – “Call It”

I felt so bad for this old guy.  Most tense coin flip of all time.


11.  Mulholland Drive – “Nightmare”

This scene always gets me.  It’s such a slow build, and I always forget what the creepy dude looks like, and it catches me off guard every time.  Makes me scared to look around corners.


10.  Pan’s Labyrinth – “Pale Man”

In retrospect, maybe don’t eat the grape.


9.  Boogie Nights – “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)”

This is one of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever.  Three lowlifes trying to sell drugs that they cut with baking soda to a crazy guy who won’t stop playing loud 80’s songs.  The huge bodyguard with a gun starts to examine the drugs for quality, and while trying to leave, Todd the asshole has an ulterior motive to rob the guy.  All of the tension gets multiplied by the fact that Cosmo the random Chinese boy is throwing firecrackers inside the house every 15 seconds.  Anyone want to play baseball?


8.  Full Metal Jacket – “Last Watch”

I would have slowly backed out of the room.


7.  Alien – “Dallas”

Good luck, bro.


6.  Deer Hunter – “Russian Roulette”

De Niro at his craziest, yelling and getting yelled at by some asshole Vietnamese jerks who are making him and his friends almost commit suicide over and over again.  Yeah, pretty tense, I guess…


5.  The Shining – “All Work and No Play…”

Love the atmosphere and music, it still creeps me out.  Also a great conversation between a psychopath and the wife he’s trying to kill.


4.  Do the Right Thing – “Fight the Power”

Dude, this scene stresses me out so much. The riot that follows isn’t too calm either. Fun fact: that’s Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring as Buggin’ Out, the guy yelling next to Radio Raheem.


3.  Blood Simple – “Break In”

Ladies, this is how you stop a fat cowboy from breaking into your apartment.


2.  Pulp Fiction – “Mia’s Overdose”

Constant yelling and frantic behavior silenced by a heart stopping (or starting?) countdown to a needle stabbing.  This scene gets me riled up every time I watch it.  THE LITTLE BLACK F***ING MEDICAL BOOK.


1.  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – “Cemetery Duel”

The finale of this film culminates with a three-way stand off that probably sets the record for people squinting in closeups.  It features a song that’s part of one of the best musical scores in cinema history to help build an insane amount of tension.  The whole movie (and series for that matter) has a bunch of awesome standoffs and moments like this, but this is easily the best.

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