Hello, readers! This Friday is Halloween, and in honor of this haunting occasion, I’m counting down my picks for the best movie deaths ever made.
Obviously, the horror genre’s the reigning champion when it comes to cinematic deaths, but many great deaths, as you’ll see here, have taken place in other genres. Even animated films such as Bambi and The Lion King have character deaths that are hard to shake off. What makes a great death? Sometimes it’s the creativity, sometimes the shocking nature, and sometimes it only needs the meaning behind it, going sans blood and gore.
Before we continue on, it should be no surprise that all of these picks (some of which have graphic violence to those that are squeamish) contain spoilers. You’ve officially been warned. Let’s begin, starting with…
10) Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) – The Princess Bride
1987 – Proof that a great death doesn’t need to come packaged inside blood and gore, or even a horror film, Vizzini’s demise during his “Battle of Wits” with Westley is simple and abrupt. What makes it so memorable is the witty and hysterical banter between Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes, courtesy of writer William Goldman. Shawn’s wordy, over-thinking monologue, prior to biting the dust, is filled to the brim with snarky arrogance and tortured logic that doesn’t know when to quit, leading to his high-strung cackle and then… silence.
9) Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) – Blade Runner
1982 – It ends with the matter-of-factly line, “… Time… to die.”, but just before dying, the underrated Rutger Hauer gives one of the most poignant and poetic speeches in film. As one of the most lethal replicants – genetically engineered humanoids with a short lifespan – hunting down main protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), Batty finally gets the perfect opportunity to kill Deckard, but instead chooses to save him right as his system is shutting down. What follows is a beautiful and satisfyingly moving speech that celebrates the joy of life, while also reminding us of just how fragile and fleeting it really is.
8) Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) – Suspiria
1977 – From Giallo horror schlock master Dario Argento, you could honestly devote an entire list to just this film, and Pat Hingle’s brutal death is just the beginning of what would be a 90-minute long funhouse ride on acid. No one can make blood and gore appear so artistic like Argento, and his exceptional use of lighting, color and cinematography is what transcends a kill like this, among the many others here, above being just gratuitous violence. Argento may not be going for narrative brilliance here, but he definitely exceeds in establishing an unsettling, dreamlike atmosphere that’s hard to forget.
7) Cpl. Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) – The Deer Hunter
1978 – Walken took home Best Supporting Actor for his heart-wrenching turn as a soldier damaged by the Vietnam War to the point of no return. The climactic moment between Walken and De Niro is nail-biting intense, but what hits you even harder is the way De Niro’s Mike, in an effort to save his friend, desperately tries to get Nick snap out of his withdrawn state to no avail, going as far as willingly participating in the game. Just when it looks like Nick’s finally recognized Mike, he tells him “one shot”, which ends up being the fatal one.
6) Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) – A Nightmare on Elm Street
1984 – Tina’s death comes close, but in his film debut, Johnny Depp scored the most stunning and memorable death out of them all in Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher classic. Terrifically executed with practical effects (the room set was flipped upside down and dyed water was used to create the geyser effect), we never see Freddy (other than his claw) or Glen when the kill occurs; we just get the blood-spewing aftermath, a moment just as exciting today as it was when viewers first saw it.
5) Norris (Charles Hallahan) – The Thing
1982 – Like Argento’s Suspiria, I could devote this entire segment to all the men killed in John Carpenter’s thrilling horror/sci-fi flick, a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks classic. Norris’s death stands above them all ’cause it’s one grotesque, shocking mutation, followed by another, and just when you think it’s over, one more is followed. That it was all done with the use of practical prosthetics and makeup effects, superbly crafted by Rob Bottin, elevates the horrifying nature of what we’re seeing. Palmer’s response in the clip says it all.
4) Quint (Robert Shaw) – Jaws
1975 – We only get glimpses of “Bruce” throughout Jaws, and by the time Steven Spielberg reveals the shark in all its dreaded glory, the film’s near the end. It’s worth the wait, though. It’s not just that it’s a frightening moment, one that scared the crap out of me when I first saw the film as a kid. Quint could’ve been a one-note, looney caricature, but thanks to Robert Shaw’s mesmerizing performance and a tragic backstory, a fitting tribute to the real-life USS Indianapolis incident during WWII, depth and legitimacy was given to Quint’s Biblical vengeance-sized desire to bring down the shark. When we finally witness Quint’s downfall by way of the very thing that’s traumatized him for years, it makes the moment all the more heartbreaking.
3) Officer Kane (John Hurt) – Alien
1979 – Easily the most disturbing moment in the film, and one of the most parodied overall (John Hurt reprised his role in the Mel Brooks spoof Spaceballs), story creators Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett drew on the idea of an extraterrestrial being growing inside a human like a parasitic baby. What resulted is one of the most sickly terrifying and, oddly enough, darkly funny moments to hit the screen, giving way to one of the most iconic monsters in sci-fi. Bonus points go to Ridley Scott and his crew for keeping the cast in the dark on what was to happen to Hurt, which created some genuinely shocked reactions.
2) Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) – The Godfather Part II
1974 – You could understandably argue that the “Baptism of Fire” from The Godfather is the most iconic of the film series. Fredo’s death, though, by way of his own brother Michael’s bidding, carries more weight than any other film, ’cause it was a moment brewing ever since Michael coldly warned him, “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again… Ever.”, from the first film. No violence shown; in fact, we never see the act happen. We hear the shot fired, but only see Michael quietly watching it all take place, a moment that speaks more to his character than any other moment in the trilogy.
Here we are, the #1 spot. And the winner is… Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s career by way of Boat Trip and Snow Dogs… and Chill Factor… and Norbit… and Daddy Day Camp… Okay, let’s try this one more time.
1) Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) – Psycho
1960 – Highly controversial for its time, Marion’s murder from the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece never once shows any nudity, and we never see the knife blade penetrate Janet Leigh’s skin. Yet Hitchcock’s perfect blend of editing, acting and cinematography (a staggering total of 77 different camera angles were used for a scene lasting just under four minutes), with a little boost from Bernard Herrmann’s score, created a kill scene that manages to show it all by showing very little. Hitchcock referred to the techniques he used as “Transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.”, and to this day no onscreen death has matched the menacing, compelling, influential and timeless nature of this one.
Well, there you have it, fans of all things morbid. If you’re upset that none of the 64 times Jason Voorhees was killed (… Or was he?) made the list, you can always send your hate mail to my email address in the contact section. Feel free to let me know your favorite movie deaths in the comment section.