It. Pet Semetary. Halloween. Raw. The Conjuring. Insidious. These are recent horror movies that you might be familiar with. These are films that apparently sent audiences into a frenzy, and those which are widely considered to be the crème of the crop. These were the scariest films of the decade, and yet when we think of horror films, we think usually of one particular scare that stands out in each movie. And so I looked for the single most scary scene in recent movies, considering all of the above.
The answer was surprising, even to myself… it was Darth Vader’s Hallway Massacre in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The rebels are fleeing the exploding planet with the plans to the Death Star in hand. It’s still high-octane action, the adrenaline is pumping through the veins of these ordinary men fighting for something bigger than them, but it’s nearly done. They’ve survived the worst of it, somehow their plan has worked, and all they have to do is get this single vital disk out of there.
Then the door out of the hallway jams.
It won’t open more than just a crack.
The lights go out, and the rebels desperately try to pull it open as an alarm wails in the background.
In our minds, we know something is wrong from a purely cinematic standpoint, but we don’t know what. Why are we focusing on the door jamming? Was this really a necessary part of the storytelling? Couldn’t we have finished with the planet-ending explosion?
The rebels turn.
The alarm still wails, but they’ve noticed something behind them; it’s lurking in the dark.
The music is cut. Guns are out. The rebels form a defensive unit, blasters trained on something. As we track closer, through the units, a deep breath is heard through the medium of a respirator. We shudder; that noise means only one thing.
Darth Vader’s crimson lightsaber lights up, revealing the dark sith lord to ourselves and the rebels. All hell breaks loose. The door hasn’t jammed; he’s holding it shut. The rebels have been lined up for slaughter.
Darth Vader is possibly the most recognisable, imposing movie villain of all time, yet this scene is his most violent, aggressive and monstrous in all of the canonical movies. For the first time, we get to see what made Darth Vader the ultimate terror in the first few films. We get to see exactly what everyone shuddered at when he walked into the room, and why the mere mentioning of his name made the air in the room feel that much heavier.
One of my favourite filmmaking tricks that Edwards (the director) pulls out in this scene is the tracking shot before Vader’s reveal. We track through the centre of the rebel group, the camera seeming to foreshadow what Vader will do moments later. We push them out of the centre of the screen, dispatching them, the camera killing them off one by one. Those who think that this is just a coincidence should note that it’s not even a second after the final rebel’s hand is out of shot that Vader’s lightsaber pierces through the gloom. Kubrick does something similar in Full Metal Jacket, with Joker’s peace badge just disappearing from shot as he kills the sniper at the movie’s end, peace looking away as he murders someone in cold blood to complete his character arc of dehumanisation. It’s the timing which makes it stand out.
This is a subtle added detail to build dread and, because of this, by the time Vader’s outline reveals itself, there is a tangible sense of terror. Not only terror, but also inevitability. This is death incarnate, his sword already bloodied in red, and he’s about to wash towards us in an unstoppable tidal wave. Blaster shots are worthless, the king of terror parrying them away; men are thrown to the ceiling and sliced down; their guns are wrenched from their hands like playthings and tossed behind Vader without a care in the world. The man holding the death star plans changes from screaming ‘help us’ to ‘take it’. There’s nothing they can do to stop him, and those outside the initial hallway can only run in fear and leave their comrades to be speared through the door.
It is raw power and rage and violence, sweeping towards us in human form, and the way he waits for the rebels’ fear to mount before moving in for the kill is the playful torture of the predator. Bear in mind that Sith are a legend, a myth (realistically) to the common man; the modern-day equivalent being like getting stuck in a hallway with Dracula, your every efffort and bullet not even scratching him. He is literally the embodiment of nightmares, the monster from under the bed who is suddenly there in the flesh, playing with its food. From the very moment that door stopped opening, the rebels in that corridor were doomed.
When you pile the music on top of this, the characteristically epic mixed choir which seems to be the case with lots of ‘epic’ music nowadays, the brilliant cinematographic idea of having the lightsaber be the only source of light physically in that hallway, and the physical, powerful embodiment of Spencer Wilding as Vader, you can realistically only come to one conclusion: this is a scene that sends chills down your spine no matter how many times you watch it. This is the childhood nightmare. This is what we’ve woken up screaming about, what we’ve made every action figure do to our toy soldiers. It might be mainstream science-fiction, but there’s no doubt that Darth Vader’s Hallway Massacre in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the scariest movie scene of the 2010s.
Article by Kieran Judge