This piece was originally published in 2010. Vulture is recirculating it in celebration of The Batman’s HBO Max release.
Among many other things, Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves knows how to kill off a character in notable fashion. Both his films to date – as different as they are in tone and plot – are filled with scenes of death that are alternately (and often simultaneously) horrifying, pathetic, tragic, ironic, and intense. So who better to consult to come up with a list of the ten greatest “kills” in movie history? We spoke to Reeves about his favorite kills, and here’s what he told us.
The First Killing, Jaws
I love the way the John Williams music functions here, and the drawn-out suspense of it. I was a kid and we went to see it in Santa Monica at the Criterion Theater. It was the Fourth of July, and some kids were lighting firecrackers; I literally felt like my head was going to go through the roof. Right from the beginning, the movie is so scary and so suspenseful. There’s something about the anonymity of this scene that makes it all the more horrifying – that could be you. And the way the movie just starts off with that killing, without any context or plot, is particularly disturbing. Spielberg really sets the table, to tell you that nothing is off the table — that he could do anything. And you think, “Now, I’m not in a safe environment.” He lets you know from the beginning that there are no rules.
The Attempted Murder of Grace Kelly Goes Horribly Wrong, Dial M for Murder
Hitchcock knew how to kill people exceptionally well, and this was actually a scene that inspired a scene in Let Me In. What goes wrong here is the inspiration for the scene in the car with Richard Jenkins. In Dial M for Murder, once you know what’s going to happen – they’re going to kill Grace Kelly! – you watch with heightened suspense as everything goes wrong. And Hitchcock puts you in the position of knowing what’s going to happen, knowing the killer. And you’re seeing through his eyes as everything goes wrong. You’re almost rooting for him, and it’s kind of tragic at the end when he dies. And that’s sort of what happens when Richard Jenkins meets the beginning of his end in Let Me In.
The Shower Scene, Psycho
Again Hitchcock, and this is of course one of the most indelible ones, and it’s horrifying. He really knew how to toy with your expectations, and in some weird way, this is related to the opening scene in Jaws, in that it tells you there are no rules, though this one happens later in the film. Hitchcock kills the character that right up until then was the main character in the film. The very structure of the story is completely upended: The character who you’ve invested all this energy in, suddenly, she’s totally gone.
The First Murder in the Car, A Short Film About Killing
When I first saw Let the Right One In, I immediately thought of Krzysztof Kieslowski, and in particular A Short Film About Love, with the boy watching the girl across the way, and A Short Film About Killing, which we actually watched in preparation for Let Me In. We didn’t want to glamorize death, and the first killing in this film is a perfect example of the brutality of it. But there are two murders in this film, if you think about it: When the killer is put to death later on in the film, there’s no sense of justice. You’d think that after seeing the first killing that you’d be almost rooting for him to die, but you get no satisfaction or closure from it.
A Guy’s Stomach Turns into a Giant Mouth, The Thing
It’s a crazy gross out scene, but what makes it so effective is that it comes back to the same thing as the scenes in Jaws and Psycho and Alien: All bets are off. One thing I never thought I’d ever see was the idea of someone’s stomach becoming a giant mouth and chewing another guy’s hands off. There’s something about the subconscious in that: Horror movies are able to make visible our worst nightmares, to bring those things into our sense of reality. There’s some of that in the Nightmare on Elm Street films, too — the idea that you can imagine anything in your dreams and they can come true.
Jack Nicholson Kills Scatman Crothers, The Shining
This was always one of the ones that shocked me most — and a lot of it is the way it’s set up. You see these images of Danny horrified throughout The Shining, the elevator with the blood, and all that. And now, the moment when Jack Nicholson kills Scatman Crothers with an axe — you realize that this is the moment it’s building up to. He is the sacrifice the film makes.
The Alien Comes Out of John Hurt, Alien
I’d never seen anything like that before. When I was growing up, I saw t-shirts of the alien in 3-D coming out of people’s chests. As a younger person, I was a real chicken when it came to movies. I was heavily affected by what I watched emotionally. If someone shows an image of Linda Blair from The Exorcist, I have to be ready for it, and I have a physical reaction to it. And once I realized there was something in Alien like that, I was actually terrified to watch it. The first time I saw it, it was on videotape, and I kept running out of the room. Years later, it was showing at the Museum of the Moving Image, when I finally got to see it on big screen, and realized what a masterpiece of suspense it was.
Sonny Corleone’s Death, The Godfather
This was the first killing I thought of — I mean, The Godfather films really have the most memorable killings in cinema. Certainly, the way Sonny Corleone goes out in a hail of bullets — it’s an epic idea, that it would take that many bullets to kill his passion. After the volume of violence it takes to bring him down, the character gains epic status.
Bonnie and Clyde Go Out in a Hail of Bullets, Bonnie and Clyde
This scene must have been on Coppola’s mind when he was doing The Godfather. Bonnie and Clyde are killed at the moment of their greatest emotional connection. And it’s astonishing how it’s depicted: The way their eyes meet, their glances, the tenderness right before the guns just open up on them. And throughout the film, he’s impotent, she’s frustrated, and you’re seeing them in pain throughout the movie. Then suddenly, he’s not impotent anymore, so finally, there’s this one moment of calm right before they’re destroyed. There’s something mythic about death coming at the greatest moment of your life.
The Killing of HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey
This is just incredibly memorable. The way HAL sings, “Dai-sy, Dai-sy,” slower and slower as he’s dying. It’s very sad: The machine seems like it feels so betrayed. It has this awareness, and there’s something genius about the way Kubrick did it. There’s this kind of regression, as it starts singing this childlike song. It’s a truly haunting death for a machine, and it makes explicit this connection between man and machine. Our brains are virtually computing machines too, so in some way we’re seeing here what emotion really seems to be.