This coronavirus nightmare has been going on for weeks, and there’s no relief in sight. The pictures of “mobile morgues” in New York are brutally sad, and the realization that life might never fully return to normal could be keeping you up at night. It’s enough to make you want to lose it — which may actually not be a bad idea.
Sure, we’ve all heard of neighborhoods breaking out into spontaneous song, affirming the power of community, but sometimes, it’s also nice to acknowledge that, when everything is incredibly stressful and depressing, what you really need is to just scream your guts out. A few weeks ago, Reuters reported that a Washington, D.C. Facebook group of more than 1,500 people planned “to participate in an event … designed to allow people to express their frustration with the pandemic.” Calling themselves DC Area Primal Scream, the group recommended that those interested “step outside if you can (six feet from your neighbor, please). Head to the roof or the balcony, or stick your head out a window. Breathe deeply. Scream.”
That simple act of pure, loud pressure release is incredibly cathartic, even if, in normal times, it’s frowned upon in polite society. We tend to be judgy when someone starts yelling their head off — we mentally ding them for losing their composure. But in the midst of a quarantine, just letting go of all that anger, helplessness and anxiety in one big, cleansing scream can do a world of good.
In that spirit, I decided to celebrate some of the best, funniest or most memorable screams in film history. Characters blow their top all the time — either for dramatic or comedic effect — so let’s hand out some awards for the finest moments in the annals of cinematic shit-losing. And if you feel the need, shout along with them — it’s important to get that stuff out.
Best Comedic Screamer: Gene Wilder, The Producers
The late comic actor was known for his characters’ volcanic outbursts — so much so that one of them, from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, has been memed ad nauseam:
But perhaps Wilder’s finest shriek comes in The Producers, his first collaboration with Oscar-winning filmmaker Mel Brooks. He played Leo Bloom, a high-strung accountant who teams up with shady Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) to pull an ingenious scam: They’ll oversell shares in the worst musical imaginable — something that’s sure to close immediately — and then take off with the profits before anyone realizes. Things don’t quite work out as planned, though, leading to Leo’s endless anxiety. Much of what’s great about The Producers is watching the seemingly buttoned-down Wilder fly into hysterics. Just don’t try throwing water in his face to snap him out of it — that only makes things worse.
Best Unintentionally Hilarious Scream: James Earl Jones, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
It should have been the most crushing moment in the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has been bested by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), left to die as his body has been horribly disfigured. Instead, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) rescues him, his team of robot physicians fitting the young man with the lifesaving black armor that symbolizes his transformation into Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). Disoriented, Vader asks Palpatine what became of his beloved Padmé (Natalie Portman) — and Palpatine lies, telling Vader that he killed her. Everything this young Jedi held dear is gone — or, at least, so he thinks — and he’s heartbroken. So how does George Lucas capture the emotional devastation of what Vader is going through? By having him bellow “Nooooooooo!” like a doofus. God, I never laughed more in a Star Wars movie.
Best Horror-Movie Victim Scream: Janet Leigh, Psycho
It would be easy, and lazy, to just fill this list with memorable screams from women who are about to be stabbed by serial killers in horror movies. But Marion’s death in this Alfred Hitchcock classic is the one that started it all. As played by Janet Leigh, Marion is on the run after stealing a bunch of money. Hiding out at the Bates Motel, she decides to take a shower — only to be assaulted by the creepy caretaker Norman (Anthony Perkins), who kills her with a knife while dressed as his mother. Leigh’s screams aren’t the most bloodcurdling in the history of horror movies, but this original “scream queen” helped pave the way for plenty of lovely lasses to be preyed upon in slasher films. Marion’s shrieks of terror became the soundtrack for cinema’s long history of violence against women.
Best Tag-Team Screaming: Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s titanic portrait of reprobate oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is celebrated for many reasons — including its much-parodied “I drink your milkshake” finale, which sees Daniel finally letting his arch-nemesis, the weaselly pastor Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), have it.
But partly because it’s less referenced, I’ve always sorta preferred another There Will Be Blood highlight, which actually involves even more screaming. In fact, this scene — in which Eli baptizes Daniel and forces the sinner to debase himself in front of the entire congregation — is a terrific back-and-forth of shouting, with each man trying to outdo the other. And just look at Daniel’s face, full of rage, just waiting for the moment when he can one day bash this guy’s head in with a bowling pin.
Best Silent Scream: Mary Philbin, The Phantom of the Opera
One of the world’s most famous paintings is Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which depicts an anonymous man in the midst of high anxiety. The man’s silent, frozen yell is all the more haunting precisely because we don’t get the catharsis of hearing it. That’s the same sensation that occurs in the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera, which features one of cinema’s most iconic moments.
In the scene, the beautiful Christine (Mary Philbin) falls in love with a mysterious masked man (Lon Chaney), never knowing what his face looks like. And then one night, she sneaks up behind him and discovers to her horror how disfigured he is. Chaney’s startled look and Philbin’s noiseless shriek are intentionally exaggerated — the silent era required actors to be extra-expressive — but that only adds to the scene’s power. You can’t hear her scream, but you can imagine it.
Best Scream-Crying: Will Ferrell, Anchorman
We’ve all been there: You’re so upset that you can’t even speak as the tears and anguish just come pouring out of you. But odds are it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as when it happens to Ron Burgundy, who’s so bereft after the death of his dog that, well, recognizable human words fail him. This is one of Anchorman’s signature scenes — so much so that “glass case of emotion” has gone on to become a cultural shorthand for when we’re a wreck.
Most Horrific Animal Scream: The Bear, Annihilation
It’s not just humans who scream — certain members of the animal kingdom let out a wail for different reasons. But none of them have ever freaked me out the way that bear does in Annihilation. You know the one I’m talking about — that weird mutant bear that resides in the Shimmer and drags away Cass (Tuva Novotny), who’s part of Natalie Portman’s search party. Later in the film, the bear returns… and lets out an unholy scream in Cass’ voice. That yell of pure terror is neither human nor animal — it’s something else entirely, and also one of the most chilling things I’ve ever experienced in a theater.
Best Overacted Scream: William Shatner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
William Shatner isn’t a subtle actor. When he first signed on to play Captain Kirk for the Star Trek television series, he’d mostly done theater, which he felt adversely influenced his performance. “As a young theater actor, I was vibrating on camera. … I knew theatricality, and, perhaps, a little bit too much,” he once admitted. “Looking back, I would have toned that down a little.” Of course, Kirk’s overblown self-seriousness was a large part of the character’s appeal, and it was never better expressed than in Star Trek II, the best of the Trek films, in which Kirk squares off with his old foe Khan (Ricardo Montalbán). At a pivotal moment, Khan seems to have defeated Kirk, leaving him marooned on a dead planet. Another actor would have gone for a stiff upper lip, letting the direness of the situation really sink in for the audience. But not our Shatner, who bellowed the most overwrought “Khaaaaaaaaaaaan!” in cinematic history.
Best Nicolas Cage Scream: Nicolas Cage, The Wicker Man
The Oscar-winner has delivered all types of screams in his cranked-up career. In fact, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one all-timer:
But the best has to be his freak-out during this 2006 remake of the cult horror classic. “Not the bees!!!!” has been endlessly mocked, but Cage insists that the film was always meant to be funny. In 2013, he said, “Wicker Man is probably the best example of a movie where people are mystified because they think for some reason that we did not know it was humorous, even though I am dressed in a bear suit, doing these ridiculous things with the matriarchal society on the island — how can you not know that [director] Neil [LaBute] and I knew that this was absurdist humor? But okay, have at it.”
Thanks, Nic, I think I will.
Best Blowup at an Underling: Gary Oldman, The Professional
In real life, you can’t just scream at your coworker when he’s being annoying. It’s important to maintain some professional decorum, damn it. But if you’re Gary Oldman, playing a renegade cop on the hunt for a kindly assassin (Jean Reno) and his young friend (Natalie Portman) in The Professional, those social niceties mean nothing. Oldman is a blast in this Luc Besson action-thriller, but his peak moment of nuttiness occurs after his men fail to capture the assassin — frustrated, he tells his underling to bring him everyone. If you’ve seen The Professional, you know what happens next, but even so, you really owe it to yourself to watch this whole scene, just so you can savor Oldman going from calm to full-on furious in a flash. Damn it, Benny, don’t make him have to repeat it.
Most Genuine Cry of Pain: Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Actors love to talk about how they prepare for roles — how they go deep into their characters to ensure 100 percent authenticity. But few went to the lengths that Steve Carell did in his big-screen breakout role. When his hirsute character Andy has his chest waxed, Carell decided to have his actual hairy chest waxed in the scene, letting the scene be totally improvised.
“[I figured] the pain would probably be the funniest thing in the scene,” Carell later said. “Because there is this guy thing where there is this sadistic nature that men have to see other men in no-life-threatening pain. And especially self-inflicted. … Like a kick in the nuts, it’s just funny, you can’t help laughing at it if you’re a guy. To capture that on camera would be really amusing.”
Carell’s instincts were right, but his profanity-laden screams of anguish as the hair is mercilessly ripped off his body were very real. In that same interview, he recalled, as the scene was filming, that he realized he’d made a terrible mistake: “I kept saying, ‘No, no, no. I’m fine. I’m fine.’ And then halfway through I was just sweating and thought, ‘This is a bad idea.’” Yeah, but it was really funny.
Bleakest Yahoo: Slim Pickens, Dr. Strangelove
In Westerns, the cowboys often let out a lively “Yahoo!” when they’re excited or happy or rounding up cattle or whatever. It’s a sentiment we don’t necessarily associate with the end of the world. Then came Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy about nuclear war, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union must reluctantly work together to stop a rogue American plane from bombing the Commies. Spoiler Alert: They do not succeed, and Dr. Strangelove concludes with one of the most upsetting images ever put on screen. U.S. Major Kong manages to repair his plane’s damaged outer door, which allows the nuclear weapon (and him) to plummet toward its fateful destination.
Actor Slim Pickens had been a rodeo performer who was in a lot of Westerns, so it was only fitting that, in his most famous role, he’d be hootin’ and hollerin’ as humanity is about to be wiped off the face of the earth. Ever since, when life looks bleak, it’s hard not to think of Pickens riding that bomb like a steel horse, facing down oblivion with whoops of euphoria. That’s one way to go.