7 memorably scary Indiana Jones scenes that push the adventure saga into horror territory

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny exhumes the legacy of a classic adventure franchise. The now-80-year-old Harrison Ford reprises his iconic role as archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones for what is possibly the last time, and the irrepressible Indy is set to go out with a bang.

Director James Mangold takes over from Steven Spielberg to honour the franchise's typical blend of globe-trotting, ancient tombs and hair-raising danger at every turn. In this instalment, Indy must pair with his goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) to hunt down the anitikythera, the dial designed by philosopher/mathematician Archimedes before insurgent Nazi scientist Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) can get his hands on it.

Clearly, peril and destruction go hand in hand whenever Indiana Jones is around, and the series has always walked the finest of tightropes between exuberant adventure and flat-out terror. In fact, the series has frequently embraced the nightmarish potential lurking at the margins of Indy's adventures, often to controversial and generation-damaging degrees.

On the eve of Dial of Destiny's release this June, here are the seven scariest Indiana Jones moments that add a genuinely spiky note of menace to proceedings.


1. The Well of the Souls (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

"Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?" What earmarks Indiana Jones as a hero is his fallibility. It's refreshing to see an otherwise brave character express fear or squeamishness as it fashions greater relatability with the audience. (Compare this, for example, with the earlier James Bond movies in which 007 was essentially impervious, barring the odd punch to the face.)

Indy's hatred of snakes, established in Raiders' opening Peru escape sequence, pays off perfectly midway through the movie. On the hunt for the fabled Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis are seeking for world domination purposes, Indy leads a covert dig in the Egyptian desert outside Cairo. Upon unveiling the cavernous Well of the Souls and its serpent-filled interior, Indy realises that his worst nightmare has come true as Spielberg and Ford hit the delicious sweet spot between comedy and terror.

The close call with the venomous Great Cobra was filmed with a pane of plexiglass separating Ford from the deadly reptile (this effect is more readily spotted in later 4K restorations of the movie). It perfectly sets up the franchise's affiliation with nasty critters and creepy crawlies.



2. The opening of the Ark (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Spielberg has always had a tendency to flirt with full-blown horror, be it the ferocious animal attacks of Jaws (1975) or Jurassic Park (1993), or the rampaging Martians in War of the Worlds (2005). The explosive climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark was infamous in stoking the hand-in-front-of-the-face mentality, pushing an enjoyable pulp adventure serial into full-on, Old Testament wrath that continues to leave children and adults giddily petrified.

Indy's rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) and his Nazi cohorts make the drastic mistake of road-testing the opening of the Ark of the Covenant, prior to revealing it to Adolf Hitler. (Would that they had just gone ahead as normal.) This is where the latent sense of threat that has been building throughout the movie comes into its own, assisted by John Williams' tremendous, Tritonal Ark theme that explodes into discordant chaos as emergent spirits transform into angels of death to variously implode, explode and melt the attendant villains.

The spectacularly grisly meltdown of Ronald Lacey's Gestapo agent Toht was achieved by melting a wax sculpture of the actor's face, which when played back at high speed unveiled one of the most memorable deaths in cinema history.



3. The insect tunnel (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

It's a big ask to pick the scariest sequence from The Temple of Doom, the most troubling and violent entry in the series. (Paradoxically, it's also the most over-the-top and cartoonish.) Even Spielberg dismissed it post-release, declaring the movie as "too dark and subterranean". Nevertheless, there's too much artistry and inventive energy on display to dismiss the movie out of hand, not least Elliot Scott's memorably ghoulish set designs and Douglas Slocombe's Hadean cinematography.

Prior to the film's most upsetting sequence (see below), Indy and his sidekick Short Round (the now Oscar-winning Ke Huy Quan) find themselves trapped in a room with spikes emerging from the floor and ceiling. Making it worse is their sole choice of saviour: the controversially shrieky nightclub singer Willie Scott (played by Spielberg's eventual wife Kate Capshaw) who must wade through an onslaught of horrible creepy crawlies to activate the release lever. That she manages it is a testament to the character's underrated bravery.



4. Thuggee sacrifice (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

Here is the most notorious sequence from the Indiana Jones saga, one that managed to redefine the American movie classification system all on its own. On venturing into the bowels of Pankot Palace, Indy, Willie and Short Round bear witness to a hideous sacrificial ceremony, undertaken by the thought-to-be-extinct Thuggee cult who worship the god Kali (cultural sensitivity isn't Temple of Doom's strong suit).

Veteran Indian actor Amrish Puri makes a strong impression as the shaven-headed, demonic high priest Mola Ram who wastes no time in removing a poor man's heart before lowering him, still alive (somehow), into a boiling hot pit of lava. Those weaned on the BBC TV edits from the 1980s and 1990s will likely be stunned at the scene's brutality. So graphic was it that Spielberg petitioned the MPAA rating board to invent a new certificate, the PG-13, that could exist between the kid-friendly PG and the adult-inclining R. They duly obliged.



5. Drinking the blood of Kali (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

You know bad things are going down when the unflappable, morally upstanding Indy is transformed by pure evil. The taunting Mola Ram, accompanied by his head guard (Pat Roach, a veteran of several heavy roles in the series), outlines his plans to utilise kidnapped child slaves to track down the remaining Sankara Stones. This will essentially allow him to overthrow all other religions and take over the world.

"What a vivid imagination," Indy sarcastically replies. But the villains truly have the upper hand in this instance, reinforcing Temple of Doom's incipient darkness. After brutally whipping both Indiana and Short Round (not even the kids escape punishment in this one), Mola Ram forces him to drink the cursed blood of Kali from a disembodied head, essentially turning Indy into a member of the Thugee (at least for a time). Ford's possessed face at the end of the sequence is another in the film's long line of disturbing moments.



6. Donovan's destruction (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989)

The enemies that feature in the third Indy movie are of the more insidious, softly softly, catchy monkey type, hiding in plain sight as they manipulate Indy towards their end goal. In the third and warmest Indiana Jones entry, our hero goes looking for his father, Henry Jones (a scene-stealing Sean Connery) who has vanished in pursuit of his life's work: seeking out the final resting place of the Holy Grail.

Henry has been kidnapped by the ruthless American businessman Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) who got Indy involved by posing as a benevolent benefactor. In a final turn of the screw, Indy must seek out the grail to save his mortally wounded father's life, venturing through a booby-trapped tomb to a cave populated by an ailing Grail Knight and a selection of false grails. When Donovan arrives on the scene, his notoriously poor choice of grail gives way to a genuinely terrifying death scene that belies the movie's altogether more gentle tone.



7. Killer ant battle (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008)

No, it's not the best Indiana Jones movie (debate rages as to whether it's the worst), but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes up with the goods on occasion. The movie proudly honours the 'boss fight' tradition of the earlier movies by pitting the now-ageing and ailing Indy against Soviet bruiser Colonel Antonin Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine), henchman of the nefarious Ruskie scientist Colonel Spalko (Cate Blanchett).

The kicker is that the hand-to-hand scrap takes place in the Amazon in the midst of a swarming, terrifying cluster of siafu – otherwise known as massive killer ants. The insects are deflected around the main players via the telepathic powers of the titular crystal skull, although it doesn't take a genius to know that Indy's opponent will come to a memorably horrible end in line with earlier instalments. It's enough to make one's organs crawl, let alone one's skin.


How will Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny measure up to its predecessors? Click the link below to get your tickets and find out when the movie hits Cineworld on June 28th.