This story contains spoilers for some classic movies and forgotten gems. Read at your own risk.
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A sudden, unexpected, or shocking demise can knock a movie audience completely off balance. When the twist is snuck into the opening minutes, viewers will spend the next hour nervous, simply because the movie has shown them that all bets are off. A shocking death scene in the final stretch could either be the tragic finale or the ironically bittersweet victory. But these sudden, shocking deaths only work if we love, hate, or care about the character in some way -- no easy task. Here are 12 movies that got it right.
By now, fans of Alfred Hitchcock and casual thrill-seekers alike have the plot of this classic memorized. But imagine that you went to see Psycho during its original theatrical run; you'd have no logical reason to expect that Janet Leigh was playing a supporting role. Her infamous shower death scene is not only memorable for its visual impact, it also throws new viewers for a loop when the ostensible leading lady gets dispatched less than halfway through the film.
Ben (Duane Jones) in The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero's classic horror film is noteworthy for many reasons, but one occasionally overlooked is that the late horror master cast a black man as his hero. Suffice to say that wasn't exactly all that common for white indie filmmakers in the late 1960s, and it gives the film a perpetually compelling dash of blatant, admirable progressivism that still makes its point more than four decades later. Unfortunately the bleak ending -- which sees the heroic Ben somehow avoiding a zombie apocalypse only to be murdered by stupid white men -- packs even more of a punch today as a powerful piece of social commentary to a dark, suspenseful, very entertaining horror film.
Audiences knew going in that Alien was a horror film, but it's safe to say that early viewers did not expect to see a baby alien monster burst out of a character's chest after he escaped from a close brush with death. Like Psycho, Alien is a movie whose mechanics are so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine the surprise of going into this original film with no knowledge whatsoever of "chestbursters." Suffice to say this scene gave me a nice batch of nightmares when I was a kid.
Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) in The Shining (1980)
One of the most fascinating plot threads in Stanley Kubrick's classic adaptation of Stephen King's novel involves the oddly psychic Dick Hallorann and his long journey from Miami from Colorado after he receives a scary message from Danny Torrance. The viewer fully expects the kindhearted Mr. Hallorann to meet an unpleasant demise, but holy moly we didn't expect it to happen so quickly. Nor so brutally. It only takes one swift axe-swing to take our Dick out of the picture.
Cairo Swordsman (Terry Richards) in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Not every shocking death scene involves an important character, and this wonderfully funny sequence from Spielberg's classic adventure film proves it. Our hero is threatened by a large nemesis who has obvious and elaborate sword-wielding skills. So instead of bothering with a long, arduous battle, Indy just shoots the guy in the gut. End of story. The scene was famously made up on the set, Spielberg went with it, and it proved to be one of the funniest surprises in the whole darn movie.
Vincent Vega is a very ruthless killer, but he's also sort of an idiot. That's the only way to explain what happens to poor Marvin as he sits in the back seat of a car and argues with the dimwitted assassin. Marvin gets his damn head blown off, for no other reason than that Vega is clumsy, absent-minded, and careless. Or hell, maybe he meant to kill Marvin and then played it off like it was an accident. Either way it makes for one of the most memorably shocking moments in a film packed with memorably shocking moments.
It starts to dawn on you slowly as Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is yelling something to Detective Mills (Brad Pitt). "Hey," you wonder, "when's the last time we saw Mills' sweet-natured but plainly unhappy wife? The woman who couldn't stand living in the rain-drenched city and couldn't deal with its constant array of ugliness... holy moly. Could John Doe (Kevin Spacey) have... no. No way." And then you're hit with a shock ending that's as flatly tragic as it is thematically appropriate. This is one of those rare twist endings that not only blows you back in your seat, but sticks with you in an oddly satisfying way.
Lt. Col. Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) in Executive Decision (1996)
If you saw the trailer for this basic-but-entertaining action flick in the mid-'90s, you probably expected a fairly typical "macho odd couple" in the form of Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal. And that's sort of what you got... in the beginning. Just when things start to get crazy (our heroes have boarded a hijacked flight full of chemical weapons!) Seagal sacrifices himself to save the rest of the squad. Trust me; this moment was really kinda shocking when my friends and I went to see the movie... although not really all that disappointing.
Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) in Scream (1996)
Kevin Williamson pays homage to countless horror films with his Scream screenplay, and director Wes Craven has fun emulating his favorite cinematic scary moments as well. The opening sequence with Drew Barrymore is a fine example of both. By this point in the 1990s, Ms. Barrymore was already a big star, and the trailers for Scream gave us no indication that she was anything else but the film's co-star. And that's sort of what makes Scream's wonderfully suspenseful prologue so darn memorable. The viewer feels safe, at first, secure in the knowledge that the film's (co-)heroine will escape this horrific situation and go on to tell the tale. Nope.
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Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) in Deep Blue Sea (1999)
We're so used to seeing Sam Jackson in six movies a year that it often comes as a surprise when one of his characters gets killed. Deep Blue Sea offers a mega-shock, funhouse kill scene that horror fans still love talking about. It's not just that Jackson's heroic character dies halfway through the movie; it's that he dies halfway through a speech about how to survive an onslaught of hungry, super-smart sharks. It's easily the best moment in the movie, and it helps make Deep Blue Sea an eminently re-watchable B-movie mini-classic.
Julian (Julianne Moore) in Children of Men (2006)
The shock here is not just because she's the leading lady in this brilliant sci-fi film about the world's "last" pregnant woman; it's that she supplies the only real heart and warmth for the film's first half. And when she gets brutally murdered during the film's adrenaline-pumping car chase, the viewer can barely comprehend what's going on amidst the chaos. And that's only a tiny fraction of the masterful storytelling found in this fascinating, endlessly re-watchable movie.
Most actors love the idea of dying a heroic death in a genre film, so it's not surprising to see Mr. Reynolds sacrifice his life to save the rest of his crew from a ravenous alien microbe -- but did it have to happen so early in the film? This entertaining sci-fi/horror combo earns points for yanking the rug out from under us, but the movie sort of misses Reynolds and his sense of humor for next hour or so.
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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, and Nerdist. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.