There’s something about a spectacular beheading that tends to stick in the memory more than most other creative deaths facing the average schmuck in horror movies. If you don’t remember a single other thing about Prom Night, you will recall that it’s the one in which a severed head ruins every one’s fun night by landing on the prom stage just as the King and Queen are about to be crowned.
Eyes Of A Stranger is destined to be remembered as the “head-in-a-fish tank” movie. Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives finds it hard to top a fairly early 'three for the price of one' multiple machete decapitation, though Jason Takes Manhattan has a show-stopping moment in which an overly cocky wannabe-boxer has his head punched off by Jason’s mighty fist, the camera following its descent off a rooftop into a dumpster below.
And the recent Dark Ride, a decent enough retro-slasher, warrants some kind of footnote in cinema history for including a scene in which a stoned bimbo loses her head while giving head. Even if the surrounding movie is a bit on the mundane side of the force, a good, juicy decapitation will provide a healthy talking point.
Great decapitation scenes are by no means the sole province of the horror flick. The post-Braveheart trend for old-school epics dressed up for the 21st century with in-your-face battle sequences has brought blood-spurting beheadings to mass mall audiences via movies such as 300, Gladiator, et al. The action genre has given us memorable moments of noggin displacement in disparate titles such as Conan The Barbarian, Highlander and Dennis Hooper’s glorious demise in the otherwise non-gory Speed.
Polanski staged the most graphic cinematic version of Macbeth’s demise for his early 70’s gore-laced adaptation of the Shakespeare masterpiece, and movies as diverse as Alien, Shogun Assassin, Eraserhead, The Incredible Melting Man and Kill Bill are all worthy of note in any study of decapitation scenes.
Head-lopping has often been played for laughs in everything from Blackadder to Idle Hands and Team America; there’s something about the act itself that often looks gaudy and provokes laughter when graphically staged on-screen. Perhaps that’s why David Fincher opted to heighten the shock value of his head-in-the-box resolution to the marvellously sour Se7en by leaving it up to us to imagine exactly how John Doe relieved Gwyneth Paltrow of her “pretty head” and exactly what it looked like in the blood-stained package opened in the glaring light of day.
Recent years have seen the decapitation scene enter the realm of PG-rated fantasy (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring) and cause all-too-real outrage in the disturbing form of internet footage of hostage executions and of American soldiers callously kicking around the heads of Iraqi soldiers.
The countdown that follows contains a sprinkling of obvious choices that no Top Ten Decapitation list could emerge without. It also features some less mooted moments of cranial severing that are just as worthy to join the elite company of classic bouncing bonces. You will have your own favourites that don’t feature on this list, but honourable mention should be made to Humanoids From the Deep, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Wrong Turn and Ricky O, all of which feature scenes of head-abuse as stunning as any of the 10 selected movies here.
10 .Deep Red (1975)
The work of Dario Argento is full of mutilation and decapitation. Though the unusually fake Tom Savini heads used in Trauma - in which the killer has his own self-styled decapitation machine - tend to blunt its impact, there’s a fabulous shock moment at the end of the underrated Phenomena involving Daria Nicolodi being unceremoniously beheaded.
Even better, however, are the scenes of cranial violence that feature in Argento’s classic 70’s giallo Deep Red. Alcoholic Gabriele Lavia, wrongly implicated in his mother’s murders, suffer a slow, slapstick demise that ends with his head being pureed by an oncoming vehicle, while his deranged mom (Clara Calamai) meets a deservedly sticky end when she gets her necklace caught in an elevator door.
It strangles her and, when the lift ascends, anyone in the vicinity suddenly has a neat, gruesome new 28 gram paperweight. The great moment was decently reworked for the second Final Destination moment, providing arguably the best of that franchise’s various decapitation scenes.
9 .Theatre of Blood (1973)
Classic bad-taste Brit black comedy-horror. Vincent Price has the role of his career and the time of his life, relishably essaying embittered, vengeful Shakespearean ham actor Edward Lionheart. The murders he engineers, adapted from the Bard’s goriest set pieces, are witty and gruesome. You will have your own favourite - how can you beat Price as camp hairdresser “Butch”? - but there’s a marvellous bit prefiguring the severed head humour of 80’s splatter comedies. Price, in the guise of a surgeon, saws off Arthur Lowe’s noggin while his sedated wife sleeps next to him blissfully unaware of the horror breakfast will bring.
8 .Deadly Friend (1986) Wes Craven’s dodgy 80’s teen variation on Frankenstein is a peculiar mix of sappy youth romance, sentimentality (that doomed, annoying robot would make a good love interest for Short Circuit’s Johnny Five… but in a horror movie?) and typical 80’s shock effects.
It’s not terribly good though one scene has endless rewind value; evil neighbourhood hag Anne Ramsey is the shotgun-toting bitch responsible for the death of “B.B.”. When the robot’s personality inhabits the body of freshly killed cheerleader Kristy Swanson, the undead gal pays Ramsey a visit with a well-aimed basketball that causes the old woman’s head to spectacularly redecorate the wall behind her.
7 .The Untold Story (1993)
Most of the decapitations on this list - and decapitations in horror movies generally - have a splashy fun factor - when heads are lopped off cinema audiences tend to react with laughter, whether relishing the grue or disguising a sense of shock. There’s nothing funny about the movie also known as Bunman and Human Pork Chop. Anthony Wong’s terrifying performance as the owner of the “Pat Sin Restaurant”, who minces up victims to manufacture “barbecue pork buns” chills the blood even when he’s not participating in some of the most unpleasant scenes in Category III history.
Once seen, never forgotten is the staggering flashback sequence revealing how Wong killed his brother’s family over a gambling debt. Several small children are showered in blood as they watch the crazed madman brutally butcher their parents before he slashes and beheads the screaming kids themselves with broken bottles and cleavers.
6 .An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Some of the movies on our countdown relish the head severing, employing slo-mo, multiple camera angles and showy close ups to amplify the spectacle of some poor sap being decapitated for our viewing pleasure. Sometimes, however, a fleeting moment of head-lopping carnage can create a lasting impression. American Werewolf is rife with great scenes and fabulous gags, but its finest moments of outright gory mayhem occur during the brilliantly staged climactic Piccadilly Circus rampage. Director John Landis gets to indulge his post-Blues Brothers love of vehicular carnage while the doomed, tragic central werewolf rips the head off an unfortunate bystander and lobs it into the traffic.
5 .The Evil Dead (1980)
Sam Raimi’s tour-de-force of slapstick gore hasn’t lost any of its appeal in the wake of endless imitations, repeat viewings and worrying threats of a remake. Raimi is as inventive with his gore gag set pieces as he is with his restless, roaming camera. In this movie universe, it’s not enough for a typically frenetic confrontation scene to climax with the relentlessly unlucky hero beheading his possessed girlfriend in midair with a spade - Raimi carries it further in to the realm of bad-taste hilarity by depicting the horny headless corpse dry-humping her former lover while blood leaks on to his face from her spraying torso.
4 .Friday the 13th (1980)
The slo-mo decapitation of hairy knuckled Mrs Vorhees thanks to a resilient Adrienne King wielding a well-aimed machete, was one of those scenes from the heyday of home video in the 80’s that you would watch endlessly and discuss with your mates at school usually with phrases attached such as “coolest thing ever”. In this age of CG blood and overly slick digitally-enhanced nogging-knockings, there’s something tremendously appealing about Tom Savini’s simple but highly effective old-school staging of this classic horror movie moment.
3 .Re-Animator (1985)
A modern classic for all kinds of reasons, Stuart Gordon’s 80’s splatter take on the work of Lovecraft creates a sense of escalating absurdity parallel to a surprisingly grim evocation of out-of-control physical horror. In a wonderfully blackly funny twist typical of the movie’s tone, the snide, blackmailing Dr Hill (played by the estimable David Gale) only gets to be a powerful villain after he’s been beheaded with a spade by the callous Herbert West.
The decapitation scene, like much of the movie, is simultaneously amusing and startlingly brutal, though it is arguably upstaged by the shenanigans with the reanimated Hill head afterward. Yep, this movie is destined to forever be remembered for the moment in which the naked heroine (Barbara Crampton) wakes up strapped to a gurney just as a grotesque severed head (“That’s it my dearest Meg, more passion!”) prepares to go down on her.
Among the many movies influenced by Re-Animator’s gruesome wackiness is the recent, delightful Dead And Breakfast, in which a key character (Jeremy Sisto) is beheaded at the half-way mark and spends the rest of the movie performing head-related gags.
2 .Switchblade Romance (2003)
The movie that made sitting through all those bland, smarmy sub-Scream teen slasher movies worthwhile. A mean-spirited, balls-to-the-wall exercise in intense gore and suspense, Alexandre Aja’s movie sets its tone early on with a mordantly funny scene in which the hulking, Jack Daniels-swigging killer (Phillippe Nahon) pleasures himself with a severed female head in his grotty pick-up truck.
The carnage that follows as he invades and decimates a country-dwelling family incorporates a harrowing throat-slashing and, best of all, a jaw-dropping sequence in which the first victim, the poor schmuck of a dad who answers the door to Nahon in the first place, loses his noggin in spectacular style thanks to a brutally used item of heavy furniture and a staircase.
1 .The Omen (1976)
Writer David Seltzer, aping William Peter Blatty’s serious dramatic approach to the supernatural in The Exorcist, crafted this as a solemn, downbeat Hollywood slice of apocalyptic horror, but neither he, nor director Richard Donner, were above lovingly staged, spectacular scenes of death and destruction.
Influential to this day with ensemble creative slaughter flicks like Final Destination and its sequels, The Omen contains the single most memorable decapitation sequence in horror history. So memorable, in fact, that, were there any justice in the world of cinema, the Academy Awards would have long ago introduced The Honorary David Warner Oscar For Best Decapitation Of The Year.
Persistent reporter Warner’s plate-glass skull-severing demise is expertly built-up (by this stage in the movie, the audience is merely waiting to see what contrivances will cause the stylish demise of the next supporting actor) and pays off with a money shot depicted from around half a dozen cameras, capturing the fatality from every conceivable angle like a great sports moment. Donner’s theory was that the feeble audience members who traditionally hide their eyes from such carnage would look up to see the head still being lopped off from a different viewpoint.
The trick was imitated a couple of years later by Brian DePalma for his awesome, much bloodier finale to The Fury, in which John Cassavetes explodes from every available angle, though Warner’s inglorious demise has seldom been bettered.
Those that have tried to match it include the pre-Dawn of the Dead sequence in the Omen rip-off Holocaust 2000 (1977) in which a newly appointed premier is beheaded by helicopter blades, and the splashy variation used for David Thewlis’ death scene in John Moore’s virtually scene for scene 2006 Omen remake.