It’s become a tradition that Justin Souther and I undertake some kind of Halloween treat for this column. Well, it’s a treat for us, no matter what anyone else thinks about it. This year we opted to go to perhaps the very core of the horror film—death. Now that may seem a particularly morbid topic and it obviously is, but isn’t death—or the threat of death or the chance of beating death —at the bottom of all horror pictures? Even if you subscribe to film/cultural historian David J. Skal’s premise (and I’m inclined to) that the baby boomer fascination with the genre that helped cause it to be taken seriously was grounded in fears born of living on the precipice of nuclear war, the bottom line is still the Grim Reaper himself.
With this in mind, we decided to come up with a few prime examples of classic depictions of death through the years as it’s been handled in horror pictures. Justin has stated in his portion that my list is apt to be classier than his. Well, I’m not so sure about that—especially after looking over his list. There’s nothing on it that I wouldn’t put on mine. If anything, my list is simply more steeped in the classics—which were generally considered trashy pulp at time of their origins—because I’ve known them longer and they’re what my mind tends toward.
Nosferatu (1922). My own first stop is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. This may well be the first great horror film demise, and yet it’s one of those things that must’ve panicked ‘em when it first came out, but looks pretty tame to modern audiences. What’s surprising is how effective it is—largely because of everything that leads up to it. Even when it was elaborated upon in E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000)—a fantasticed shaggy vampire story about the making of Nosferatu—the essence of the scene remains unaltered. It’s still the vampire tricked into staying up till after cock-crow and being dissolved into a whiff of smoke by the rays of the sun. There’s a wonderful simplicity about it—any first year film student with a basic notion of how the dissolve works could duplicate the moment—that keeps it fresh in the memory, resonating through the years while many, much flashier deaths have drifted into insignificance. It really helps when the movie is made by a genius.
Frankenstein (1931). The modern American horror film was arguably born with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), but it’s unarguable that there’s something a bit lacking in the death department of a horror movie where the big cheese vampire meets his end offscreen with merely a thud and a scream. The restraint may be admirable artistically, but it’s…well, not all that exciting. It took James Whale with Frankenstein to create the first really shocking horror film—and with it came one of the most memorable deaths (OK, so the death didn’t quite take by the time of the sequel) in horror history when the Monster (Boris Karloff) expired in the burning windmill at the climax. It’s also unique in Universal’s Frankenstein saga in that the death of the Monster is truly terrifying thanks to Whale’s decision to play the scene from the viewpoint of the doomed creature. It wouldn’t be the last time the old boy burned to death, but it would be the only time that he evidenced his own terror at the prospect. Here the Monster panics, runs around wildly and screams for his life. It remains a chilling moment.
Rasputin and the Empress (1932). It’s a debatable point whether or not Richard Boleslawski’s Rasputin and the Empress should rightly be called a horror film. That certainly wasn’t MGM’s intention. They wanted a prestige historical drama to showcase the first (and as it turned out, last) teaming of John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. (The experience so unnerved Ms. Barrymore that it would be 12 years before she was talked into making another movie.) It hardly mattered what they wanted, however, since Grigori Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) just screams horror movie villain—and a scenery-chewing Lionel Barrymore assured he would be played as one. Regardless of anything else in the film, the scene where Prince Chegodieff (John Barrymore) kills Rasputin is one of the most memorable moments of murder in the history of movies. It’s such pure horror movie stuff that it’s more than a little belieavable that Chegodieff would scream, “Get back in hell!” when the seemingly unkillable Rasputin gets up and staggers toward him muttering his vision of the fall of the Russian empire. Trivial aside: this is the movie that caused movies to be labelled as works of fiction in the credits, owing to the fact that Prince Yusupov (the real Chegodieff) and his wife successfully sued MGM for defamation of character over a scene that suggested the Princess was raped by Rasputin.
The Black Cat (1934). Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat is that rarest of movies—one that has succeeded in retaining its controversy for 75 years (and counting). A lot of the controversy stems less from its horrific excesses than from its stylistic ones, but the horror quotient is certainly a factor. And it’s not just the film’s elements of Satanism, necrophilia and general unwholesomeness that does this. It’s the fact that the movie presents the audience with a moral dilemma and doesn’t let them off the hook. The film spends a good deal of its length convincing the viewer that Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) is the most monstrous human being who ever lived. The man is a traitor who saved himself by selling out every man under his command to a blood-bath. He then married the wife of one of those friends, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), and at some point tired of her, murdered her, preserved her under glass, and married Werdegast’s daughter (Lucille Lund). He also built his home on the foundations of the fort he betrayed and holds black masses there. When it turns out that Werdegast didn’t tie and has come seeking revenge, events cause him to murder the daughter, too. This is just not a nice man. As a result, the viewer is more than a little on the side of the deranged Werdegast when he skins Poelzing alive in what is still a pretty shocking sequence that raises the question of just how much better than Poelzing Werdegast and the viewer are—suggesting that the capacity for such a thing lies within all of us.
The Raven (1935). Far less cerebral—and much less stylistically interesting—is Louis Friedlander’s The Raven, which came about simply because Universal wanted another Karloff-Lugosi horror movie. There’s not much here in the way of moral conundrum in a silly story about Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi), brilliant surgeon, Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast and thwarted lover as unhinged loon. It all revolves around Vollin saving the life of Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), courting her and then snapping when it turns out she has other plans. (It’s wholly understandable because the woman is a shameless tease.) Conveniently, Vollin has built a working collection of Poe torture devices in his basement (Bob Vila never thought of this!) to take out his frustration on the lady, her boyfriend (Lester Matthews) and her father (Samuel S. Hinds). Similarly convenient is the appearance of an escaped murderer, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), in search of plastic surgery, who ends up serving as Vollin’s henchman after the mad medico disfigures him. It’s actually even sillier than it sounds and it plays better as sick comedy than effective horror, but Vollin’s comeuppance in his own “room where the walls come together” is certainly a key moment in the genre—one that ended up in Saw V (2005) of all things (where, of course, lots of gore was added).
House of Frankenstein (1944). Even less cerebral—and wholly indefensible on moral grounds—is the death of the hunchback sidekick, Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), in Erle C. Kenton’s House of Frankenstein. This isn’t a good film, though it has nostalgic appeal for those of us who grew up on Shock Theatre on TV. It’s actually a pretty desperate film—Universal’s bid to bolster their flagging horror fortunes by cramming as many monsters as possible—Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr), the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), a mad doctor (Boris Karloff) and, most unfortunately, a hunchback (Naish)—into one movie. There are worse things in the realm of silly horror, but there may be nothing as bad as Naish’s perpetually whining hunchback and his slobberingly sentimental—and hopeless—fixation on the gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo) who’s in love with the Wolf Man. The poor Frankenstein Monster doesn’t get much of a workout in the movie, but he does get the film’s most completely satisfying moment when he gets up off his table and tosses the hunchback though a window to his death. It’s a stand up and cheer moment if ever there was one.
The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Jumping ahead we find Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors, a splendid horror comedy with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. It’s almost the perfect film of its kind, despite being defaced—as so many genre films of its era were—with a God-awful Les Baxter musical score that insists on goosing every comic moment with somewhat less taste than Spike Jones. The story revolves around the ill-tempered and generally intoxicate Trumbull (Price), a funeral director who doesn’t always wait for clients, but murders them with the help of his long-suffering assistant (Lorre). The comic center of the film lies not in a death, but in the non-death of Trumbull’s landlord John Black Rathbone) who suffers from catalepsy. As a result, Black gets several “death” scenes (“You’re dead, Mr. Black.” “The hell I am!”), which are certainly memorable. However, it’s Price’s death at the film’s end—where Karloff accidentally poisons him with what he thinks is medicine—is Price at his hammy best. Just imagine Price being let loose on such a scene and you’ll know what I mean.
The Lair of the White Worm (1988). And then there’s the demise of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) in Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm. This is a brilliantly twisted horror film that plays its thrills for over-the-top laughs without ever quite forgetting that it is a horror picture. There are splendid moments where the comedy deliberately undercuts the genre. Lady Sylvia has one of those preposterous speeches about her cult of pagan worshippers of the white worm (a gigantic snake, in fact) where she works herself into a frenzy of zealous nonsense that’s completely shattered when the doorbell rings and she immediately shifts gears to a very prosaic, “Shit!” The deaths tend to be comic—albeit cheerfully gory—in tone. Russell saves the best one—Lady Sylvia’s own—for last. I mean, how do you top a naked woman painted blue and wearing a two-foot killer strap-on having her hand cut off so that she falls into the gaping mouth of the titular worm? Well, really, you can’t—even if the worm’s mouth was fabricated from the front of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Silent Hill (2006). And to be more or less totally modern, I’ll toss in the climax of Christophe Gans’ vastly underrated Silent Hill. OK, I’ll be the first to concede that the film’s exposition is clunky (though it gets better upon repeat viewings) and it has a totally unnecessary tacked-on scene at the end. But that still leaves a center section that’s among the most unsettlingly creepy and gruesome from any era. And then there’s the ending of the film proper—no, not that dumb tag scene—and it rates an unqualified “wow!” in its splattery grisliness. The demise of the story’s central villain—featuring what is easily the most horrifically creative use of barbed wire ever—is top of the pops when it comes to memorable horror movie deaths.
Right now, as I’m writing this, I only have a faint idea of what Ken’s list of favorite horror deaths consists of, though one can only assume it’ll turn out much classier than mine. Why, you might ask? Because I’m easy when it comes to these types of things—the gorier, the better. Mood, creepiness? Who needs it when there are gallons of fake blood and viscera to be had? And while this is all well and good, after starting this list I quickly ran into a problem as I realized some of my favorite splattery movie death scenes had no deaths at all. Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) being strangled with the ambulatory intestines of a decapitated zombie in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator? While hitting just the right note of absurdity, there’s no shuffling off mortal coils to be found. Jeff Goldblum as the Brundlefly in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, disintegrating his nemesis’ (John Getz) hand and foot before our very eyes with fly vomit? Same story.
So with this, I’ve attempted to make a list of my favorite horror deaths—as crass as that someone suddenly seems—in all their tasteless, over-the-top glory. And with that…
Dead Alive (1992). Seventeen years ago, Peter Jackson—in the days before Lord of the Rings made him the cat’s pajamas—made New Zealand’s answer to the zombie flick with the splatstick masterpiece Dead Alive (also known as Braindead if you’re from anywhere outside the states). The movie starts with a town full of Kiwis being turned into psychotic zombies because of a Sumatran rat-monkey. The movie then goes on—with the help of, amongst other things, a kung-fu practicing priest and a flesh-eating infant—to use hundreds of gallons of fake blood, culminating in the Odessa steps sequence of horror movies. Our nebbish mama’s boy of a hero (Timothy Balme), faced with a horde of killer zombies clogging up his house, decides to take care of them in the only logical way thinkable—by running through them with his lawnmower. Three hundred liters (Google tells me that’s nearly 80 gallons) of fake blood and numerous dismembered bodies later and the zombie problem’s taken care of (besides the clean up, of course).
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). So Freddie Krueger is running around inside the dreams of teenagers, offing them in variously gruesome ways as a means of exacting revenge against their parents who caused his death. And with all of these goings on going on, what does a very young Johnny Depp do? Well, he falls asleep watching TV. Most likely unavoidable, but a bad move nonetheless, because here’s dear old Freddie’s chance, one he takes full advantage of for what’s probably the most iconic scene in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Clawed hand and all, Freddie manages to pull Depp into the bed, spewing a fountain of blood in its wake that covers the ceiling and walls, an instance of spectacle that would make the elevator in The Shining proud. What might be most impressive is how simple—in pre-CGI days—and effective the scene is. Both gruesome and bizarrely majestic.
Scanners (1981). If we’re going to continue to talk about splatter, we can’t go any further without discussing David Cronenberg. The man’s made a career out of the creatively gory—really, this entire list could’ve been Cronenberg movies. But for the sake of variety, we’ll only put one of his films on this list. But what to chose? The splattery demise of Brundlefly in The Fly? The inventive use of scissors for suicide in The Dead Zone (1983)? James Woods transforming a man’s hand into a hand grenade through the use of what looks a hell of a lot like a vagina in his stomach in Videodrome (1983)? All worthy candidates indeed, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Scanners. And if you’ve ever watched Scanners, you know exactly what scene I’m talking about: the exploding head. The long and the short of it is that Michael Ironside can wreak all kinds of havoc with only his mind, and this includes blowing up heads all Old Faithful-like, something he does within the movie’s first ten minutes. And I don’t mean to understate this scene—what happens is gloriously, overtly, fantastically gory, the kind of movie magic that a rubber head, some dog food, a shotgun and a little Canadian ingenuity can accomplish. It’s the kind of thing the phrase “crowd pleaser” doesn’t get attached to often enough. Really, every movie needs an exploding head.
Carrie (1976). When you think of Brian DePalma’s Carrie, you think of three things: pigs blood, a gymnasium full of teens and telekineses-powered Carrie (Sissy Spacek) bent on revenge. And of course, you should—there might not be a more iconic scene in modern horror, due to the style and precision DePalma directs it with. And while this is the scene in Carrie, it doesn’t contain the best deaths, at least as far as I’m concerned. No, it happens just a tad later in the movie as Carrie returns home after the full-scale slaughter she’s just wrought, only to get stabbed in the back by her religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie). Of course, this is probably a worse idea than The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999) and her daughter proceeds to impale her with various kitchen knives and utensils. This includes the wonderfully bizarre touch—and what puts this scene on the list—of stabbing mother with a flying, psychically propelled potato peeler.
The Exorcist III. While William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) will always and forever get the most attention, for me, it never comes close to being as good a film as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III—it’s less spectacle while also being an effectively frightening, creepy horror movie. Exhibit A is the most effective use of mood through false scares and heightening tension. The setting is a hospital where a serial killer has been roaming around, decapitating people and desecrating religious object, which brings us to the scene in question. A nurse, attempting to close up shop for the night, gets subjected to a series of false scares—the crackle of melting ice, a sleeping doctor suddenly awakening—cinematic rope-a-dope as old as horror movies themselves. And it’s the phony scares, this sleight of hand, that leads to a stationary, distanced shot of the nurse in the open space of the reception area, a shot that sits still and lingers, building tension in its inactivity, slowly burning; it works because you, the audience, know what’s coming, just not when—the anxiety of anticipation. And when the pay-off does come, it doesn’t disappoint.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Rounding out my list, I come to the least thematically interesting death on here, but one that isn’t without its merits. There’s all kinds of mayhem going on in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the one which sticks out to me is the death of the wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain). Now, a part of me finds there to be something repugnant in wishing death upon even a fictional character, but Franklin is the exception. Here’s a character that spends reels upon reels of film simply complaining in the most nauseatingly obnoxious ways that when Leatherface finally shows up and gives Franklin a chainsaw to the belly, it’s none too soon. But at the same time, it’s also important because it’s the only death in a movie called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be committed with a chainsaw.