Humans have always had an inexplicable fascination with death. It’s something that I’ve still not managed to quite grasp, but if I were to throw a theory into the pool, I’d have to say that it may come from an innate fear of it. My cinematic superhero, Guillermo Del Toro, put it quite eloquently when he said that the ultimate fear is decay of the flesh -- the death of the exterior, the end of beauty and youth, a rot that starts from the inside and manifests itself without.
This irrational desire to edge ever closer to the thing that we fear the most gave rise to the gladiatorial matches of the Roman Empire, which bled into the macabre stage plays of the 16th and 17th centuries, and carried over into motion picture, allowing people a more visceral connection with the Reaper himself. There have been films depicting the most grisly acts of depravity that man can summon -- from documentary style portrayals of violence (as in the controversial Men of the Sun) to elegant, almost Maudlin, displays of death (most recently, Black Swan).
It bears consideration, however, that the fascination with death comes from a somewhat alternative understanding of beauty. Indeed, Hollywood has managed to show us different sides of ourselves and awaken in us some of those things that we’d rather keep repressed. One, most certainly, must be a keen desire to be destroyed in a way that leaves the world in awe of our absolute perfection, to die magnificently in colours and blue sounds that leave an image forever imprinted in the minds of those who knew us and awakens a sordid interest in us from those who didn’t.
In that sense, I’ve managed to come up with a short chronological list of films that explore the morbidly beautiful side of death:
Suspiria (1977) - I first noticed this trend towards creating luscious colour palettes with human blood in the horror films of the 70s, most notably in one of the most influential horror films of all time, Suspiria. Dario Argento had a twisted sense of the grotesque and gorgeous, splashing Technicolor on every surface and giving rise to the thought that death, perhaps, was a means to become even more elegant than you were in life. One of the most iconic scenes to ever hit the big screen came in the first 30 minutes of the film. Two of the tenants of the ballet school are murdered in the most glorious fashion, beginning with a stabbing, continuing with a hanging through a stained glass ceiling which leads to the second death -- freak impaling compliments of the stained glass ceiling from which the first woman was hung. It’s utterly disturbing and marvellous. Colours giving way to an artscape to be envied.
Game of Death (1978) - Of course, not all death comes from horror films, or even has to be horrific. One of my favourite actors of all time (because of his sheer ease and charm), Bruce Lee, created probably one of the most fantastic fight scenes ever captured on celluloid. Unfortunately, it was cut from the film. However, the preceding dialogue and the power of Lee’s physical perfection led to one of the most beautiful end scenes I’ve ever seen. Lee’s character is face to face with a man who uses modified tonfa (two smooth sticks that usually have handles, but this version doesn’t) to manipulate the focus of his opponent and then attack. His weapons, however, are no match for Lee’s bamboo and “broken rhythm”. Lee had the ability to take fighting and make it rhythmical, a dance that culminated in the glorious fall of his opponents.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) - While not all death is gruesome, the best death scenes seem to be. Second only to Argento’s two and a half minute death sequence, the butterfly splaying is, perhaps, the most terrifyingly beautiful scene ever imprinted into the public psyche. After being put into a public cage, Hannibal Lector is given his dinner, more an elegant meal of rare steak and red wine (Chianti, no doubt). To the sound of a symphony, Lector attacks his keepers like a wild beast (the undercurrent rippling beneath his sophisticated exterior). When the other guards come to find out why the two watching Lector aren’t responding to their calls, they’re welcomed with a splayed torso and sheets depicting butterfly wings in soft light.
Interview with a Vampire (1994) - The last of the genuine vampire films, Interview saw an epicurean Tom Cruise as the irresistible Vampire Lestat and a sensually innocent Brad Pitt as his new foundling, Louis. There are a couple scenes in this film that are worth note. The first, when the impish Kirsten Dunst “murders” Lestat with a pair of scissors. His blood runs from his body and leaves it a pulping shell of himself. In one take, the audience experiences the supposed death of a prince among philanderers. The next scene shows the cruelty of humanity, no matter how far removed from it these new creatures of darkness have become. As a means to punish Louis for destroying their Cirque du Macabre, the vampire collective invades his home, kidnaps him, Dunst, and the new mother figure in her life, and throws the mother and child into an open chamber. When the sunlight comes in hours later, the two are clung together in an ashen exoskeleton of their former selves.
The Cell (2000) - Let’s jus get it out in the open: The Cell is one of my favourite films of all time. So, try as I might to keep this one off the list, it seems to have managed to creep in. In this case, almost every scene is a mess of artistic swirl and elegantly violent delight. The final showdown between Jennifer Lopez’s character and the mythical Mokilok (a sadistic game master, supposedly from a nursery rhyme) is violent, vicious, and uncompromising. The most horrid sequence being when Lopez’s character pulls the oversized nipple piercing clear from his chest. At the end of it all, Mokilok is just the repressed anger and fear of a little boy trapped in a grown man’s body. Lopez turns into a pure nun, intent on freeing this man from his pain, submerging him gently underwater until he suffocates.
Ichi the Killer (2001) - While many scenes of death are beautiful, some are just disgusting and unabashedly vulgar. Enter Takashi Miike, the master of the downright gruesome. Ichi the Killer is wrought with gore and violence so over the top, it’s downright cartoonish. Almost every scene is blood splattered, none more gut wrenching than when our unfortunate antagonist slices a man’s face clean from his skull, only for it to end up sliding down a wall in the hallway.
Equilibrium (2002) - As with Bruce Lee’s ballet of fighting, Equilibrium gives way to some of the most poetic gunplay ever displayed on film. Christian Bale’s character is a straight-laced, unapologetic prophet of a twisted understanding of justice -- cutting off all human emotion before it even manifests itself. The first time he allows his heart to break opens up a new world to him, one in which emotion is not only beautiful, but necessary for life to remain worth living. When he infiltrates the headquarters and takes down an entire army with two guns and the rhythmic movement necessary for efficient killing, it’s almost like watching Baryshnikov at his most elegant.
OldBoy (2003) - As much as I wanted to keep this list short, some films just can’t be surpassed. OldBoy is one of them. There are a couple scenes that are worth mentioning, but the scene that left the biggest impact was the very end -- a confession sequence that showcases self-mutilation of the highest degree and a suicide as tragic as it is beautiful. The images are visceral, leaving the skin tingling from their proximity to the flesh.
Black Swan (2010) - Natalie Portman became the most recent iconic figure to give credence to the beauty of death. The entire film is a build up to the climactic ending sequence. It’s a commentary on the folly of trying to attain absolute perfection, a pretentious goal that ultimately results in a glorious fall from grace. Portman’s character finally reaches the apex of her vulnerable humanity only to succumb to her own paranoia and limitations.
As long as I’ve known anything about film I’ve been aware of how we as humans live for the ability to discover ourselves in a world far removed from where we presently are. Going to the cinema to experience that part of our lives that has yet to act itself out brings us closer to our own mortality without actually having to touch it. We toe the line between what is fear and what is an awkward lust for an elegantly tragic ending.
I have a keen interest in all things that shed light and colour in this dark and, at times, uninspiring world. I love film, all film --ranging from Japanese and Korean horror, to nonsensical action films. The one qualification is that it must, must entertain me. As much as I love watching film, I love even more to write about it. If you want to give me a buzz, I can be reached at madasa [dot] writing [at] gmail [dot] com.