With Halloween close at hand, now’s the time to immerse ourselves in all things morbid, macabre, and malevolent. Objectively speaking, horror-movie marathons are the best movie marathons under every conceivable vector of analysis; there are few greater joys in life than hunkering down with a bag of Mr. Goodbars and a stack of DVDs (what? we’re old-school) for a long night of fright. But as much as anyone might love horror, they must admit that the genre’s been mired in repetition over the years, resulting in scads of unoriginal recapitulations of worn-out scares. A viewer can only deal with the butcher-knife POV shot from the killer’s perspective as he stalks a supple-looking ingenue so many times before sinking into a candy coma, so Vulture’s taken the liberty of gathering 23 of our favorite bizarre cinematic deaths to keep it spicy this Halloween. Read on for a rogues’ gallery of spooks who thought outside the box, then stabbed the box, then ate the box.
Everything, the Final Destination Franchise (2000 to 2011)
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. The Final Destination movies were filled with enough “unlikely, but then again how unlikely, really?” deaths to fill out a list twice this size, from roller-coaster derailments to tanning-bed charring to weightlifting mishaps. The truest villain of the franchise is probability, luring those with the hubris to challenge death into a false sense of security before claiming their lives in the most elaborate way possible. If Rube Goldberg had been into torture porn, he would’ve been the president of the Final Destination Fan Club.
Pizza of Souls, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
The Nightmare on Elm Street series operated under the malleable anti-logic of dreams, freeing up later installments for chimerical slayings that made an incision along the line separating surrealism from silliness. The third and fourth films feature some of the most deliriously weird killing strokes of the whole franchise, such as one scene in which Freddy traps his doomed victims within a pizza, their wailing meatball-faces squirming to free themselves from the thick layer of mozzarella. As Freddy spears one and eats it, he unleashes one of the most awful puns in the franchise’s history, growling, “I love soul food!” He kills dozens of kids in the franchise’s nine films, but that groaner is easily his most evil move of all.
Eaten by Merman, The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Not since Scream had a horror film so deftly balanced genre deconstruction with straight-up chills. Drew Goddard’s clever contraption has a little something for textual-theory nerds and horror buffs alike, commenting on the pitfalls that had retarded the slasher movie’s development while simultaneously correcting them. One of the film’s funniest running gags concerns a Bradley Whitford–played coordinator’s desire to see a merman wreak havoc on an unsuspecting victim. His complaint that the same few monsters get too much playtime echoes frustrations voiced by horror fans for years, but he gets more than he bargained for when his wish is granted. (Has any character ever received precisely what they bargained for when making a wish in a movie? Why aren’t people more afraid of genies?)
Masque of Satan, Black Sunday (1960)
Nothing confirms a vintage horror classic’s cult-object status quite like getting sampled for a rap song, so when Flying Lotus nicked the dialogue from this Gothic horror gem for his DU∆LITY mixtape under the Captain Murphy moniker, he clued the hip-hop community into a secret that giallo geeks had known for decades: Ya boy Mario Bava don’t fuck around. When the high court of fictitious European kingdom Moldavia decides to execute a witch, they go the extra mile by sealing her head in a metal mask festooned with inward-pointing spikes, which are then hammered into her face to leave the mark of Satan. This doesn’t stop her, of course. It just makes her extra testy when she inevitably returns to take her unholy revenge.
The Bees/Immolation Combo, The Wicker Man (2006)
Along with the immortal alphabet recitation in Vampire’s Kiss, the “Not the bees!” line from this remake of the 1973 British scare-fest represents peak Cage, a master thespian working at the height of his dramatic powers. We’re fudging it a little bit — the bees, while granting modern cinema its arguable high point, do not fully kill Cage’s character — but the mercy stroke is just as memorable. After getting Cage’s face good and stung up, the neo-pagans tormenting him then lock him in a humanoid wicker structure and set him ablaze. And that, children, is how the Burning Man music festival first began. The annual tribute to the greatness and profundity of Nicolas Cage still takes place today!
Razor CDs, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)
Maybe it just takes horror franchises a few installments to ease up and have a little fun. Around the same juncture that A Nightmare on Elm Street loosened its screws, the satanic BDSM series Hellraiser grew a sense of humor befitting its pessimistic worldview. After pinheaded baddie Pinhead kills a discotheque’s worth of innocents in an orgy of bloodletting, he resurrects a handful of the deceased to serve as his demonic henchpeople. One of the lucky resurrected happens to be the in-house DJ, who’s been granted the ability to shoot razor-sharp CDs out of the disc drive where his mouth used to be. The CD was still a relatively novel invention in ’92, marking this character as a naked bid at timely youth appeal. In 2015, he’d have an iPhone for a face with but a single app installed: Murder.
TV Fries Brains, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
In a pre-internet film culture, John McNaughton’s homemade horror show gathered legendary status as it crept from festival to festival. The shoestring-budget monstrosity first scandalized audiences in Chicago in 1986, but it’d take four years of scattered screenings for the film to receive distribution without a rating. In one of the most memorable scenes, the titular murderer kills a TV salesman by slamming a little merchandise onto his head screen-first. The pièce de résistance comes a moment later when he instructs his associate to turn it on, giving the poor bastard a shock that makes his whole body spasm before slumping, dead.
Arms Ripped Off by Gaping Chest Cavity, The Thing (1982)
For a horror film to function properly, the cannon fodder must be trapped somewhere — a cabin, a mansion, the state of sleep — where the villain can pick them off. For his follow-up to the stellar Escape From New York, John Carpenter cornered a group of unwitting scientists in the perfect Thunderdome, an Antarctic research facility. A shape-shifting alien preys upon them, but makes a dynamic entrance before the lethal game of hide-and-seek begins. An ambush appears to give one of the present men a heart attack, but when his colleague grabs the defibrillator paddles to resuscitate him, his stomach opens up and gobbles his arms with its craggy teeth.
Box Crusher, Intruder (1989)
When you’re working on a $130,000 budget, shooting in a defunct grocery store you’re renting by the hour, and casting your friends, your film will not win anyone over with ravishing production values or impressive special effects. But to quote Sam Jackson, personality goes a long way. Scott Spiegel, that filmmaker of ill repute, dreamt up an uncommonly gruesome demise for one of the hapless supermarket employees that the killer among them targets. The villain clamps his head in the industrial box crusher until it pops open like a rotten orange. Be warned: Side effects of watching Intruder include inexplicable temple headaches.
Piano Wire to the Ankle, Audition (1999)
Takashi Miike’s standout chiller is a classic bait-and-switch: He cons the audience with a domestic drama shot through with a hard-to-place tension, but then he pivots about an hour in, and he pivots hard. The quietly compliant girl that our widower protagonist has lured into a relationship is not all she seems — rather, she’s someone who’ll essentially floss a man’s foot off his ankle. Using razor-sharp piano wire, she divorces the man’s foot from his body in the name of violent feminist subtext, or maybe just because Miike’s a madman.
Eating Ass, Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys (2014)
Bottom-feeding studio the Asylum was the brain trust behind the existential ponderings on sharks and tornadoes in Sharknado, and when their lucidly awful creation somehow struck a chord with the public, they were eager to replicate their success. One such effort was Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys, in which the razor-toothed tube-shaped fish terrorize the denizens of a sleepy lakeside town. Catching a brief breath during the ceaseless mayhem, the Christopher Lloyd–played mayor parks his keister on the toilet to relieve himself, at which point a lamprey slithers up through the pipe and tears into his b-hole. An unsettling thing to see on the same network that airs the Puppy Bowl: Doc Brown getting his ass literally eaten.
Ball Is Death, Deadly Friend (1986)
The dearly departed Wes Craven’s films have already been bettered by posterity; his prolific rate of output and consistency of quality make each of his films seem like a minor miracle. Deadly Friend strikes a delicate balance between straightforward horror and kooky fun, never more so than in the scene where a homicidal cyborg-girl whips a basketball at the creepy neighbor-woman and her head explodes, looking like a cream pie hit her. Half grisly and half goofy, it’s so typical of a filmmaker who constantly contrived new ways to die.
Cranial Combustion, Scanners (1981)
Those unfamiliar with David Cronenberg’s sci-fi head trip may still recognize the iconic scene from the proliferation of its GIF form, and in all honesty, that’s not a bad way to watch it. Little details make themselves known in rapid repetitions, grace notes too minor to catch on a straight-through viewing; the glasses snap perfectly in half, the right ear goes flying, the skin of the forehead bulbously bubbles for a fraction of a second before tearing open like a water balloon. There’s a fragile poetry to the spray of crimson blood against the black background. It is, aptly, mind-blowing.
Insta-Freeze, Jason X (2001)
Just as adding “ … in space!” automatically makes any horror movie better right off the bat, adding “ … in the future!” can only ever add to a proven formula. Jason X sets machete-wielder Jason Vorhees loose in the year 2455 and arms him with a futuristic arsenal of technological innovations that take his murders to the next level. Jason doesn’t disappoint. Simply decapitating a comely med student wouldn’t suffice, so he instead dunks her noggin in a vat of liquid nitrogen and then, after it immediately freezes, he smashes it to bits on a nearby counter. What’s left of her face looks like the inside of a red pumpkin before it’s scooped out.
Floating Metal Spike-Orb, Phantasm (1979)
The corridors of this horror daydream are monitored by Sentinels, hovering metal orbs that eject hooked spikes and chase their targets without tiring. It’s a perfectly dreamlike threat, both logical and illogical, natural and unnatural, familiar and alien. (Of course, director Don Coscarelli first conceived of the Sentinels during a nightmare.) They’re made doubly unnerving by the crude lack of sophistication in the special-effects work, rendering an otherworldly image even more Dalí-esque.
Corncob, Sleepwalkers (1992)
There are times when a well-placed pun is completely called for. Newspaper headlines, for instance, or casual conversation with a friend. Film criticism, even. Directly after murdering a man is a rather inappropriate time for an expertly executed one-liner, however. The sense of quiet amusement that it brings is un-befitting the gravity of the situation, but then how else is Alice Krige supposed to follow up a corncob backstabbing than with the heinous pun “no vegetables, no dessert”? It’s her curse to spend eternity feeding off the life force of others and transforming into a giant bipedal feline, and apparently corny wordplay (hey-o!) is just part of the package deal.
Popcorn Seduction, Troll 2 (1990)
In the town of Nilbog (and if you were able to spot that that’s goblin backward, congratulations, you’re smarter than all of the characters in this disasterpiece), supernatural little beasties take on unassuming forms while waiting to cannibalize their human prey. But these goblins are vegetarians, so before they can gobble up guileless children, they must first transmogrify them into vegetables. In a virtuosic display of raw eroticism, the goblin queen seduces a young man in an RV by making out with him while smushing a corncob betwixt their mouths. The radiating heat of their furious sexuality ignites the kernels until they’re both drowned in a rolling sea of popcorn, at which point the goblin queen drowns him beneath the delicious snack. Why one cob’s worth of corn could generate enough kernels to fill an RV is never clarified, but it’s hardly a bother when the apex of sexual ferocity is playing out onscreen. It is perplexing, titillating, and horrifying all at once.
Tenderized and Seasoned, The Gore Gore Girls (1972)
After completing work on this characteristically splattery Grand Guignol freak show, the exiled king of gore Herschell Gordon Lewis hung up his camera for 30 years. This sense of creative exhaustion does come through a bit in the finished product: an overall vibe of frustration, a listless lack of drive, a bone-deep joylessness. Early on in the film, the unseen killer ensnares an unfortunate stripper and snuffs her out by tenderizing her butt cheeks with a meat hammer. Once they’re all mashed and bloody, the killer sprinkles some salt and pepper to finish the job. He must be a true gourmand — any murder-chef worth his salt knows that the natural flavor of the meat must come out on its own terms and not be overpowered by any sauces or heavy seasonings.
Drained by Were-Moth, The Blood Beast Terror (1967)
In the annals of British horror, Hammer Films enjoys the loftiest stature as the body responsible for the baroque-Gothic adaptations of Dracula, The Mummy, and The Curse of Frankenstein. But Tigon Productions turned out quite a few underrated gold nuggets along these lines of their own, stylish but cheap productions with titles like The Body Stealers, The Haunted House of Horror, and the delectably hokey creature feature The Blood Beast Terror. A lovely young woman moonlights as a were-moth and suspends unwitting men upside down, draining their blood and drinking it for herself. The larger pantheon of were-animals cowers before the terrible might of the were-moth, which ranks just below the werewolf and well above the were-camel.
Splintered Wood in Eyeball, Zombi 2 (1979)
Zombi 2, a.k.a. The Island of the Living Dead, a.k.a. Zombie Flesh Eaters, a.k.a. The Dead Walk Among Us, a.k.a. Woodoo, was indeed a sequel to a film called Zombi. But that film was really just Dario Argento’s remix of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. From muddled origins comes Lucio Fulci’s indulgently over-the-top film, peopled by shambling reanimated corpses and adults running around like chickens plainly aware of their impending beheadings. While evading hot pursuit from a zombie, an Italian beauty takes a jagged splinter right into her eyeball. The wound is specific enough to incite phantom pain in viewers, who can only squeeze their eyes tighter in a bid at protection.
Cherry Darling’s Leg, Planet Terror (2007)
One half of the exploitation throwback double feature Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez’s zombie homage rallied behind a single image like the French revolutionaries behind the flag. Leading lady Rose McGowan loses her leg early on during an undead onslaught, and the machine gun that she claims as a jerry-rigged prosthesis made for a legendary movie poster. Before she picks up the automatic rifle to blow away hordes of attackers with style and ease, she uses a peg leg to ward off a pair of rapists (one of whom is played by Quentin Tarantino, and worrisomely well) by impaling them directly through the eyeball. It could be a Zombi 2 reference or pure coincidence, but with Rodriguez’s strong track record of affectionate allusion, the former’s plenty likely.
Alligator Legs, Tokyo Gore Police (2008)
It says quite a bit about the synapse-busting weirdness of this extreme film that the girl whose legs have been surgically altered to resemble an alligator’s jaws is maybe the fifth-weirdest element of the film. In a world bursting with Engineers, humans with altered DNA who spontaneously develop fleshy animalistic mutations on their bodies when wounded, the alligator-legs girl can probably get a little sympathy from snail-shell-bound girl and tentacles-for-arms guy. But there’s something special about ol’ Gator Legs, lying on the floor and screaming bloody murder while her leg-jaws hungrily snap at passersby.
Death by Formalism, Amer (2009)
French spouses Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani might just be the preeminent art-horror stylists working right now, spinning sensuous fantasias from wisps of color, texture, and noise. Like shoegaze music translated into the visual medium, their movies favor overall experience over lucid plotting or character. And so, in the truest sense, the film medium itself is the real villain of their criminally underrated 2009 triumph Amer, where an ill-defined menace stalks a young girl as she makes her first terrifying brushes with sexuality and adulthood. Conjuring dread from thin air, Forzani and Cattet work in perfect tandem to make it feel as if the frame itself is turning on the helpless young girl.