Riffing on an earlier essay at Arbogast on Film, Final Girl offers this opinion on why Barbra in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), is the one horror movie victim she would have saved if she had the chance. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) of course receives undue contempt from contemporary audiences because she is – realistically and quite believably – traumatized by the horrible events around her; instead of morphing into a monster-fighting icon of female empowerment (something that would not really happen until Sigourney Weaver played Ripley in ALIEN eleven years later), Barbra simply sinks into catatonia until she briefly flares up at the end – only to be devoured by her dead brother. Barbra sets the standard as the archetypal character who cannot handle what is happening (she foreshadows Veronica Cartwright in ALIEN and Bill Paxton in ALIENS), and her ultimate fate is less shocking than deeply disturbing – which is to say it packs a deep emotional resonance that provokes viewers to think, “Oh no!” instead of “Ain’t it cool!”
I have never had quite such a memorably profound reaction to the death of an on-screen character as Final Girl records, but many are victims I have seen who did not deserve their fate. Below I offer my list…
A Woman of the Streets in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Arlene Francis (who would later become famous as a panelist on the TV show WHAT’S MY LINE) plays this euphemistically-named character (obviously a prostitute). Practically crucified on a rack, Francis screams – and screams – and SCREAMS while Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle examines her blood, hoping it will help his experiments. The way she is trussed up vaguely suggests some kind of S&M dungeon device, and this may be the distant grand-daddy of Torture Porn. And as if it were not enough to kill the woman, Mirakle insults her as well, adopting a tone of moral outrage because her blood is “polluted” (presumably symbolic of her state as a fallen woman), which means it is not suitable for his work. What is most amazing, however, is that this quaint relic from an earlier era actually still packs a punch, thanks to Francis’s unnerving vocalizations – which provoke an almost instinctive protective reaction in the listener.
Josef in THE BODY SNATCHERS (1945). Lugosi gets payback for Francis in this film, playing a dim-bulb assistant who makes the mistake of thinking he can blackmail the murderous body snatcher played by Boris Karloff. Josef is not much of a character, but it is sad to see Lugosi, briefly the reigning king of horror thanks to DRACULA, killed off by Karloff, the star who dethroned him by playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956). This is the one where meddling scientists operate on the Creature so that he can no longer breath underwater, forcing him to become a permanent land-walker. Some jerk commits a murder and tries to blame it on the innocent beast, who goes on a rampage, killing the real murderer. The Creature then heads to the ocean, lured by the sound of crashing waves, and the film leaves us in no doubt that he will drown to death attempting to return to the water that used to be his home. The humans in this film have much to answer for, and one wishes the Creature didn’t have to pay the price for their mistakes.
Dandelo in THE FLY (1958). Dandelo the cat becomes the unwitting victim of his master, scientist Andre Delambre (Al Hedison) who puts him in a matter transmitter. Dandelo disappears – but never rematerializes. All that is left is an echoing wale on the soundtrack. Poor Dandelo, I wish I could bring you back to our dimension; I have a little cat bed here, some cat toys, and a little catnip….
Miles in THE INNOCENTS (1961). Exorcising a malicious ghost proves to be a fatal experience for this young boy played by Martin Stephens. The tragedy of the downer ending hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. Did his governess (Deborah Kerr) save him from the evil influence, or did she unwittingly give him a heart attack by forcing him to confront the ghost? I don’t know if I could have handled the situation any better, but I would like to try.
The Monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969).This Japanese masterpiece tells the story of Korean painter who can only paint what he sees. When his Japanese lord asks him to paint a divine vista, the artist insists on painting Hell instead. To aid in his endeavor, he asks his lord to stage a scene with a burning chariot; the lord complies – and puts the artist’s daughter in the chariot! As she burns to death, her pet monkey leaps from a nearby tree, joining her in the living funeral pyre. That’s right: in this film, no one comes to a good end – even the monkey dies! It’s such a gratuitous bit – an extra added sucker punch, just to make you feel even worse as you view the tragedy – that you want to point your fire extinguisher at the screen.
The Private Eye in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971).This Dario Argento thriller features a gay private detective in a supporting role. He brags that he has never solved a case but confidently insists that the odds must therefore now be in his favor. He does identify the murderer but only in time to become a victim himself. His demise by poison is poignant – as he realizes, at the moment of his death, that he was, for once, right. You really wish he had lived to enjoy his success instead of expiring ignominiously in a public restroom.
Dr. Martin in ASYLUM (1972). For me, actor Robert Powell will always be JESUS OF NAZARETH – that and the almost mystical father-figure in Ken Russell’s film version of TOMMY. The death of his well-meaning young psychiatrist at the end of this film is too horrible for words. Dr. Martin’s murder, I have to admit, is a pretty effective sick joke (the murderer strangles him with a stethoscope, then uses it to listen for the heartbeat that is no longer there). But the film had set him up as an idealist who objects – quite rightly – to the situation he finds in the asylum. When he dies, it is as if a small piece of hope dies with him.
Edward Lionheart in THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973). Vincent Price plays a hammy Shakespearean actor who kills the critics that trashed his performances. Although inspired by Price’s role in the DR. PHIBES films (in which the mad doctor triumphed), THEATRE reverts to a standard formula at the end, with Lionheart dying in a fire while the final critic walks away to live happily ever after. The injustice is infuriating: Lionheart should have survived and toasted the arrogant twit. (By the way, this is the only suggestion on my list that I mean literally: the film would be better if the script had been rewritten to make Lionheart triumphant.)
Sergeant Howie in THE WICKER MAN (1973). As he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a Scottish Isle, Howie (Edward Woodward) is set up as a bit of a dullard and an unsympathetic prick to boot. The effect for me is that he comes across as a pathetic patsy – a victim less of the murderous pagans on the island than of the unsympathetic screenwriter (Anthony Shaffer) who created him. Howie, I never really liked you that much, but I can’t stand to see anyone forced to take a fall like that. If there were any C02 left in my fire extinguisher after saving the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, I would use it on the flaming Wicker Man.
Jessica Bradford in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). We do not actually see Jessica (Olivia Hussey) die in this film, but the movie ends with her character drugged unconscious while the idiot police department (having fingered the wrong man) leaves her alone in the house with the real killer. Director Bob Clark later said in an interview with Cinefantastique that Hussey’s character had earned the right to live, and I have to agree. I have a hypodermic of adrenalin here that should wake her from her drugged-out torpor, if only I could reach through the screen…
Carrie in CARRIE (1976). I would have saved Sissy Spacek’s psychic girl long before her death at the end of the movie. When the film builds up to the horrible prank at the prom, it is one of the few moments in a horror film when I found myself dreading what was about to happen – even though I knew it had to happen in order for the horror to break out (which was, after all, what I had paid to see). Unlike most films, in which one eagerly anticipates this kind of thing, so that the film will get to the “good stuff,” I did find myself involuntarily reaching out to the screen, wanting to stop Nancy Allen from pulling that rope and dumping pig’s blood all over poor Carrie White.
Officer Jim Kelly in ALLIGATOR (1980). Robert Forster plays Madison, a cop who lost a partner years ago. When he needs someone to help check the sewers where some bodies have been found, most of his chicken-shit colleagues make up lame excuses, but Kelly (Perry Lang) steps forward – even though he knows about Madison’s past. Kelly’s reward for his courage is to be eaten by the titular alligator, while the cowards back at the precinct live to see another day. If Madison couldn’t save Kelly, I don’t know what I could do. Maybe flip the alligator on his back and rub his tummy till he fell asleep? (They say this works, but it never did with my pet alligator – I’d probably just end up joining Kelly’s dismembered body parts in the monster reptile’s gullet.)
Godzilla in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995). The radioactive reptile has been responsible for more death and destruction than one could possibly tally, but the payback he receives in this one more than settles his karma: a full-blown nuclear meltdown reduces the beast to nothing but a pile of ash blowing in the wind. There is a certain grandeur about this attempt to create a convincingly “final” death for the long-lived monster, but his destruction looks really, really painful. If I could just find a few cadmium rods to slow down the chain reaction before it reached critical levels…
The rat in THE EYE (2002). A distant cousin of the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, this rat serves a similar, though slightly vaguer purpose: it’s not enough for the humans to die, the filmmakers have to hammer home the relentless destruction by offing an innocent animal as well. Whatever the point, the rodent’s desperate but failed attempt to outrun the climactic conflagration by diving down a sewer pipe is a great piece of film-making – a perfect little exclamation point to the human destruction above ground. Poor rat, I wish I could adopt you and create a litte menagerie, including the monkey from PORTRAIT OF HELL and Dandelo the cat from THE FLY (I don’t think my facilities would accommodate Godzilla, however).