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Ten Classic Cinematic Horror Deaths

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Perhaps not the best-known, but classic nonetheless ...

Where would a horror movie be without a classic death scene – or two? We’ve had some great ones over the years: Janet Leigh’s shower to end all showers in Psycho (1960); the ill fated nude swim in Jaws (1975); David Warner’s famous decapitation in The Omen (1976); John Hurt’s serious indigestion problem in Alien (1979); and the exploding head in Scanners (1980). And let’s not forget the gruesome ends that befell pre-stardom Kevin Bacon and Johnny Depp.

Hang on a minute! I’ve just mentioned all the classic ones! Well let’s face it, so much has been written and discussed about those famous demises, they’ve been pretty much done to death (sorry!). Therefore, the following ten are horror-related deaths that deserve some kind of classic status, a couple of which are notable for their surreal and ambiguous nature.But beware...since most of the best death scenes are usually at the end of the film...

Spoilers Ahead!

Seconds (1966)

It may be a science fiction film, but John Frankenheimer’s frightening take on the mid-life crisis deserves a mention for its startlingly horrific climax. Middle aged senior executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) has a happy marriage, massive bank account, big house, in fact everything he could ever want. But with his children moving away, he begins to regret the decisions he made in life (he forsook art for a business career) and wishes he could return to his youth.

Funnily enough he gets that second chance, when a secret organisation offers him a fake death (paid for with part of his massive life insurance policy) and physical rejuvenation. He is rejuvenated into Rock Hudson (giving the performance of his career), given a new identity, new home and new lifestyle as a beatnik artist.

Unfortunately Hamilton finds life second time around less tolerant than before and makes a complete hash of it. He is then hauled back to the clinic where he learns that all dissatisfied customers have their body parts reused for future clients. The climax certainly sticks in the mind. Hudson is bound, gagged and strapped to a hospital trolley, and taken to the operating theatre for surgery, his muffled screams drowned out by a priest giving him the last rites. It makes for very uncomfortable viewing. Guess having a mid life crisis can seriously damage your health!

Torture Garden (1967)

The second Amicus anthology was long considered a favourite of Martin Scorsese even if it wasn’t the best of the studio’s output. The main fault of the film is two very weak middle stories; but it’s the second of those two stories that boasts a very intriguing death scene. Robert Bloch’s Mr. Steinway may have worked well on the printed page but on celluloid it looks rather silly.

Journalist Dorothy (Barbara Ewing) falls in love with famous but reclusive concert pianist Leo (John Standing). In the spacious music studio of his top floor apartment is a grand piano, named Euterpe after the Goddess of Music. Possessed by the spirit of Leo’s ambitious mother and fearful that Dorothy will get in the way of her son’s dedication to music, Euterpe takes a life of its own.

In the final scene, Dorothy turns up at the studio where she confronted by Euterpe – playing the Funeral March. The poor girl is then pushed out of a widow by the piano and falls to her death. What makes this death interesting is what will happen afterwards. Dorothy is lying dead, surrounded by broken glass from the apartment window and concerned passers-by. Coming from the apartment is the sound of classical music! Leo is now playing on Euterpe as if nothing has happened! Being the only other person in the studio, poor Leo is going to have one hell of a time explaining to the police exactly how his girlfriend ends up dead, especially when there are no other (human) witnesses to the incident. Chances are he will be arrested for Dorothy’s murder. Guess his mother’s jealous nature is so extreme, she would rather have her son in prison (or a loony bin!) than allow him any happiness with another woman.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

There’s a fair few deaths in George Romero’s horror classic, but none more memorable than the one at the end. As we all know, flesh-eating zombies have surrounded an isolated farmhouse filled with bickering survivors feuding about whether they should escape or hide in the cellar until it all blows over. Eventually the zombies break in and sole survivor Ben (Duane Jones) ends up hiding in the cellar. The following morning the local sheriff and his men arrive wiping out all the zombies in the area. Ben hears the shooting and leaves the cellar to investigate. One of the sheriff’s marksmen sees Ben from the farmhouse and mistaking him for an undead shoots the poor sod in the head! “There’s another one for the fire.” Says the sheriff as the movie ends with a montage of shots of Ben’s joining the other corpses on a bonfire, which subsequently goes up in flames. I wonder if anyone else met the same fate!

Scream and Scream Again (1969)

Another great Amicus chiller that features a vampire killer, superhuman composites and a mad scientist. The death scene here starts at the beginning and drags out until the end. The film opens with a jogger (Nigel Lambert) going for a run and collapsing from exhaustion. The next thing we see is the poor chap in bed in what looks like a room in a hospital. His questions to the silent nurse go unanswered. When he pulls away his blankets he gives out a scream – one of his legs has been amputated! Later he once again asks questions to the nurse, who once again ignores him, and once again he pulls away his blankets, and lets out another scream – the other leg has gone! As things progress we see him once more minus an arm. At the end of the film police pathologist David Sorel (Christopher Matthews) sneaks into the home of Dr Browning (Vincent Price). He finds himself in a morgue where various limbs are stored in deep freeze, including the jogger’s head! Let that be a lesson to all of you thinking of doing the Great North Run!

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Nastily effective horror starring Vincent Price as Dr. Anton Phibes, a dead musical genius who uses the Ten Plagues as instruments of murder for the doctors who failed to save his beloved wife’s life. The deaths are pretty gruesome but the most unpleasant he saves for Dr. Longstreet, played with typical good humour by the great Terry-Thomas. The good doctor is watching a tacky stag film on his projector when beautiful mute Vulnavia (Virginia North) turns up out of the blue and ties him to a chair. Any kinky fun is soon spoilt when Phibes shows his face. Sticking a syringe into Longstreet’s arms, he proceeds to drain him of all 8 pints of blood. The jars are then placed on a mantelpiece under a pornographic painting (at which Price shakes his head). What makes this long, drawn-out death unsettling is the fact the victim is one of British comedy’s most beloved performers. It’s so upsetting watching him die like that. Don’t worry folks, T-T returns in a logic-defying cameo in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972).

Tales From the Crypt (1972)

This first rate Amicus anthology is famous for Peter Cushing’s finest ever performance as Grimesdyke in the Poetic Justice tale. However film’s best story is Blind Alley. It features an excellent turn by Nigel Patrick as Major Rogers, an old school tie, former British army officer who takes charge of a residential home for the blind. Rogers is something of a sadist to the poor blind folk. He uses the funds allocated to the home for his own purposes while the residents go without adequate food and heating. There is a classic moment when his half-starved charges (led by Patrick Magee, in fine creepy form) burst into his office while he’s having lunch (“can’t you see I’m eating!”) When a resident dies, the rest of them abduct Rogers and imprison him in a cell in the basement. His dog is placed in another cell and starved. The residents then construct a passageway linking both cells, the middle section being narrower and covered in razor blades. Rogers is made to walk along the passage (yes he cuts himself on the razor blades!) but once at the end, they let his ravenous dog loose. Running frantically towards the razor blades, the lights then go out and Rogers screams! Effectively staged, the ending has a touch of ambiguity regarding Rogers’ actual fate. Was it the razor blades or the dog that killed him? If any of us were in the same situation, what would we do? I think most of us would take their chances with the dog!

Theatre of Blood (1973)

“Meredith Merridew! This is your dish!” Vinnie returns with his most celebrated role as demented Shakespearean luvvie Edward Lionheart. Using the classic Shakespeare murders from his last repertory season to polish off the critics who have slated his performances, Lionheart saves the best to last with the film’s most memorably ghoulish death scene. Pink-suited gourmet Merridew is one of the critics on Lionheart’s list. He’s also the owner of two toy poodles who he refers to as his babies. The viewer gets a creepy indication of their fate when Inspector Boots (Milo O’Shea) reads out the various deaths from the play Titus Andronicus (“a queen forced to eat her babies baked in a pie.”). Back at home, Merridew is looking for his beloved doggy-woggys when out pops Vinnie as a TV chef. Merridew is then presented with a pie unaware of his contents (note the delight on his face when he starts eating). Once he realises what’s going on the critic is force-fed the rest of the pie via a funnel and subsequently chokes! “He didn’t have the stomach for it!” laments Vinnie - Gordon Ramsay, take note!

Vault of Horror (1973)

Amicus again, and Terry-Thomas once more meeting a nasty end. Although not the best of the anthologies, there is one intriguing tale called The Neat Job, which features a rare straight acting turn from T-T as Critchit, a compulsively neat individual who has “a place for everything and everything in its place.” A lifelong bachelor, he marries Eleanor (Glynis Johns), whose somewhat scatterbrained behaviour goes against Critchit’s well-organised life. She tries to adapt but Critchit’s constant bullying finally drives her over the edge - she clobbers him with a hammer! The final scene has Eleanor admiring her own very neat handiwork – pickling jars containing Critchit’s body parts! The T-T teeth, complete with his famous gap are unmistakable!

Damien Omen II (1978)

This well-oiled (if uninspired) sequel has a fair few nicely staged killings, but it’s the subtlety of the first one that is the most unnerving. Towards the end of The Omen, Gregory Peck’s Senator Thorn arrives in Israel to meet with archaeologist and exorcist Carl Bugenhagen (an uncredited Leo McKern), who gives him a set daggers that can destroy his Anti-Christ son Damien. Of course it fails, and the opening of the sequel has a more frantic Bugenhagen (McKern – uncredited again) meeting with British archaeologist Michael Morgan (Ian Hendry – also uncredited) in a café. He explains the story and gives Morgan a second set of daggers to take to Thorn’s brother (William Holden), who has adopted the boy. Morgan is skeptical until Bugenhagen tells him he has discovered Yigael’s wall (which charts the rise of the Anti-Christ). Morgan wants to see it for himself, so they both head off to the archaeological dig where it the wall was discovered. However, the sight of a raven and the satanic sound of the choral choir is clear indication that they will soon join the other artefacts. Once inside a cave-in traps both men. Entombed by rock on either side, sand starts pouring through the ceiling slowly suffocating Bugenhagen and Morgan. This is claustrophobic stuff and more unsettling than any decapitations going.

Zombie 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

No, I am not going for the film’s famous eyeball-impaled-on-splinter-in-glorious-close-up. Instead I am opting for a death scene that happens off-camera, and one that at least adds a bit of camp humour to an otherwise slow, boring and overrated shocker that represented Britain’s video nasty boom of the eighties. After avoiding getting the bite from the zombies, Anne (Tisa Farrow) and Peter (Ian McCulloch) escape unharmed from Matul Island with their friend Brian (Pierluigi Conti/Al Cliver) who has been bitten. When Brian dies Peter locks him in his room, his reanimated corpse being the only proof they have of what has happened on Matul, and they will need it when they return to New York. “Let’s put something more cheerful on the radio,” says Peter. Instead of music, Anne and Peter listen in disbelief to the voice of a frantic newsman telling them that the zombies have overrun New York (an indication of this happens earlier in the film). The ending has to be heard to be believed. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been informed there are zombies in the building. They’re at the door! They’re coming in! Arghhhhhhh!” It may not be subtle but it’s absolutely priceless!


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