September, 2009. Sitting in the cinema watching Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, I’d already seen numerous bodies been blown to pieces by Brad Pitt’s dynamic scalping troup of Jewish warriors. It’s argued whether or not violence is glamourised in Tarantino’s films, an on-going debate that will never have a right or wrong answer, but for me, it was Tarantino who first left an impression on me that really sparked this article. Our villain sat on one side of a room, our terrified heroine sat on the other: the tension building, the suspence unsettling, the fear communicated mearly through a look. It was the end of Bridget von Hammersmark, and for me, the start of an in-depth analysis of the iconic death scene.
This article may anger some readers, so for that I appologize, but I aim to do two things; the first, discuss the impact of the death scene in some classic films from years ago and second, take a look back at some of the contemporary iconic demise scenes from 2012. Films discussed in the second section of the article include those of Skyfall and Django Unchained so if you intend to watch these films, feel free to read the first section but hold fire on the second. Let me irriterate, this article is not to ‘spoil’ films, I aim to discuss the significance and impact of a narrative convention in the film universe.
The death scene in films is often where most of the films emotion comes to light. As we are following certain individuals on screen, when they finally meet their maker, our own feelings and emotions for these characters are put on display: sometimes audience members start weeping, sniffling and even full on crying. This often happens when our character is the protagonist. When the antagonist finally meets his demise, it’s a different kettle of fish, with audience members more than likely applauding or laughing at their failed attempts of world domination.
Quite oftenly, the major loss of a character is featured at the end of the film to “tug-at-our-heart-strings” as they’ve allowed to take us, as audience members, on a journey: this journey can be an epic journey as such featured in Star Wars or a more personal journey such as with Stepmom. Even a drama film takes us on an adventure, just not on a grand scale such as a science-fiction films, but either way, emotions play a large part of that adventure. If we don’t relate to characters on screen then quite frankly, there’s no reason to watch the film at all: it is the characters we want to know. We want to be with them in their universe not just be in their universe.
Some films pull of the demise scenes better than others but looking at all the genre’s on display, I find the crime genre is the worst to deal with the impact of the death scenes. Why? There’s no emotion behind what’s on screen. Pretty much all the time in crime films we, as audiences, are partnered on screen with the police or detectives who witness murders and deaths on a day-to-day basis. The emotionless characters of this genre makes it difficult for me to connect with the demise of characters meaning it has no impact. Some will say this is showing a representation of what it is like being in that field of work: true, but when looking at an iconic and fundemental aspect of a film in film terms, it doesn’t quite hold up.
The genre, I find, that has the most effective use of the death scene is that of the animation films. Again, some will argue that as animation films are primarily aimed at children (another arguable fact I believe to be incorrect) they are able to have more of an emotional response from an audience when a character is in danger. I find this slightly biased: animated films appeal to a wide audience of adult men and women, just as much as they do children. Just because a film has a ‘U’ certification doesn’t mean it’s only aimed at children
The Pixar film Up is a great example of dealing with an emotional death scene that serves a purpose and has a strong impact with us as viewers. If it wasn’t for Carl’s wife dying, we would have only seen him as a grumpy old man, as this was how he was represented in the films trailers and advertising campaign before we knew why he was like this. Watching Carl and Ellie grow from being two young children to a happily married, elderly couple was heart-warming, and it was when Ellie’s life was taken that the real sadness hit hard in the audiences. This had an impact on the film and the audience: it was pivotal to the film and made us feel that we’d known these two characters all their lives. Similarly the same is shown in Disney’s The Lion King: not a favourite of mine but the death of Simba’s father still had an emotional effect and impact on me as a viewer
Some death scenes are primarily on screen to provide that shock-factor: these are the ones that have become iconic over the years when analysing great film moments. Janet Leigh’s horrifying and traumatic end when she meets her demise in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is still regarded as one of the most memorable film deaths on screen of all time, similarly with Bond Girl Jill Masterson, when she is covered head to toe in gold pain in the most iconic of all Bond films, Goldfinger. Scenes like these have a long lasting effect on us: when the film comes up in conversation, the memorable death scenes usually follow as ‘highlights’.
The question is, do these shock-factor death scenes also connect with the audience emotionally? They may not be scenes where we cry our eyes out, saddened by their loss but these characters make a strong impact allowing us to remember their, often haunting, demise. Analysing the shock factor death scenes, it’s fair to say the demise scenes have more of a haunting response than an emotional one. I remember watching Pans Labyrinth when it was first released, having nightmares about the man who was stabbed to death in the face with a broken beer bottle: shock deaths provoke shock responses.
Now it’s time to look at some of the contemporary-iconic death scenes of 2012, so if you don’t want to spoil films such as The Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus, look away now, but thank you for reading. These aren’t in any order, but there is one from the past year that stands out from the crowd that will be memorable for many years to come, so on that note, we’ll begin with that scene.
Severine’s last drink in ‘Skyfall’
Most Bond films spawn iconic death scenes but this one is up there with Jill Masterson’s death in Goldfinger. Our cunning and dangerous femme fatale Severine is tied to a broken statue, beaten and presented with a scotch filled shot-glass from villain Silva who places it on her head. Giving Bond a gun with one bullet, Silva tells him the winner is to first person to shoot the glass from her head. Bond misses. Silva shoots her in the head claiming victory for the glass falling to the floor. The scene is a modern-death scene that will go down as iconic, as it blends the emotional connection with the audience, with the haunting shock response together as one. We were on the verge of becoming emotional due too Severine’s saddened eyes staring at us, almost staring into our souls but then we found ourselves jumping out of our seats at the sound of Silva’s rapid gun shot. That combination of emotion and shock makes this scene a true winner for the best death scene of the past year.
“Bye Miss Lara” in ‘Django Unchained’
Some may have saw Tarantino’s fantastic new western on Christmas Day while others will have only just been visiting the cinema now in January, but as it was first released in 2012, that’s where it belongs. Yes, the film exhibits Tarantino’s love for ‘film violence’ but it was enemy Lara-Lee Candie Fitzwilly who has the best death scene. Some would use the phrase WTF to describe the scene as it’s pretty crazy and slightly surreal: Django, facing his enemies one last time at Candie-land tells slave Cora to say goodbye to her master before leaving the premisis. Just as she does, Django shoots Lara-Lee, sending her ‘flying’ 270 degrees in the wrong direction. It’s a typical Tarantino-esque scene, only one that he can explain but needless to say, Lara-Lee has the best demise scene in the film: partly due to the shock factor, and at the same time it’s partly comical too.
The supposed death of Batman in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
Christopher Nolan wanted his Batman trilogy to go out on a high and it certainly did. Saying that, the climactic battle between Batman, Bane and Talia al Ghul resulted in two lousy deaths for his leading villains. However, that said, when Batman ‘supposedly’ takes his own life to protect the people of Gotham, this struck a chord with many audience members. Of course, we knew in our heart of hearts, this wasn’t going to be the end of Bruce Wayne for good but for a few minutes, we let ourselves believe it. As the character is a protector and a good man, it triggered an emotional impact with us watching. What Nolan was in fact telling us was that Batman isn’t dead, he’s just gone to conclude his trilogy.
Meredith out-running a large space-craft in ‘Prometheus’
I couldn’t help but think when watching the climactic end to Prometheus, Marlon Wayans shouting “run bitch, run…” in Scary Movie. Seriously, can this woman only run in straight lines or something? Prometheus was one of the years biggest let-down’s for me but part of the shock factor came from Meredith Vickers’ demise when she tries to outrun an oval looking space-craft that’s clearly chasing up with her: it’s hard to explain but in simple terms, she’s running in the same direction as the space-craft is rolling across the ground after falling out the sky. By the end of it, the death scene was pretty comical: all she had to do was to move to the right or left and let it pass by her, but no, just keep running in a straight line hoping for a miracle. I thought she was supposed to be smart?
Death scenes are an important factor to a film’s emotional connection with an audience: done well, and they can make a film memorable. Over the past hundred years of film history, death scenes have become iconic. It’s clear to say, Skyfall has possibly one of the most iconic if not the most iconic death scene of the past year. That’s not to say that it can’t be over-shadowed, so it’ll be interesting to see what this year of film shows us.