“Oh, I feel dead.” ~ Kane (Alien)
As we’ve seen in this “fatal” film series of mine, no matter that we’re broaching an unsettling subject, cinematically few things ever register with audiences as much as dying onscreen. Perhaps, it’s because it is in all the futures of those sitting in the movie theater seats, or at home lounging on the sofa in front of some television set, watching. Most shrug it off, enjoying the comeuppance, or the mistake that kills the villain.
Yet, there are instances in a movie scene that perhaps reminds us of something we can readily imagine, and instantly revolt against because we’d never, ever wish it done to us…as movie-viewer or in real life. An act or circumstance happening right there before their eyes that reaches a level of dread as any “bad death” onscreen. Ugh. Arguably, it’d be the antithesis of the heroic, selfless sacrificial death that began this series.
This then is that — a list of some of my chosen “gruesome” cinematic demises — filmed with all the expertise and care by a movie master craftsman, some hack who got lucky with the material some halfway resourceful screenwriter came up with, or anything in-between that makes a ghastly impression that sticks in your head. And not in a good way or for the squeamish, but come what may, those that certainly added to a memorable cinematic experience.
Caveat: Except for a key number of genre classics, I’ll avoid most of the deaths found in today’s horror film. The more recent trend in this category of late too focused on grisly, painful, and creative ways of meting out the heartless demise of characters. Hell, it’s the key reason a number of fans in the genre screen the films in the first place. Most are empty exercises, with little drama outside of waiting for what’s-his-name to bite it onscreen. No thank you.
[Spoiler Alert: keys plot points are revealed below]
- Kane – Alien: If John Hurt never did another movie after this Ridley Scott classic, his performance as the doomed Nostromo crewmate Kane would’ve sealed his legend. Becoming the parent-host to a “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”, and its horrifying birth, the stuff of nightmares.
- Palancio – Magnum Force: An exercise in setup: police officers surround mob killer Frank Palancio’s place for a takedown, only to have the arrestee tipped off. The shootout that follows has an unexpected end to greet viewers’ imagination. Without a hint of blood, after Det. Harry Calahan is ejected off the hitman’s escape vehicle, Palancio’s steely doom comes at him headlong through the windshield.
- Colonel Kurtz – Apocalypse Now: The figure Capt. Willard was sent to assassinate, after coming to sympathize with him, is taken down in tandem with the ceremonial machete slaughter of a water buffalo. A brilliant, brutal scene edited and visualized effectively to use the darkness of men’s souls as a cinematic exclamation point.
- Capt. Quint – Jaws: While I’m well aware Chrissie Watkins got it first, famously but none too nicely, Quint was even more aware what a hungry shark could do having been on the sunken U.S.S. Indianapolis, which made it worse, in my mind. Sliding down on his foredoomed ship, into those jaws was likely the most dreadful death he’d have ever imagined.
- Limehouse Willy – Pray for Death: Just a supremely bad idea to piss-off and kill the wife of a modern-day Ninja; even worse if you miss killing your warrior opponent with your chainsaw in battle. Something to think about while you’re pinned to a log, headed face-first to a grisly death by mill saw.
- Nicky Santoro – Casino: The extremely brutal execution (though, it is justly deserved) brought to the mob enforcer Nicky by his Mafia cohorts: beaten to a bloody pulp by baseball bats, dumped and buried in a grave while still breathing, you almost feel sorry for the guy…I did say almost.
- Tony Dogs – Casino: If you felt sorry for the above Nicky, remember what he did to the tough guy who shot up a mafioso’s bar; tortured for two days and nights, then given the head-in-a-vice treatment for his contacts, only to then get a messy slit throat for a merciful end. Don’t you dare be empathetic toward Nicky, people.
- Emil – Robocop (1987): The guy who helped kill Officer Alex Murphy gets slopped with toxic waste, which melts a good portion of skin; with his friend fleeing in fear and disgust by the sight of him, he is finally put out of his misery when his ringleader Boddicker accidentally runs him over with his car. A Verhoven classic.
- Alex Murphy – Robocop (1987): Speaking of Officer Murphy, after being captured and tortured by Clarence Boddicker by having his right hand blown off by shotgun, his gang riddles the ’80s Christ-like figure by gun fire as he stands from his scourging. Just gratuitously brutal. Emil, and rest, got off too easy is my thought.
- Oracle’s Sisters – Immortals: This the memorably gross scene of the Oracle hearing the sounds emanating from a Brazen Bull — an actual Greek torture execution device back in the day — and discovering her three sisters poached alive inside that bronze bull statue. Truly, a disturbing group reunion.
- Safari Guide – The Naked Prey: As Fogs said awhile back of the guide caught by the opposing tribe: “He is basically trundled up and encased in clay for the purpose of roasting alive over a fire. The thought of the torture is disturbing enough but it was visualized in a very realistic way and that made it all the more troubling.”
- Nash – The Hitcher: Key here being able to imagine the outcome. What you don’t see, in graphic detail, can be gruesome enough. Anyone who’s seen this horror classic can attest to this care of one scene. Where the hero‘s new girlfriend gets tied between truck and trailer, and torn apart between them offscreen.
- Sloth – Se7en: The ‘sloth’ pedophile figure kept barely alive by serial killer John Smith while strapped to a bed for exactly a year. First thought deceased by police, only to learn otherwise. Needless to say, mercy had nothing to do with any of this.
- Marion Crane – Psycho: Masterful and cinematically artful, Hitchcock’s tour de force shower sequence the stuff film aficionados and colleges still study. Yet, because of the editing and camera techniques employed, the scene remains pure mayhem onscreen for moviegoers to absorb as our poor heroine’s blood runs down the shower drain, even if the butcher knife never got close enough to touch skin.
- Kate Miller – Dressed to Kill: De Palma’s equally clever homage to Psycho two decades later was even more visceral. Butchering the woman unexpectedly in an elevator onscreen, the audience even more involved with the victim, all care of her intimate ‘shower scene’, which started the film. The camera and blood chronicling each slash while Kate’s eyes registered it all. Appallingly grim art.
- William Wallace – Braveheart: If you are aware, Mel Gibson’s award-winning film was a fictionalized account of Scotland’s William Wallace. Even his terrible end took its liberties, actually soft-pedaled it some*. Still, the depiction being hanged, drawn, and quartered was pretty dreadful to imagine, let alone experience.
- First Four Girls – Death Proof: Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to creatively depicting death onscreen. Yet, for the unlucky four young women Stuntman Mike took out, care of his “death-proof” vehicle, it’s surprisingly more painstaking, literally, than expected. Replayed in sharp, wicked (even slow motion) detail for each (to the tune of Hold Tight), only made the victim’s instant death more drawn-out and shocking.
- Jesus – The Passion of the Christ: Where Mel Gibson softened the protagonist’s death in Braveheart, the director-writer held back very little with his 2004 American epic-slash-biblical drama. The final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, especially the affecting yet cruel depiction of his scourging and crucifixion by his Roman executioners, still splits viewers to this day†.
* Hanged, drawn, and quartered, the statutory penalty for high treason in England (1351 – 1839), ranged from extreme to victims suffering lesser, quicker executions. What Gibson didn’t show in the theatrical release was Wallace stripped naked and dragged at the heels of a horse through the streets to the Elms at Smithfield. The film still showed him strangled by hanging and released while he was still alive. His emasculation, evisceration, and bowels burned before him done offscreen. Initial test screenings showed much more of the real event, but audiences reacted negatively, so these were cut. His beheading, torn into four parts, and his preserved head placed on a pike atop London Bridge were only referred to.
† “Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it “the most violent film I have ever seen”; he also reflected on how the film personally impacted him as a former altar boy.” [Wikipedia]; Mel Gibson’s most successful film also made him person non grata at major studios and agencies, too, for its perceived anti-Semitism. YMMV.
The entire series of posts can be found here.