There's no shortage of death in horror movies, though sometimes the body count can feel a bit perfunctory. While horror movies need to have stakes to incite fear, that doesn't always mean that the gory struggles for survival always hit us where it counts—the heart. Maybe I'm just a tough nut to crack, but when Michael Meyers went on his original murder spree in the 1978 slasher classic Halloween, I just spent the whole movie waiting for his final confrontation with Laurie Strode. However, with the recent rise in more empathetic horror movies, death scenes keep hitting harder and harder. Which is not to say there aren't some top-notch classics that gut the viewer while they're gutting the characters!
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What's essential in a deep cut are characters the audience can relate to and root for. If a horror film doesn't have a fleshed out cast, then the victims just feel like collateral. But when a movie builds a connection between its characters and its audience—making it feel like these characters are our very own allies, friends, and even lovers—then death scenes have the ability to truly burrow under the viewers' skin. I always want to walk away from a horror film feeling at least a little emotionally damaged.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
In this 1997 slasher classic adapted from the novel of the same name, Helen Shivers (portrayed by horror goddess Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a quintessential beauty queen. After she and her former high school friends receive a taunting note about their illicit secret from the previous summer, the teens find they're being stalked by a deranged killer.
Life hasn't been easy for any of the teens after their dark and traumatic post-graduation accident, but Helen's big city ambitions have slipped through her fingers to have her end up right back at home, working at the family store. Once vivacious and popular—if not predictably narcissistic—Helen is notably more reserved and haunted when the terror begins. It doesn't help that everyone from her sister to the police to even her own friends rarely take her warnings of impending danger seriously.
Her death hits hard because despite her flaws, she still comes across as a genuinely compassionate character. Though her bright future had already dimmed after the accident, any hope for this young and promising woman to get back on track is ripped out of the audience's hand when the hook-wielding maniac corners her in the store. To make matters worse, Helen does everything right! She's clever and fast in the confrontation, fighting hard for her life and using every advantage she can. When the killer catches up with her seconds before she reaches safety, it just feels so supremely unfair.
It Chapter Two
Speaking of unfair, the death of Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) in the 2019 adaptation It Chapter Two will haunt me until I'm on my own deathbed. Most of the blame for the devastation of this loss can be put on Stephen King's source material, but some key onscreen changes only worsened the blow.
Returning after 27 years to face the evil alien clown spider that ripped their childhood to shreds, the members of the Losers Club have regressed back to the personal issues they overcame as fresh-faced teens. Eddie is a neurotic hypochondriac who married a woman just like his overly controlling mother. Beyond the tragedy of a once brave boy being bogged down by the stolen memories of an unknowable fear, an argument can also be made for the tragedy of an unexplored love. Closeted comedian Richie Tozier harbored feelings for Eddie since their youth, and though he spent the next three decades without any memory of him, the second he saw him again it all came rushing back. While the film leaves Eddie's feelings for Richie in return ambiguous, it all seems rather pointed, in my opinion.
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But regardless if the love he feels for Richie is romantic or platonic, it was still his ultimate downfall. Eddie spent the entire film freezing up, lagging behind, and wanting to run at any sign of danger. Yet when Richie was caught in the deadlights, Eddie gathered his courage to try and strike It down. In a movie that seems to focus on the importance of bravery and not letting your fears stand in your way, it definitely felt like a slap in the face when this was the very reason Eddie met his death. In the end, belief and love wasn't enough to keep him safe. And as devastating as it was to watch him die, Richie's response to it dialed the angst meter up to a thousand.
The Final Girls
While the heartbreak of a character's death should be able to stand on its own, sometimes it really is that character's relationship to others that gives the knife that extra twist. And in this 2015 comedy horror, the laughs and ridiculous plot only make the emotional beats hit all the harder.
Max Cartwright's (Taissa Farmiga) mother, Amanda (Malin Akerman) is an actress best known for her role in an 80s slasher called Camp Bloodbath. But three years after Amanda dies in a car accident, Max finds herself transported alongside her friends into the world of her mother's famous horror movie. Max's mother—now in the role of shy girl camp counselor Nancy—is fated to die in the film, but Max is determined to change that and give this version of her mom a second chance at life. Unfortunately, only the "Final Girl" can survive and defeat the killer—and as the film's original heroine dies, it's up to Max and her friends to find a new one.
In the film's climax, Max is stabbed by Camp Bloodbath's killer. But Nancy understands that she was never meant to be the final girl, and if the killer is going to be beaten, it has to be by Max. Max doesn't want to lose her mother all over again, but Nancy promises that Max will always know where to find her. In an act of self-sacrifice, Nancy uses the film's tropes against the killer, summoning him with a strip tease to Amanda's favorite song. It's harder to keep a dry eye during this than you might think.
A Quiet Place
The death of Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) in the 2018 sci-fi horror A Quiet Place is so moving that it raises goosebumps on my arms. In a new and dangerous world where vicious aliens strike when even the slightest noise is heard, Lee and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) are ready to sacrifice anything to keep their children safe. Luckily, the family has an unexpected advantage—their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf, which means they can communicate using sign language.
Of course, life still isn't easy for the Abbott family. A year earlier, Regan's younger brother was murdered by one of the alien creatures—a death which Regan blames herself for. Throughout the course of the film, Regan operates under the belief that her dad also blames her, and as a result no longer loves her. As tensions rise with the impending birth of the Abbott's newest child, aliens descend upon their farm. Meeting his baby for the first and only time, Lee promises Evelyn that he will protect their children.
As Regan and her other brother Marcus (Noah Jupe) are in danger, Lee stays true to his word. Lee uses his final moments to sign to Regan that he has always loved her, before screaming in an open field to draw the alien away from his kids. It's only when it's too late that Regan sees how much Lee has put into his love for her.
I Am Legend
The death of a dog in a movie is always generally sad, as they're rarely in a position to even grasp the situation they're in. While in most cases I'd say a canine death is a bit too much of a low-hanging fruit for a list like this, I think Sam is a special exception.
In I Am Legend–the 2007 movie adaptation of the novel of the same name—military doctor Robert Neville (Will Smith) walks through a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by a mutated virus. In a city devoid of all human life, his only companion is his dog, Sam. As Neville works tirelessly to find a vaccine for the virus, the infected have become vicious monsters.
After getting caught in a trap set up by the infected, Neville finds himself surrounded by infected dogs. Ever the loyal companion, Sam is there to defend her owner at any cost. Unfortunately, Sam is bitten by one of the infected dogs. Neville does his best to cure her with his vaccine, but just like the other tests, it fails. With no options left to him, Neville has to strangle the life out of his dog—his only friend and the very last link to the family he's lost.
Released in 2017, this horror thriller by Jordan Peele is arguably one of the best horror movies of all time. Tension is rife from the get-go as Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya)—a black man—prepares to meet his white girlfriend, Rose's (Allison Williams), parents for the first time. When they arrive, the uneasy feeling only deepens with unusual behavior from the family's black staff. Before long it's clear that Chris is set to be the next victim of racial-fetishization turned body-snatching.
For a horror movie, Get Out has a shockingly low body count—at least for those we're supposed to be rooting for. Still, it's not like the circumstances of how "Walter" (Marcus Henderson) and "Georgina" (Betty Gabriel) have been living are exactly comfortable. Trapped as "passengers" in their own bodies, they've actually had their consciousness neurosurgically replaced by that of Rose's grandparents.
As Chris makes his great escape during the movie's climax, Georgina is still trapped under the grandma's consciousness as she dies in a car collision. However, after the flash of Chris's camera, Walter regains control of his own body long enough to take Rose's rifle. He shoots the woman before turning the gun on himself. It's the complete loss of hope that shattered my heart in this scene. Could the process be permanently reversed? Who's to really say. But Walter chose to end things on his own terms rather than risk being further used by the Armitages.
Ready Or Not
Daniel Le Domas
One of the best movies to come out of 2019, Ready Or Not is a nail-biter of a horror comedy. After Grace (Samara Weaving) marries Alex (Mark O'Brien), she discovers that the Le Domas family has a peculiar wedding night tradition. Bound by a pact with a mysterious and devilish man named Le Bail, the family must play against the newly wed in a game of hide and seek—to the death.
As Grace fights tooth and nail for her life against the greedy, cold, and out-of-touch Le Domas family, her new husband battles against the temptation to fall in line with the rest of his family. Yet Grace finds an unlikely ally in the form of Alex's older alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody). It seems fairly obvious that Daniel picked his own wife not based on love, but based on whether or not he'd be able to let her go if she was subjected to the same brutal fate. But Daniel is a true black sheep of the family, seeing as he appears to have a conscience.
Even after trying to push Grace away at the beginning of the film, when the hunt begins Daniel does his best to protect her at every turn. Though Daniel knows the price of Grace surviving the night means the downfall of his entire family, he's fed up with their antics, and he knows Grace is better than that. But when it's discovered that Daniel is no longer playing on the side of the Le Domas family, his own wife shoots him in the throat. Like a good person should, Grace tries to save him, but he urges her to go.
While the entire Le Domas family meets a not-so-nice fate, it's sad to see the one member who was always trying to be a better person undergo such a fraught and painful death.
This 1986 sci-fi movie is an iconic staple of body horror. A brilliantly eccentric scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), is in the midst of refining his latest invention—a teleportation device. But when he attempts to teleport himself one night, a common housefly gets trapped in the machine with him. Overtime, Seth slowly mutates into a human-fly hybrid. Body parts begin sloughing off as Seth loses his humanity.
However, his lover—journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis)—only wants to help him. She analyzes the strange hairs growing on his back, making her the first to realize his horrifying transition into an insect. But alongside his heightened aggression, Seth's heightened sex drive leads him to break up with Veronica in search of someone who can keep up—or transform themselves like him in the teleportation pod.
When Seth learns Veronica is pregnant with his child, he kidnaps her in hopes of using her and their unborn baby to level out his humanity. He plans to use his teleportation device to physically fuse them together, as Veronica is an untainted human. But as the last of his human skin falls away and his plan goes awry, he ends up fused only to the machine itself.
Veronica, now armed with a shotgun for protection, is urged by the remains of Seth to shoot him. Though the man she loved is long gone, there's still enough humanity in him in those very final moments that she's compelled toward mercy.
While the Scream franchise stands as one of my favorite movie series of all time, whenever the second film in the series comes up I find myself releasing an involuntary moan of pain. There are plenty of heavy-hitting deaths in this slasher franchise, and many of them would find a fair place on a list like this. Commonly, people cite the death of Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) as the big tragedy of Scream 2. But for me it will always be Derek Feldman—and not just because I've been harboring a shameful crush on Jerry O'Connell for two decades.
Derek is an aspiring doctor, which definitely ticks the "bright future" box. And while most frat boys in this kind of film are intolerable at best, Derek acts as a warm and loving boyfriend to protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). A boyfriend who isn't afraid to charmingly embarrass himself to prove his commitment to her. I swoon.
But it's not long before one of the killers—Mickey (Timothy Olyphant)—catches Derek in a vulnerable place. With Derek tied up, Mickey convinces Sidney that her boyfriend is in on this copycat killing spree. Psychologically terrorized, Sidney doesn't know what to believe. And it's her hesitation that leads to Derek being shot in the chest. As Derek uses his final words to promise he never would have hurt her, any viewer can feel the full force of Sidney's heartbreak and regret.