Kill or be Killed: Comparing Death Sequences in Horror and Action Movies

This article or originally appeared in Kitchen Sink magazine.

In the first Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Tina falls asleep after making sweet teen love with trouble boy Rod. She later begins thrashing beneath the blankets and Rod tugs them off. Tina’s baby-blue striped pajama top opens to reveal what looks like the polyvinyl chest of a CPR dummy. Four slashes appear down the center and Tina begins gushing hunter-orange blood. Freddy is attacking her from the dream world but is invisible to Rod and the audience’s waking eyes. Rod looks repulsed as Tina fumbles at her sliced open torso and makes puking sounds. As she levitates gymnastically in the air; her head slams into Rod, sending him careening into a bedside lamp. Gravity is inverted for Tina and her body is dragged upwards leaving a smear of red Wet’n’Wild up the wall, until she is spasming half-naked on the ceiling, reaching out towards Rod with the peacock-encrusted wallpaper dividing them. When she at last succumbs to death, gravity resumes its normal pull and she falls to the mattress with a splash. That’s how much blood there is; the sound evokes a diver who has completed a complex maneuver and dropped to the pool below. Her corpse slides on her bloody sheets face first into a heap beside the bed. Hearing Rod’s screams, Tina’s friends Nancy and Glenn break down the door and the audience is forced to stare at their extensive collection of sad and shocked facial expressions.

In the above scene the victim’s death and its emotional impact on her friends is quite visible, but the killer is not. In horror movies the killer is typically obscured or off-screen. Consider Jason’s mask, or the rain slicker-clad killer of I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). We sympathize with the victim simply because that is all we can see.

This equation is reversed in the action genre; we can see the villains but the effects of violence are often obscured. As the bad guys in Under Siege, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey (1992) are welcomed to an all-they-can eat scenery buffet, likewise with Michael Ironsides as the comb-over corrupt government agent in Total Recall (1990). In Under Siege, a Playboy centerfold is flown aboard the USS Missouri to entertain the troops, at which point nefarious madmen take over the ship’s nuclear arsenal and she becomes Navy SEAL Stephen Seagal’s de facto sidekick and love interest. One of the hijackers has Seagal at gunpoint and is doing some pre-killing-the-protagonist gloating. Suddenly the bad guy winces, his face goes slack and he collapses out of the frame, revealing the centerfold who has just shot him in the back.

Villains killed in action movies usually collapse to an off-screen position, or at the very least the camera rarely lingers on their corpses; the effects of the carnage are brief. This example from Under Siege is particularly striking in that the dead man literally falls away to reveal an unobstructed view of heroism.

The Long Goodbye

In a ratio typical of the horror genre, female victims outnumber male two-to-one in the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, whereas the death count is vastly male in action movies. In Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover’s definitive 1992 book on gender and horror films, she says “The death of a male is nearly always swift … he has no time to react or register terror. He is dispatched and the camera moves on. The death of a male is moreover more likely than the death of a female to be viewed from a distance … or indeed to happen off-screen and not to be viewed at all. The murders of women, on the other hand, are filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail and at greater length.”

While Clover’s observations are in regards to horror movies, action movies fit at least partially into this equation. Nearly all deaths in action films are male but are depicted in much the same manner as male deaths in horror films. The men are for the most part dispatched quickly and with less fanfare than those in horror films. With the exception of the centerfold, Under Siege takes place aboard the all-male Navy ship, so consequently all the deaths are male.

TNT and sympathy

Norman Holland’s 1992 book, The Critical I, interviews four people who have all watched the same film and details the array of interpretations and emotional responses, showing how a character who is sympathetic to one viewer, is often not to another. Cause and effect are difficult to gauge concerning art and culture. (A point also ably demonstrated by “Fem Zep” in the second issue of Kitchen Sink about finding female empowerment in a somewhat less than forward-thinking rock group.) What an author puts into a work and what an audience receives from it are often quite stunning in their contrasts, so any comments about how different depictions of violence affect the viewer are qualified by this understanding.

Action movies minimize the extent to which we feel the impact of violence. Notwithstanding, the climactic front lawn kung-fu session at the end of Lethal Weapon (1987) or the occasional manly exchange of fisticuffs, action movies generally involve much more killing with guns or bombs; we see aerial shots and fights atop skyscrapers and national monuments. Similar to aerial bombing, the distance allows consciences that ought to be sullied to be clean. Horror films, on the other hand, err on the side of more intimate violence: chainsaws, screwdrivers, knives. Killers and victims wind up in close quarters with each other, in tiny closets and narrow hallways. And whereas action tends to show only an entrance wound like a red wax seal on a formal envelope transposed to the center of a forehead, horror believes in the massive exit wound.

Although violence may be given more screen time in horror, we also see death’s emotional impact: the sad and fearful expressions on the faces of those who discover their friends’ corpses. By contrast, the bad guys in Under Siege do not mourn their fallen comrade, they only lament that Seagal is still running amuck defending his battleship.

It hearkens back to the G.I. Joe cartoon series with its animated, fatality-free warfare. One thinks of U.S. newspapers’ hesitancy to publish gruesome war photos. If action movies are FOX news then horror movies are the images of Abu Ghraib. When action movies relegate the impact of violence off-screen or otherwise minimize it, they play into those same myths of militarism. Though the hero in action movies is killing bad people who within the movie’s logic deserve to die, it doesn’t alter the fact that our sympathies lie with the character amassing the enormous body count.

There is nothing inherently superior about being the victim rather than the perpetrator. Action movies legitimize acts of violence committed by the hero, whereas horror movies shove our empathy towards the victim, and the victim’s perspective sends the negative repercussions of violence into stark relief.

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