The 12 Most Tension-Filled Scenes In Film History Source:

Whilst we are all aware that most films are fictional and everything that is unfolded is scripted, it does not stop us from feeling emotions. Throughout movie history, there are many moments that have been almost unbearably tense and these scenes are sure to get your adrenaline pumping. Many of theses moments are now considered to be some of the greatest scenes of all time, and credit must go to the performer for making it believable, the director for establishing tension, and the writer for creating the nerve-shredding scenes. Here are 12 of the most intense movie scenes of all time.

**Warning: Some of these clips contain NSFW language or imagery.**

12. No Country For Old Men – Coin Toss

What is so nerve-shredding and shocking about this scene is the fact that the coin toss is so completely unnecessary, and it gives you an insight into just how dark Anton Chigurh is (and this is helped by a stunning performance from Javier Bardem). In the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, this scene sees Anton arrive at a gas station where the attendant proves to be too talkative for the cold-blooded hitman. The tension mounts as Anton, showing no emotion, begins to enjoy seeing the attendant squirm as he makes him uncomfortable. He then asks him what the most he has ever lost on a coin toss is, and the tension sky rockets as the poor man does not know what is at stake but is forced into playing. The audience is left with clammy hands, and it is clear just how menacing this hitman is.

11. Pulp Fiction – Adrenaline Shot

The audience certainly does not need a shot of adrenaline after this heart-pumping scene, which remains one of Tarantino’s greatest moments. After being tasked with taking his gangster boss’s wife out, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Vincent Vega (John Travolta) finds himself in a horrible situation after she mistakes his heroin for cocaine and overdoses. He rushes to his drug dealer’s house, where they learn that they must revive her with an adrenaline shot straight to her heart. The tension becomes almost unbearable as they crowd around her lifeless body and squabble over who will give her the shot, before Vincent finally gets the courage and slams the needle into her chest which sparks her back into life. Interestingly, the moment where he slams it into her heart was filmed in reverse, and Tarantino then played the scene backwards in editing for a more realistic shot.

10. Zodiac – Basement Scene

There are many horror films that could learn something from this particular scene from David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is an absolute master class in creating tension and makes for an intense watch. Suddenly convinced that the man he is with is the Zodiac killer, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows him into his darkened basement (a rarity in California) where both the audience and Graysmith suddenly feel their pulse accelerate and stomach turn. The man shuffles around the basement and acts oddly which only heightens the tension, even more so when Graysmith thinks he notices somebody upstairs. As it turns out, it is more Graysmith’s paranoia and obsession with the case, but the tension is excruciating and this is furthered by elements such as the lighting, camerawork and use of the teapot whistling. As we will see, it is not the only time Fincher has created a nail-biting scene.

9. Jurassic Park – Kitchen Scene

A scene that no doubt terrified many of our readers when they first watched Steven Spielberg’s classic 1993 film Jurassic Park, there are few scenarios more terrifying than this. Back in the visitor center towards the end of the movie, young siblings Tim and Lex find themselves stalked by raptors in the industrial kitchen. Silently crawling around on all fours, Tim and Alex manage to evade the raptors that crash around the kitchen and you can hear their claws scratching on the floor with every step. The brilliant camerawork highlights the immense tension, and after a very close call they narrowly escape and leave the raptors locked in the kitchen. Although some would say that Jurassic Park is a kids film, you can be sure that every adult was also holding their breath and on the edge of their seat throughout this terrific and iconic scene.

8. The Thing – Blood Test

A fantastic scene from what many deem the greatest horror movie ever made, it does not matter how many times you have seen John Carpenter’s The Thing, you will always jump. The reason for this is that the tension is built so masterfully that you are right on the edge of your seat, and even the slightest movement will startle you. In the scene, the group are trying to identify who “The Thing” has embodied and they are doing this by testing everyone’s blood sample with a heated piece of copper wire (with the theory that every piece of the alien has a survival instinct and you will therefore see a reaction). One by one they test the blood, and MacReady (Kurt Russell) thinks he knows who it is, but the alien is proven to be somebody else. This moment frequently appears near the top of Scariest Movie Moment lists.

7. Seven – “What’s in the box?”

What is now an iconic scene with the line “what’s in the box?” permeating popular culture, this incredible scene comes towards the end of David Fincher’s brilliant yet equally menacing thriller Seven. The tension first starts to mount as the Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) drive out into the desert with creepy serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in the back, after he has promised to take them to the final two dead bodies. Once they arrive at their destination, which is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a delivery van soon approaches. Somerset recovers the box and makes a horrifying discovery, whilst John Doe tells Mills how envious he is of his life. Despite Somerset telling him not to listen to what he says, Doe reveals to Mills just exactly what is in the box which leaves him an incredibly difficult decision to make.

6. Inglourious Basterds – Opening Scene

There are few directors better at creating atmosphere than Quentin Tarantino, and this is evident with this excruciating scene at the beginning of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. The film is also our introduction to Christopher Waltz, who immediately stuns with this scene and would go on to steal the show for the entire film (and earn him an Oscar). In the scene, SS Colonel Hans Landa, or “The Jew Hunter” (Waltz), arrives at a dairy farmer’s home to inquire about the last unaccounted-for Jewish family in the area (whom he is hiding in the basement). Hans Landa begins the conversation being very charming and jovial, but the tone takes a gut-wrenching turn when Landa reveals that he not only knows that the farmer is hiding the family, but also where they are hid. The tension is cranked up again later in the film when Shosanna finds herself eating Strudel with Hans.

5. Alien – Dallas Dies

The tension mounts unbearably in this fantastic scene from the 1979 classic Alien, and this is achieved through the use of beeping motion trackers which warn of an impending attack on Dallas (Tom Skeritt). The attack also comes as a shock, as we expected Dallas to be the hero of the story as the captain of the ship and an alpha male, and this is a part of what made Alien such an excellent horror. In the scene, Dallas is in the airshaft with a flamethrower and searching for the alien. With the others tracking Dallas’s progress and warning that the alien must be there, he then puts his hand in slime and it is clear that the alien is there somewhere. We then see a second dot on the screen rapidly approaching Dallas, and it is clear that Dallas is not in fact the hero and savior of the film.

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Standoff

Tension and Westerns go hand in hand, and this is usually through the inevitable standoffs that occur, when it’s so quiet that you could hear a pin drop as you wait to see who will draw first. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly contains everything that is fantastic about Westerns, including an epic final duel between Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and Tuco (Eli Wallach). The scene may be full of clichés, but it is remarkably effective as the tension mounts. No dialogue is needed over the standoff which lasts around six minutes, and the intensity rises with the music, clever camerawork and simple looks from the characters. Western duels, with this being arguably the most famous, are parodied and paid homage to constantly, and the reason for this is because they were so effective at creating tension.

3. The Silence of the Lambs – Night Vision

There are many fantastic scenes from Jonathan Demme’s classic thriller The Silence of the Lambs, and this sometimes sees this nerve-shredding scene overlooked. After realizing that she is in fact in Buffalo Bill’s house, Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) pursues him down into his multi-room basement where he turns all of the lights out. He then puts on night vision goggles and we see everything from his point of view in a creepy green tinge, as he watches her fumble around the basement with a look of sheer panic on her face as she breathes heavily. At one point, he eerily reaches out and strokes her fair, and this is even more horrifying from first person view. Brilliantly done and with superb acting from Foster, this is a truly terrifying scene and certainly brings about a fear of the darkness for a few days after watching.

2. The Deer Hunter – Russian Roulette

No matter how many times you watch The Deer Hunter, you will always find yourself holding your breath throughout the Russian roulette scenes. The most nerve-wracking moment is when Mike (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are captured and held in a riverside POW camp. The guards force them to play Russian roulette, which understandably creates an excruciating and manic atmosphere that is furthered by the guards not speaking English. Although they manage to escape, the harrowing incident leaves Nick psychologically damaged. The scene is brilliantly acted, which helps you relate to the characters who find themselves in this truly awful situation where there appears to be no way out. One of the all-time great films, it picked up five Academy Awards and this scene remains one of the most brutal, heartbreaking and tensest scenes ever filmed.

1. Goodfellas – “Funny how?”

A famous scene which helped Joe Pesci to steal the show in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and earn him an Academy Award, this is one of the greatest film scenes ever recorded and one that is utterly nerve-shredding. Here, Pesci’s character, the psychopathic Tommy DeVito, is telling a story to the group he is sitting with. After finishing his story, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who is among those listening, tells DeVito that he is a funny guy. Suddenly, the entire atmosphere changes in the restaurant as Tommy asks him to explain his comment. We know just how wild and unpredictable Tommy is, making it an equally terrifying moment as Henry attempts to squirm his way out of the excruciating conversation. After what seems like an eternity, Tommy reveals that he is joking with Henry, much to his relief. However, a lingering feeling of terror remains as Tommy is such an explosive, volatile and unpredictable character.

Jonny Hughes

Jonny Hughes

Jonny Hughes has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2015.