Murder, the cessation of a life, can make for the ultimate storytelling tool; whether carved into a story in a bloody splash or the catalyst to a multitude of other events, murder is found in some of the greatest of stories. What do Game of Thrones and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have in common?
That’s right — they both have strong female leads. Oh, right, and practically everyone dies. You start to lose count after a while. Murder in film can be messy, cheesy, heartbreaking, classy, and it can even be — for lack of a better word — funny.
Sometimes we cry when a character is erased by way of the writer’s pen, and sometimes a death on screen can be unnervingly satisfying and cathartic — despite what morality and real life logic might say. So which movies did it best? Which films slay, kill, murder, and massacre in the most effective, horrifying, or heartbreaking way? Let’s take a look.
1. The Shining
The Shining is easily one of the scariest films in existence, but it also manages to be a high quality movie as well. The Shining is the opposite of the Saw films — all blood and gore and shock value. It’s not that The Shining doesn’t have it’s fair share of blood and nastiness — but the way the film is bizarrely and uniquely shot, the location used, the acting, and the writing are what make it truly terrifying.
Jack and his family arrive to act as caretakers of the giant old Overlook Hotel, which has a rather unfortunate history. Jack then proceeds to slowly go crazy and begin sinking into old problems with alcohol, while young Danny becomes creepier and creepier as his “shining” gift reveals more and more about the hotel. Before you say it, yes, both Wendy and Danny Torrance escape from good ol’ Jacky boy when he finally snaps — but you know who doesn’t? Dick Hallorann, the friendly chef who is called to for help near the end of film. We love Dick, he’s a fellow shiner, and he treks all the way out there, putting himself in danger, to try to save people he hardly knows. Jack kills him with an axe in the hotel lobby. Ouch.
It is then that we really know that the film has hit it’s culminating point. We have little Danny writing Redrum on the wall, which reversed is of course Murder. In the novel version of The Shining, Dick doesn’t die, but in the film his murder finalizes the transformation of the already terrifying Jack. Jack becomes more than just a madman — he becomes a killer, and it’s Dick’s sacrifice in bringing the Snowcat to the hotel that allows mother and son to escape.
2. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
In this comedy/action film, murder is thrown about in some of the strangest ways. It is, at it’s heart, a murder mystery. Murder drives much of the funky off-the-wall plot with private investigators, movie stars, and dead bodies in trunks.
The film is a comedy, and this allows for some flexibility around how seriously death and murder are taken. For example, one character is abused by her father and eventually kills herself — though at first this is mistaken for murder. Her death is a serious point in the film, one of the few times characters drift away from comedy and into anger and justice. “Harmony was right, her sister was murdered. You pulled the trigger. It just took this long for the bullet to hit,” said the P.I., played by Val Kilmer, to the abusive father in one of the final scenes in the film.
But when Robert Downey Jr.’s character accidentally shoots and kills some poor dumb idiot outside a hospital, it’s simply funny. When he kills a thug for the first time, he’s emotional, but he’s more distracted by a dog eating his severed finger — again, it’s basically just funny. As are all of the scenes with dead bodies being disposed of or clumsily discovered. Death drives the comedy and the plot twists, while sexual abuse drives the emotional side of the film — an interesting twist.
It would be a mistake not to include one of the most famous murder scenes in film. Simply saying the name Psycho conjures the screeching soundtrack, screams, shower, and stabbing silhouette. This scene is iconic in film history and it manages to be oddly glamorous while still being utterly terrifying and shocking.
Psycho proves that you don’t need guts and gaping wounds to almost over describe murder. Sometimes showing less can be more. Half of what makes the murder in Psycho so terrifying is the way you see pieces and parts of Lila Crane’s death. Here a flailing arm, there shining blade, then color in the water, shots of the raining shower water, the blood washing down the drain — not a single wound — and possibly the most significant death scene in film history.
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
While horrifying, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t really considered a horror film. The murder in it is more a mercy killing. It is one of the greatest murders in film because it is a complex murder, it makes viewers ask themselves who really killed Mac McMurphy? The doctors who gave our favorite protagonist a lobotomy? Or the fellow patient and Native American holding the pillow — Chief Bromden?
The death is both a release and a tear jerker, a symbol of freedom that simultaneously invokes a feeling of utter waste. It’s a kind murder, like a soldier putting a fellow comrade out of their misery on the battlefield, or shooting the victim of a zombie bite. Mac’s death in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is unique in that his injury is of the mind, his imprisonment mental, and everlasting. Somehow, this manages to be so much more heart-wrenching than anything physical could be.
5. A Nightmare On Elm Street
Being murdered in your sleep and in your dreams — it doesn’t get more terrifying than that. A Nightmare on Elm Street is the definitive keeps you up at night horror film, and it does over-the-top murder right. Look at the death of the protagonists boyfriend — played by Johnny Depp.
Upon splitting up for the night, we watch in growing panic and frustration as he drifts off to sleep. Then he literally turns into an enormous fountain of blood shooting out of his bed. It’s awesome. Also a bit corny — but mostly just awesome.
6. Inglourious Basterds
They kill Hitler. Need I say more? Anyone who knows Tarantino films expects violent twists and pushed limits — but killing Hitler elevated Inglourious Bastards to a whole new level. Who doesn’t wish they could go back in time and take out the anti-Semitic super villian?
As a concept built entirely around hate and revenge, without any moral considerations, it’s pretty satisfying. Inglourious Bastards allows movie watchers to live that dream for a short time. Part of what makes it such a great climactic move is that those unfamiliar with the film can’t help but expect him to survive. It’s beyond comprehension. You can’t just kill Hitler. He didn’t die. That’s not what really happened. Then, suddenly — boom! Dead.
Speaking of cathartic murders, there’s always Carrie, champion of every bullied child everywhere. Conflict management is all well and good, but when it comes to film, the hellish fire scene at Carrie’s climax makes for a tragic impact at the heart of this horror film.
Pigs blood, cruel kids, and an abusive mother — all in all, Carrie is disturbing and upsetting. The end certainly doesn’t leave viewers feeling better, but the fire offers a sort of symbolically fitting closure. Instead of watching one characters misery, suddenly it has expanded outward to include everyone in her pain. The end result is a mass murder that makes movie history.