Wes Craven famously believed that kill scenes shouldn’t be fun. Even on-screen deaths were translated and perceived as a real person enduring something horrible, and on account of the very real implications, filmmakers should endeavor to treat death scenes with the gravity they deserve. This is a list about the other ones, though. The Horror movie deaths that went too far.
By most accounts, I agree with Craven. Granted, there’s something to be said for franchises like Final Destination who trade in creative, Rube Goldberg-style death scenes, or the slashers of the early eighties where the price of admission was paid to watch Jason Voorhees mow down dozens of hedonistic camp counselors. The meta-textualization of Scream or the deconstructed genre offerings of You’re Next, while worthwhile in their own right, are sometimes too subversive and demanding– sometimes, you just want to watch some attractive actors die in increasingly creative and violent ways.
There are entire franchises whose raison d’etre is coming up with new, practically conceived ways to kill its characters. Hatchet and Laid to Rest, for instance, don’t have the strongest of narratives or, frankly, much else to offer beyond their dynamite villains and incredibly staged and executed death scenes. That said, those movies know exactly what they’re doing. They know their audience intimately and, without conjecture, can determine exactly how much that target audience is willing to stomach.
There are, however, times where movies disrupt the equilibrium. Movies where the deaths are throwaway and cartoonish, satisfying a kind of primal genre enjoyment, until they very suddenly– and very shockingly– aren’t. For this list, I’ll be looking at four horror movie deaths that went too far in the context of the rest of their respective movie. In any other movie, these deaths would likely register as the quietest of blips on an audience’s radar, but in their source material, they feel exceptionally out of place. Naturally, spoilers will follow.
Jurassic World (2015) – Zara’s Death
Death as a cinematic language often frames a character’s demise as deserving or undeserving. The death of Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) wife in 1974’s Death Wish is undeserving; an innocent victim whose life was taken by violent, evil criminals. The proceeding deaths of those responsible, conversely, are framed and contextualized as deserving deaths– for having taken a life so viciously, they deserve to lose theirs. Granted, I’ve long taken umbrage with the idea, even when filmic in nature, that anyone deserves to die, but it’s part and parcel of being a horror fan and something I’ve just had to accept.
The Jurassic Park franchise has recurrently returned to that well, often killing off peripheral characters for comic relief or some kind of cinematic just desserts– see Dennis’s (Wayne Knight) death in Jurassic Park or Wheatley’s (Ted Levine) death in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Jurassic World, the first in the new trilogy of dino-flicks, took things farther than either of those with the death of assistant Zara Shealy (Katie McGrath). Zara is snatched by the Pteranodons shortly after they descend on the park, thrashing her around in the air for several seconds before they plunge into the Mosasaurus enclosure. They swoop into the water and continue to thresh about, dragging her under the water repeatedly before the Mosasaurus jumps out of the water and swallows both Zara and the Pteranodon.
I noted above that these deaths in any other movie might not feel so jarring, but in the context of Jurassic World– a family-friendly genre outing by all accounts– it feels excessively vicious. Not only is Zara the first female death in the franchise, but she gets the most protracted death of all characters, male or female. Zara certainly didn’t “deserve” her death, and quite honestly, it’s just an abrupt tonal shift– such a discordant spiral into graphic violence– that the movie never recovers.
Shark Night (2011)– Beth’s Death
Shark Night (or Shark Night 3D if you’re still living in 2011, the peak of Real-D 3D) isn’t a particularly good movie. It’s fine for what it tries to do, and while most of the co-eds are designated shark bait before the opening credits even roll, director David R. Ellis at least makes some attempt at humanizing them, imbuing them with goals, aspirations, and relationships beyond the “sharks in a lake” plot necessitates. Most of these deaths occur off-screen, likely on account of the PG-13 rating, and never feel particularly vicious, save for a few red pools of blood in the water here and there. It’s incredibly bizarre, then, that Beth’s (Katharine McPhee) death is as brutal and prolonged as it is.
Midway through, Shark Night becomes something of a teen-friendly torture porn movie. The main villains turn out not to be the sharks, but the group of local men who released the sharks into the lakes in hopes of capturing footage of the sharks chowing down on some teens and selling them to the highest bidder (the kind of bidder that only seems to exist in the movies). Beth joins two of our villains on their boat, ostensibly there to ride along back to shore to seek help. Obviously, they have other intentions, and after forcing her to strip to her underwear (you can see where this is going), one of the brutes gropes and grabs her and then unceremoniously tosses her into a cage filled with cookie-cutter sharks. Definitely deserving of a spot in any list talking about movie deaths that went too far.
The sharks, like little piranha, take turns gnawing at her bare flesh in the most violent scene in the movie by an almost unfathomably large margin. She screams in terror as she writhes in the water, sharks taking chunks out of her skin for an extended period of time. It feels exploitative, icky, and tonally unnecessary with everything that comes before and after. Even the villains, the ones responsible for the actual sharks, are killed offscreen. Why, then, did Ellis choose this one woman to kill so savagely?
Piranha 3D (2010) – Todd Dupree
Todd Dupree (Cody Longo) ranks here not because of his death in particular but on account of the deaths he caused. Todd, in a bafflingly short-sighted move, decides not only to commandeer a motorboat as the piranha descend on Lake Victoria, but also thinks it’d be wise to then crank that motor and plow through several of his classmates and friends. The massacre was certainly violent in a gonzo, early drive-in kind of way up until then, but it never felt cruel or misanthropic.
Todd’s actions, though, represent a jarring tonal shift, and soon a set-piece admirable for its scale is reduced to an ugly sequence of, well, murder. The soundtrack is a cacophony of crunching bones and severed flesh and Todd speeds through crowds of kids, and after his motor gets tangled on a young woman’s hair, he yanks on the outboard motor to start it back up–and when he does, he “degloves” the young woman’s face. (The character has since been dubbed “Propeller Girl” by Wiki Fandom.) Length, like the other entries, plays a huge role in making the scene feel so uncomfortable and discordant– it goes on for way too long.
Tone, too, makes the entire enterprise feel ugly and undeserved. There was enough distance, in a sense, between the audience and massacre up until then. It felt, by all accounts, like a movie. The cinematic language shift suddenly makes it feel less like a movie and more like dour footage of desperate survivors killing one another to survive. It doesn’t feel fun. It isn’t entertaining. It’s a baffling choice to make before Jerry O’Connell has his penis eaten. It just doesn’t work.
Lords of Chaos (2018) – Euronymous’s Death
I’m not much of a heavy metal person, so how accurately Lords of Chaos captures the essence and zeitgeist of Norwegian black metal in the late 1980s isn’t for me to judge. I can, however, judge that the on-screen depiction of Euronymous’s (Rory Culkin) real-life murder is perhaps a little too real.
Basically, Euronymous is angry at Varg (Emory Cohen) and rants about wanting to kill him. He’s angry and frustrated and doesn’t mean it. Varg catches wind and think he means it (Varg is deeply, deeply unwell). Varg travels to Oslo in the early morning and enters Euronymous’s apartment, ostensibly there to sign a contract releasing the rights to their music. Euronymous is kind of skeptical– maybe Varg didn’t need to come this early or in this way– but whatever, once the contract is signed, Varg will be out of his life for good and he can spend his days living in domestic bliss with Sky Ferreira.
Varg suddenly stabs Euronymous, though, and for the next five minutes, he continues to stab Euronymous. Blood splatters all over the apartment and in the hall as Varg continues to kick him down several flights of stairs, stabbing and slashing him in-between. It’s an incredibly realistic death scene– probably one of the most realistic I’ve ever seen– and that’s the problem. It is a “death scene.” The staging and soundtrack are standard horror fare– the bass drops when Varg appears and the music swells as he chases Euronymous down. Scene, setting, and acting feel cinematic, but the death feels inordinately, and unnecessarily, realistic. It doesn’t help that Varg really did kill Euronymous– this is Forensic Files by way of Dario Argento. Only, unlike Argento, there’s no style. It’s raw, stripped-down murder. Lords of Chaos had certainly been violent before this point, but the depiction of Euronymous’s demise makes this film one of those movie deaths that went too far.
These are just four of my picks. It’s certainly not a knock against any of the movies– I like them all and even hold a few of them in pretty high regard– but rather just an opportunity to explore what it feels like when genre filmmakers maybe take things too far. Is this something you’ve noticed before? What examples did I miss? Am I too sensitive? Let me know on Twitter @ChadisCollins.