SPOLIER WARNING: If you haven’t seen these films, don’t read this article, because it contains spoilers. You should have known that already from the title, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Movies are supposed to follow some rules. For one, your movie star is supposed to survive until the end of the movie. Whether it’s horror, action, suspense, or some weird hybrid of all three, you expect that character actor with the annoying voice to get shot or decapitated, but not the actor making millions of dollars to put butts in the seats. But what happens when you do? What happens when you’re A-list celebrity bites the big one? You get one surprised, shocked audience that now has to be prepared for anything. Inspired by the release of Scream 4 this week (and the first Scream film, which you’ll find on this list), here are some shocking on-screen deaths by some of the biggest movie stars in the world.
Drew Barrymore – Scream
Look at the poster above. That’s Drew Barrymore on the poster. Not Neve Campbell, not Courtney Cox, not David Arquette, nor any of the other name actors on the poster. It’s Drew Barrymore, who, back in 1996, was the biggest name in this film, having recently gone from notorious party girl to legitimate actress. It had been a long time since Psycho was released (we’ll get back to THAT movie in a minute), so horror fans who went to see Scream in theaters were unprepared for the opening scene, where Barrymore’s Casey starts out innocently talking about scary movies to a caller who supposedly dialed the wrong number, only to end up disemboweled and hanging from a tree. Word of mouth about the opening and the movie itself helped Scream become a box office hit and resurrected the entire horror genre from its early 90s lameness.
Janet Leigh – Psycho
The one that started it all, from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. At the time she filmed Psycho, Leigh was a well-known leading lady. She had even worked with the great Orson Welles on Touch of Evil. So you can forgive audiences for thinking that her Marion Crane, though a little morally off, would survive until the final reel. Imagine their horror when, 45 minutes into the film, she meets her demise in that famous shower scene. Even today, Marion’s death is still shocking, and without Hitchcock’s incredibly effective twist, this list probably wouldn’t exist.
John Travolta – Pulp Fiction
I had a tough time with this one for two reasons. 1) At the time, Travolta wasn’t that big a star. It took this movie to bring him back from the acting dead and make him the draw he was back in the 70s and early 80s. 2) After he’s killed, he reappears…alive! But not even Travolta’s history or Tarantino’s time jumps can’t stop Vincent Vega’s death from being completely shocking. And Travolta spent the first half of the film completely reinventing himself, going from a guy in talking baby movies to the coolest gangster on the planet. You could see sequels, with Vincent Vega heading to France to try a Royale With Cheese while shooting his way across Europe. Then, he’s filled full of bullet holes by Bruce Willis’ Butch, which actually may have made the character even cooler. It certainly made Travolta cooler.
Kevin Spacey – LA Confidential
When LA Confidential was released in 1997, no one in the US really knew who Russell Crowe or Guy Pearce were, but they did know who Kevin Spacey was. After making a name for himself as the sadistic killer in Seven, Spacey won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and his role as cool cop Jack Vincenes was going to be one of his first as a leading man. That’s until Vincennes starts to get close to the solving the central case of the film. Then, he’s shot through the heart. This unflinching move by the filmmakers helped make LA Confidential one of the best films of the year. This surprising death gets bonus points for its reveal of the surprising bad guy, the previously “good” cop played by James Cromwell.
Brad Pitt – Burn After Reading
You can never really be surprised by anything the Coen Brothers do, but to suddenly kill off one of the biggest stars on the planet in the middle of a movie he’s pretty much carried? By shooting him in the head, no less? Yes, leave it to the Coens. Pitt’s Chad is a loveable dimwit (and, in my opinion, one of the funniest characters in any Coen Brother’s movie, and that’s saying a lot), caught up in a web of spying and intrigue that’s way too complicated to explain here. Needless to say, he ends up breaking into a house and hiding out in a closet until he is stumbled upon by George Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer, who, frightened by the discovery, does what any of us would do: he shoots the poor schlub between the eyes. Even as someone who has seen every Coen Brothers film and always expects the unexpected from them, this kill made me jump out of my seat and scream out “Whoa!” in the middle of a packed theater. Amazingly, I wasn’t the only one.
Samuel L. Jackson – Deep Blue Sea
I’ll end with my favorite one on the list. Sam Jackson’s death in this otherwise ridiculous film is a perfect storm of movie star surprise deaths: incredibly recognizable actor with shocking demise preceded by a speech that makes you think he’ll be the only one to actually survive the movie. After all, he survived an avalanche! He’s eaten people (at least he suggests that he did)! If he can survive that, he and the rest of the crew of this research vessel can survive these giant, mutated sharks. The music swells as he brings everyone together, stopping the fear and resentment that has been pulling them apart. They will defeat these giant, mutated sharks. And then, the giant, mutated shark leaps out of the water and eats him.