Whenever a character is in immediate danger, they will rarely just be able to run away from said threat. Usually, a locked door or gate will get in their way. But not to worry, the character always has the right keys and just enough time to open the door before they are killed.
Except... Uh-oh! They just dropped the keys!
The Dangerous Key Fumble trope refers to the often-used cliche (particularly in horror movies) where a character will always drop their keys if they are in a life-or-death situation. It doesn't matter if a killer is right behind them, or if a pack of wild and hungry animals is mere seconds from tearing them apart, the character will always fumble with and drop their keys at a crucial moment, thus giving the threat some much-needed time to catch up with them (and in some cases, actually kill them).
This also happens often in car scenes too... If a character wants to escape from something in their car, they can never just put the key in the ignition and start the engine. First, they will drop the keys near the gas pedal and spend the next minute-or-so stumbling around to find them. (And then, of course, when they do get the keys in, the car won't start...but that's another trope.)
See also Pet Gets the Keys.
- There is a suspenseful moment in 10 Cloverfield Lane when Michelle tries to escape the bunker with Howard's keys. She has to open three locks at the main gate which takes her long enough for Howard to catch up. She manages to escape at the last second but not for long.
- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). When the gang first attacks, Bishop realises they're going to come in the back while he's busy at the front and sends the secretary to free a couple of prisoners in the lockup. She has the requisite 'trying to find the right key' scene, and the gangbangers actually break in and shoot her before she gets the cell open. Fortunately its Only a Flesh Wound and she's able to take down the man who shot her and retreat into the cell where the inmate takes down the other gangbanger.
- Played with in the first film of Bridget Jones' Diary. When Bridget's friends take her away to Paris so she can forget about Mark Darcy, she struggles with the keys when locking her front door... giving Mark Darcy time to appear, and Bridget has to make the terrible decision of whether to go with him, or with her friends.
- The Bravados: When the fake hangman stabs The Sheriff, the sheriff gets off a Last Breath Bullet that kills the hangman. As he falls, the sheriff drops the keys out of the reach of the cell: leaving the prisoners desperately trying to reach them.
- In Cash on Demand, Fordyce fumbles desperately with the vault keys as he attempts to open the vault so he can close the inner door before it triggers the external alarm.
- Deep in the Valley: While he and Carl are fleeing from Lance and Dick in the gymnasium, Lester attempts to unlock the door to escape but breaks the key off in the lock.
- Happens to the protagonist in Dogma when she is attacked by the minions and drops her car keys, which the minions promptly knock underneath the car.
- In Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, Molly and John are being chased by Michael Myers and surprisingly manage to get a fair distance away from him, before locking themselves in a small courtyard. Unfortunately, Molly drops the keys outside the courtyard and spends a few minutes trying to reach them, thus allowing Michael Myers to catch up to them, pick up the keys and unlock the courtyard gate with ease.
- The Haunted Mansion (2003) has Jim and his daughter in a dusty mausoleum, trying to retrieve a set of keys. It goes off smoothly at first, but suddenly the skeletons in the mausoleum starts waking up, and Jim, in his panic, dropped those keys into a grate leading to an underwater drain.
- In The Human Centipede, Lindsay deliberately drops the keys (for some reason) after locking herself in the doctor's bedroom. She then realizes what a dumb idea this was, when the doctor then appears at the window with an axe.
- A variation in I Am Mother, when Daughter has One Bullet Left but fumbles it while trying to load the gun so it rolls under a piece of equipment.
- Lake Placid vs. Anaconda: A lost key variant occurs. After the sorority girls who survive the first attack (while most of them are swimming) flee back to their cars, Tiffani and Jennifer realize that they left their keys back on the beach and can't drive anywhere before being surrounded by crocodiles.
- Lockjaw: Rise of the Kulev Serpent: Alan's father leaves the house drunk, unaware that he has just been cursed by his son. As he tries to open his truck, he drops his keys and while he is searching for them, is bitten on the hand by a snake. Which turns out to be a harmless grass snake. While he is laughing about this, he is devoured by the giant serpent.
- In A Man Called Sledge, the prisoners grab the guard holding the keys and are passing him from cell to cell to a point were Sledge can cover him with a gun. However, the crazy prisoner called Wolf strangles the guard, causing him to drop the keys. They land just out of reach of the prisoner in the closest cell, who strains his arms through the bars in an attempt to grab them.
- Tales of Halloween: In "Grim Grinning Ghost", Lynn runs up to her front door, convinced that she is being chased by a ghost. As she attempts to unlock the door, she fumbles and drops her house keys.
- In Titanic (1997), Rose and Jack are trapped in the lower decks of the ship by a metallic gate as it floods. One of the cabin crew tries to unlock it but manages to do and say the trope before apologetically fleeing. Cue Jack attempting to retrieve the gate key multiple times as the freezing cold water rises.
- In Varsity Blood, Robin drops the keys as she is attempting to unlock Bubba's truck. She manages to grab them, unlock the door, get in, and lock the door again just as the killer catches up to her.
- XX: In "Don't Fall", Jay drops the keys to the RV when he goes back to rescue Jess. He has to go back and attempt to retrieve them from under the broken window that Gretchen is lurking outside.
- Played with in Zombieland, when Columbus drops his keys by the car while being chased by a zombie, but is smart enough to circle around the parking lot until he's able to reclaim the keys without getting killed. Then he realizes he left his car unlocked, so he didn't need to get them out to unlock it in the first place.
- The gamebook Ghostly Towers often invokes this trope. The idea is to move through the book while seeing as few ghosts as possible, and unlocking doors by placing a "key" (transparent card with holes) on a space in the book, which reveals where to go next. Several times, a ghost is sneaking up behind you, but your path is blocked by a locked door.
You're going to have to find the right key, and FAST!
- In The Dark Tower novel The Waste Lands, Jake has to go through a Haunted House to reach a magical doorway that will take him to the others in Mid-World. Just as the house comes alive and tries to eat him, he drops the key that will let him open the portal and it falls through the floorboards.
- The Tommyknockers: After Gardener visits the shed, he realizes, just as the "Shed People" are returning, that he forget to put the padlock back on the door. As he runs out to put it back, he drops it and the key falls out.
- The Avengers (1960s). In "The Living Dead", Emma Peel is Forced to Watch from a cell as John Steed faces a Firing Squad. Being a Damsel out of Distress she quickly knocks out the Diabolical Mastermind and takes his keys, but has to try every key before finding the one that opens the cell door, drawing out the suspense as the firing squad is readying to shoot her partner.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- In "Passion" Angelus is waiting outside Buffy's home when her mother comes home, and starts putting on a psycho ex-boyfriend act to make her nervous. Joyce manages to both fumble her house keys and drop a bag of fruit she's carrying before Buffy intervenes.
- In "Dead Man's Party" Giles, after running over a zombie, drops his keys as he rushes over to check on his "victim." He doesn't realize they're missing until he tries to start the car under zombie attack, forcing him to demonstrate his impressive hotwiring skills.
- Doctor Who:
- "Blink": Sally takes a dangerously long time to unlock the door to the TARDIS with the Weeping Angels approaching.
- "Utopia" has the Doctor fumble with his keys for a second, giving the Master the time to deadlock the TARDIS door, making it impossible for the Doctor to open.
- "Closing Time" features a variation. The Doctor escapes out of a house from the attacking monster, but accidentally drops his sonic screwdriver as the door closes behind him. This leads to him being locked outside as the monster confronts his friend Craig moments later.
- Another Weeping Angel in "The Halloween Apocalypse". This time the woman concerned is trying to unlock her front door while not taking her eyes off the Angel; she drops her keys and then has to find them without looking down.
- Mr. Bean: Played with in "Do it yourself, Mr Bean", although not with the key, but the doorknob itself. Mr Bean paints his room by putting a firework in a can of paint, and wrapping everything not to be painted in newspaper. He lights the fuse on the firework and dashes for the door, only to find that the doorknob is in the fruit bowl, wrapped in paper. He hastily unwraps an apple and tries to open the door with it, before finding the knob and making his escape.
- One One Life to Live, Luna has just realized that her friend Suede is not who he claims to be when he beats up the cop who pulled them over. She runs back to the car and fumbles with the keys several times, allowing him enough time to steal the unconscious cop's gun and point it at her.
- Discussed on Seinfeld: Jerry is going home with a Girl of the Week, and as she's unlocking her door, he asks if she ever pretends there's an axe murderer after her to see how fast she can do it.
- In the music video for They Might Be Giants "Bastard wants to hit me", the character has managed to slip away from the titular bastard, and get to his car. However, the bastard notices him, and is very angry that he left before he was finished talking to him. The man freaks out and drops his keys. He picks them up, but before he can open the door the bastard catches up to him and lays him out.
- The final verse to Nickelback's Animals has the singer frantically looking for the car keys after his girlfriend's dad catches them getting it on in the car.
- Parodied in Stephen Colbert's video bit at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner. As he flees Helen Thomas into a parking garage, he flails and fumbles his car keys for several minutes as she gets closer. Then he remembers it has a push-button unlock.
- Deep Sleep Trilogy: The second game features in interesting variation, with a screw driver instead of a key. At some point you are stuck in the attic and Felicity is closing in on you. To get out, you have to quickly unscrew a metal plate so you can reach the button for opening the elevator. But when you start, you drop the screwdriver and quickly have to pick it up again.
- While the trope isn't used in a literal sense, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard perfectly recreates the tension of it because there's no Menu Time Lockout, so trying to select a key and manually unlock a door while a monster is chasing you is likely to make the player panic and have trouble pulling off such a normally simple action.
- Girl Genius: Theo can't find the right key in time when he's trying to unlock a handcuffed Sleipnir from the support column she's chained to while something huge is running down the stairs that lead straight to where she is trapped. Luckily the giant mechanical monster is on their side.
- Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: Frankie drops her key to the front door of the house into a mud puddle while being chased by an apparent crazed killer. And thanks to some earlier shenanigans (it's a long story) there are now dozens of other keys in the bottom of the same puddle when she tries to fish the right one out.