8. Suspiria (1977 – Dario Argento)
Scene: Death above the skylight
Dario Argento is known as the premiere “giallo” filmmaker, mixing high art, fantastic violence, and often intense sexuality into his films. He’s directed over 20 films, but the Italian horror king’s best is Suspiria about a girl who shows up at a premier dance academy which happens to hide a witch’s coven. Right at the beginning Argento lets you know what you’re in for.
As one girl tries to flee the school she is visited by evil eyes in the window, and then brutally attacked by a knife wielding maniac. She’s stabbed repeatedly including once directly in the beating heart, and then wrapped in a cable and thrown through a glass skylight, leaving her hanging and her friend underneath impaling by falling glass. The bright colors that make this torturous murder scene beautiful to watch.
7. The Wicker Man (1973 – Robin Hardy)
Scene: “Come, you must keep your appointment with the Wicker Man”
The Wicker Man is one of the creepiest most atmospheric films of the 70s, often overshadowed by the far gorier and edgier Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw. Investigating the disappearance of a young girl on a pagan island, Sgt. Howie is a having a dual-crisis. The case is difficult being the pagans on the islands have all sorts of bizarre customs that conflict with his operations. More importantly for him, he is a devout Christian and the pagans, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) are trying to lead him astray into a world of sin.
When Howie thinks he has everything figured out, it turns out the jokes on him and he was the fool all along; a stooge set up to be tribute to the pagan gods of Summerisle. What makes the final scene so great is actor Edward Woodward’s realistic horror at the situation facing him. Screaming for his lord to save him, he is taken to the Wicker Man for a final judgment. Do NOT confuse this with Nic Cage’s horrid comedic remake in 2006!
6. The Thing (1982 – John Carpenter)
Scene: Chest Compressions
John Carpenter’s The Thing is not only one of the greatest remakes ever, but set the bar so high in horror special effects that filmmakers still look to it for inspiration today. Rob Bottin with uncredited help with Stan Winston created some of the most gruesome and altogether amazing images combining stop motion with puppetry and tons of blood to spare.
The best of the many great death scenes here is poor Doc. An alien who can assume the look and body of anyone it encounters. Most at the South Pole facility think its Kurt Russell’s MacReady and when things get testy and pushing and shoving begins, Norris goes down with what seems to be heart attack like symptoms.
5. Halloween (1978 – John Carpenter)
Scene: “Linda you asshole!”
Maybe one of the simplest and yet most important films in the genres, John Carpenter’s Halloween reinvented horror for the 1980s. After the 70s were marked by religious horrors like Exorcist and The Omen, Halloween changed the game and Michael Myers paved the way for Jason and Freddy to dominate the next decade and a half. Michael’s subtlety was part of the thing that made him so scary. He never ran, and always was accompanied by Carpenter’s own chilling and yet simple score.
In a film that helped start the “slasher” sub-genre you’d expect tons of gory blood, but ironically there’s almost none to speak of in Halloween. Take the best death scene, in which goof Bob, having just “wowed” Linda upstairs strolls down for a beer. This one scene builds the mystique of Michael Myers as much as any dialogue spoken by Dr. Loomis. His heavy breathing and patience, his strength, and best of all, the slow neck turns as he admires his recent kill. The scene shows Michael for what he is, “purely and simply evil.”
4. Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)
Scene: Shower scene
The “mother” of the horror genre; Hitchcock’s classic turns everything upside down midway through the film. Hitchcock was so stressed about maintaining the secrecy of his twist that he barred theatres from lettings patrons in if they arrived late. We meet Marion Crane, a Phoenix secretary who wants nothing more than to marry her lover Sam Loomis, but they don’t have the money. She is then trusted to deposit $40K by her employer, but instead she flees and heads west to California hoping to start a new life with Sam.
So the film is crime caper… right? Marion stops by a roadside motel; the Bates Motel, where she meets young owner Norman who lives in the big house on the hill with domineering mother. But its ok, “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” Their conversation goes on too long and he rushes back to the house leaving Marion to go off to her room to plan her next steps.
Money wrapped in a newspaper, she goes to take a shower. And then the door opens. And someone is approaching… and CUE THE MUSIC!!! The best piece of score in horror (and maybe movie) history accompanies one of the most shocking moments in cinema as Marion is repeatedly stabbed to death by an ominous shadowy woman. Hitchcock’s style and camera work is on display here, as the water and blood goes swirling down the drain, he dissolves to Marion’s eye, unflinching and dead. With all said and done, the most famous death scene in history.
3. Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)
Scene: Something he ate?
A commercial spacecraft, the Nostromo, receives a distress call from an unknown planet and sets down to investigate. They find no signs of human life and something resembling a dead alien life form. When they explore a bit deeper they come upon mysterious egg-like sacks with moving organisms inside. When Kane (John Hurt) looks a bit too closely, something leaps out and attaches itself to his face. They get him back on board where no one, including ship’s doctor Ash knows what the entity is or what it is doing wrapped around Kane’s head. All they know is, it bleeds acid and forced removal may kill Kane.
Then, suddenly, one morning it is dead on the ground and Kane is up and awake. Threat seemingly passed the crew goes for breakfast. In one of the great scenes in horror history; Kane starts choking and spasming on the table. Heart attack? Need the Heimlich maneuver? Nope…there’s a chest bursting xenomorph coming out of him! As blood sprays the crew, they all stand in shock as the alien critter scurries off leaving poor Kane dead. 35 years later, it’s still scary, and “gut-wrenching”.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984 – Wes Craven)
Scene: “I’m your boyfriend now Nancy”
The only movie to make the list twice and only killer to get 3 Wes Craven’s Freddy was so inventive and maniacal back in 84 that he forever changed the horror game. After dragging Tina around the room and hanging Rod in his prison cell, Freddy targets Nancy and boyfriend Glenn, played by a debuting Johnny Depp (whatever happened to him?). Nancy warns Glenn not to fall asleep, but it’s nearing midnight and whatever he was watching on TV simply wasn’t doing the trick. Glenn dozes off with his small 80s rabbit eared antenna TV on his lap.
Freddy reaches through the bed and pulls Glenn, his TV, and everything else down into the bed. Then like Old Faithful erupting, a geyser of blood spews out of the center of his bed. When he’s discovered by his mother you can see his body in the sheets being squeezed like a fruit in a juicer. Universally praised as one of the great death scenes of all time, it ranks even higher due to the fact that Depp went on to super-duper stardom.
1. Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg)
Scene: “Where are we going?” “Swimming!”
The opening scene of Spielberg’s classic sets the tone for the entire film. We are introduced to John Williams’ famous score, and then two youths at beachside campfire run off to go skinny dipping. The boy is a bit too drunk and he passes out on the beach while the girl goes off ahead for a nighttime dip. As she lazily treads in the water, wondering where her male companion is; something is stalking her from below.
Soon she’s being thrashed around violently screaming her for someone to save her. As she’s dragged under the audience is left wondering what exactly it was, how big it is and how to stop something that is so naturally and viscerally evil. Spielberg’s film, which created the summer blockbuster, is so iconic partly by accident. Spielberg had every intention of showing the shark in the film’s opening scene; but mechanical failures led to him having to keep the shark out of view until later.
You can argue the a) it’s a shark b) you don’t actually see her get eaten and c) Jaws isn’t a traditional horror film. But one cannot mistake the impact Jaws had on audiences and filmgoers for generations. This scene is not only one of the best horror movie death scenes, but one of the great introductory scenes in a film of any genre in cinematic history.
Author Bio: Dan Torkel grew up in Brooklyn, NY and has been watching movies since age 2 when his parents took him to see Sesame Street’s Follow that Bird. His first job was an usher at a UA theatre where he used his $5.15 an hour salary to stockpile a huge DVD collection and see all the free movies he could see. He currently teaches history at Abraham Lincoln (NOT Vampire Hunter) High School in Brooklyn, and is happily married with 2 kids.