Who doesn’t like a great movie death? Well, people who abhor violence and gore on the screen. But I am not one of those people. Thus, if done right in terms of combining emotional context and cinematic imagination, there’s nothing I like more than revelling or lamenting a character’s end in fine bloody fashion. Lastly, I hear you ask why no Zahler, Scorsese, Cronenberg, Miike, Peckinpah, Jackson, Fulci, Roth, Romero, Argento etc. on this list? So much death and only six make it, so please suggest any of the thousands I have missed off in the comments.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
ALIEN (1979) – “Do these eggs taste off?”
I think it may have been something Kane (John Hurt) ate or maybe something that ate him? Anyway, one of the most spectacularly surprising scenes ever still holds amazing power to this very day.
THE FURY (1978) – Separated at death!
This under-rated tele-kinetic thriller is a spiritual sequel to Carrie (1976). Adding a spy conspiracy plot to Amy Irving’s rites of passage character arc, it has a whip-cracking-pace and classic DePalma set-pieces. None more so than the explosive end of the baddie-in-black.
PSYCHO (1960) – Take a bath next time!
What more can be written about one of the most shockingly original scenes in cinema history? Not only did Hitchcock break all narrative rules killing off the main protagonist halfway through, he did it with one of the most ingenious uses of montage, music and murder ever.
PULP FICTION (1994) – The original “face-off!”
Marvin never saw it coming. But let’s face it – none of us did!
ROBOCOP (1987) – Toxic Wasted!
Whoever designed this action scene, no doubt Paul Verhoeven had much to say, delivered one of the most excessive demises in 1980’s cinema. The vehicle crash, the toxic waste, the melting bad guy, the steam coming off his body and the final disintegration are just cinematic perfection.
WILD AT HEART (1990) – Bobby Peru loses his mind!
David Lynch’s vibrant adaptation of Barry Gifford’s romantic thriller contains many colourful characters. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru is a particularly nasty piece of work and he gets his comeuppance in an incredibly visceral and disturbing way!
CLASSIC FILM REVIEW – SCARFACE (1983) – YOUTUBE VIDEO
The Cinema Fix is a website for all film and TV lovers everywhere. It’s a mix of reviews, articles, essays, news and thoughts on new and classic releases. It is intended to be honest, irreverent, funny and hopefully intelligent. I also have a YouTube channel with loads of short films and video articles. Check it out here.
I have just created a new video article. It’s a review of the classic gangster film, Scarface (1983). You can read it here or check out the video below.
This video article is a fun and educational piece reviewing one of our favourite gangster films ever.
Written by: Paul Laight Narrated by: Melissa Zajk Music Produced by : Aries Beats Promoted by : CRFC
The copyright of the images and trailers are those of the film studio. I do not own any of the images or films.
Film/Trailer clips credits:
Scarface (1983) Directed: by Brian DePalma Produced by: Martin Bregman Written by: Oliver Stone. Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.
The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.
But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.
These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.
One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.
Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).
What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.
While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.
The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean. While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.
Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.
Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience. Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.
What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death. Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.
“YOU’RE HAVING A BATH” – SOME GREAT MOVIE BATHROOM SCENES
I’m unsure why but I thought it may be fun to look at some classic movie bathroom scenes. Perhaps to take my mind off the horrible conflict in Syria which has escalated now? Perhaps just to remind us how great some of the films on this list are? Anyway, the bathroom is a place where we spend the beginning/middle/end of our day cleansing ourselves or relaxing or having some ME time. It also happens to be a good place hide, fight, murder and haunt people in culminating in some classic scenes of horror, comedy and drama.
(NOTE TO PEDANTS: most of these scenes are exclusive to the actual bathroom but there could be slight toilet crossover!)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
LES DIABOLIQUES (1955) – HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT
DO NOT WATCH THIS CLIP IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM!! IT GIVES AWAY THE WHOLE END!!
A massive influence on Psycho (1960) this story of murder and betrayal at a boarding school in France is a brilliant and devious thriller. It also has one of the scariest ending of all time!
PSYCHO (1960) – ALFRED HITCHOCK
THAT shower scene! Need I say more!
THE SHINING (1980) – STANLEY KUBRIK
“Here’s Johnny!” Bathrooms and toilets represent danger throughout when Jack encounters a naked nefarious women and the creepy butler earlier in the story. But, after a slow-burning descent into madness Jack Torrance finally cracks with Nicholson on fine maniacal form in this iconic scene from the Kubrik classic!
SCARFACE (1983) – BRIAN DEPALMA
Tony Montana’s rise from “political refugee” to peaky cocaine King is not without its violent troughs. One such scene occurs when he witnesses a colleague ripped apart by a chainsaw. I feel sorry for the cleaner of the apartment block after this wicked sequence.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) – WES CRAVEN
You’ve had a hard week and you need to soak your bones and a dead serial killer invades your bath-time dreams. You don’t need that do you! Great nod to Jaws (1975) too in this horrific scene.
FULL METAL JACKET (1987) – STANLEY KUBRIK
The disintegration of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) at the hands of Sgt. Hartman is a grim series featuring physical and mental torture. The episodes are painful and microcosmic in relation to what military life can do to a human being. This tragic latrine scene is memorable and unexpectedly brutal as it culminates in bloody death.
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) – ADRIAN LYNE
The film that gave us the phrase “bunny boiler” is a taut, scary thriller of the sex, lies and obsession variety. The fantastic scare-ending though is the one that really sticks in the memory as Glenn Close goes mental following harsh rejection by Michael Douglas’ have-your-cake-and-eat-it-cheat.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) – ETHAN AND JOEL COEN
The Coen Brothers classic stoner detective film has many, many classic scenes but I defy any writer to come up with a comedic concept funnier than a character being threatened in a bath by nihilists with a ferret! Pure comedy gold!
WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000) – ROBERT ZEMECKIS
Zemeckis made this film in between shooting of Castaway (2000) while Tom Hanks lost loads of weight and it’s a really decent suspense thriller. Getting drugged by your husband and unable to move is not the kind of date night you imagine will happen. Indeed, never has the creeping fill of a bath been so terrifying!
TRAINING DAY (2001) – ANTOINE FUQUA
At first watch I thought this scene was a bit of a narrative cheat. However, with a shotgun at Ethan Hawke’s head the suspense is palpable and how he escapes is fitting. Because, this clever and ruthless urban Western is about karma and retribution; with Hoyt’s earlier noble actions saving him from certain death.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) – ZACH SNYDER
Before he set about ruining the Superman franchise Zach Snyder made some decent facsimiles of other artists work such as 300 (2006) and this souped-up George Romero remake. The early scenes are the most dramatic because the bloodthirsty zombies are out the traps like Usain Bolt, as Sarah Polley finds when she’s trapped in her bathroom.
CASINO ROYALE (2006) – MARTIN CAMPBELL
This sequence rebooted Bond for the Millennium perfectly as he takes down a hardy spy in the bathroom while confirming his “00” status in the process. It’s a brutal, clinical and a perfect prologue for a great Bond film. The scene is touchingly counterpointed when Bond calms Vesper Lynd down in the shower in an altogether less violent scene later on.