Why I like the ending lightsaber battle in Empire Strikes Back
1) We're going outside the typical horror genre on this one, but bear with me.
2) In the book Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film, splatterpunk writers Skipp and Spector advance the theory that horror is the engine that powers every movie you've ever loved. All conflict is based on the fear that something bad is going to happen. While I feel like their theory rounds up too many narrative strains into horror, it did make me consider scary scenes in all those movies beloved by the culture.
3) The classic slasher scene is one of slow, deadly stalking. The camera follows the victim as they creep through the dark, their pursuer close at hand with their knife drawn. It's as animalistic as horror gets; we're all afraid of the crazy person with the sharp object. As time has gone on, the victim has become more frail and the victim has become more hulking and brutish.
4) The first stalking scene I ever saw as a kid was Darth Vader stalking Luke Skywalker through the underbelly of Cloud City. It took me years before I could ever watch the movie again.
5) It's hard to be scared of Darth Vader these days. I spent last week at Disney World, where I saw a stage show where Darth Vader got beaten up by a six year old. His masked features were on tee-shirts and in cartoon drawings wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Oversaturation kills all the great monsters, but in all the merchandising crap we forget how fucking scary he is.
6) Luke Skywalker is completely unprepared for the fight. He ignored Yoda's instructions and rushed to his friend's aid, falling into Vader's trap. He meets his opponent in a room that looks like Freddy Krueger's hellish boiler room. Vader is a massive dark silhouette silently waiting for his opponent, his respirator overpowering the soundtrack. They fight and it's clear that Skywalker is overpowered. He flees, Vader in pursuit.
7) Everyone remembers the big reveal before Luke takes the plunge off the antenna, but the scenes that stick with me are Luke's slow creep through the silent hallways. It's one of the few quiet scenes in the Star Wars films. We feel Luke's fear, and the ominous sounds of Darth Vader's breathing takes a new edge. It reminds me of Jason's distinctive ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha sound. The first time Vader attacks, he sweeps violently down at Luke from an alcove. It's a horror movie jump scare.
Conclusion: Every kid has that story of the ostensibly-for-children movie that scared the crap out of them. Disney movies are often the culprit, but mine was Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader was genuinely terrifying in the movie, and the script makes it very clear just how far Luke Skywalker is out of his depth. He's pushed to the limit of his endurance, which makes the revelation of his lineage all that more horrific. It's a brilliant horror scene in a non-horror film.