We hardly knew ye
Some movies seem to delight in pulling the rug out from under their viewers, taking a beloved character or a huge star and killing them off in the first third of the film. You come in expecting to see an A-list actor headlining a project (often because they were featured heavily in promotional materials), and then wham! Suddenly they’re gone. Here are 14 of the most shocking early exits in films — and it should go without saying that there are SPOILERS to the max throughout, so click through at your own risk.
Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde in Life Itself
Life Itself is not at all the movie many viewers were expecting it to be (at least from the trailers). Early teasers for the film painted it as a family drama and love story between Oscar Isaac’s Will and Olivia Wilde’s Abby. It is — for about 15 minutes. Then Abby is steamrolled by a bus (shock No. 1), and not long after, a seriously depressed Will takes his own life in his psychiatrist’s office (shock No. 2). Those who came to this movie wanting their fill of dreamy romantic gestures got much more misery than they bargained for. Having our expectations upended like this was even more painful than the film’s blistering reviews.
Janet Leigh in Psycho
When Psycho was released, Janet Leigh was easily the biggest star attached — which made it all the more shocking when she was slashed to death in a shower less than halfway through the film. The twist changed moviegoing forever: Previously, audiences could walk into a screening at any point in its running time, but director Alfred Hitchcock expressly forbid that policy to preserve his film’s secrets. Somewhat ironically, more than 50 years later, Leigh is best remembered for the abbreviated role.
John Hurt in Alien
John Hurt’s Kane, an officer aboard the interstellar vessel Nostromo, makes a shockingly early departure from Alien as the film’s first victim. Audiences will likely never be able to shake the image of an alien bursting out of Hurt’s chest, a moment signaling the true threat of the titular extraterrestrial. Hurt told EW how his fellow cast members were unaware of just how the practical effects of the moment would go down, making their looks of panic and disgust quite real.
Ryan Reynolds in Life
What is it with movies with “life” in the title? Ryan Reynolds was pumped heavily in trailers for this 2017 film alongside costar Jake Gyllenhaal, but within the first couple of scenes he’s devoured by the mysterious life force the crew of scientists and researchers discovers on Mars. Another cruel twist of fate for moviegoers hoping for some eye candy from a film, only to see the heavily promoted star meet a quick and horrifying end.
Drew Barrymore in Scream
If a movie has a twist death, odds are the star is featured prominently in promotional materials. In 1996, Drew Barrymore was the biggest star attached to Scream, appearing in the foreground of the movie poster and frequently in trailer clips. It was all a ruse when she turned out to be slashed to death (after a tortorous phone call) in the first 15 minutes. Barrymore’s unexpected onscreen death was iconic and left us always answering “no” when someone asks if we like scary movies.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed
Any Martin Scorsese movie comes with the assumption that there will be some shocking, brutal deaths — and even though it comes near the end of the film, not the opening, there are few as gut-wrenching as DiCaprio’s demise in The Departed. After going undercover for the police as a member of the Irish mob and trying to do right by his brothers on the force, Billy Costigan is coldly betrayed and gunned down in an elevator. We’ll never let go, Leo!
Kate Winslet in Contagion
The disquieting posters for Contagion featuring a sickly Gwyneth Paltrow hinted that her character would be a goner from the get-go. But no one expected another big female star in the 2011 film to also bow out in the first third. As Dr. Erin Mears, Kate Winslet goes to investigate the growing epidemic and succumbs to infection herself, even suffering the indignity of burial in a mass grave. With its buzzy cast and interlocking storylines, they should’ve considered naming this one Death Actually.
Kevin Costner in The Big Chill
Before he broke out as one of the biggest stars of the 1980s, Kevin Costner made a crucial blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in The Big Chill. His character Alex’s suicide is what brings the group of college friends together, spurring the events of the film, and it’s Costner’s body we see in unidentifiable close-ups in the film’s opening montage as the morgue prepares his corpse. The actor was more involved in shooting, featuring in flashbacks when his character was still alive, but director Lawrence Kasdan ultimately cut all Costner’s scenes from the film. We heard it through the grapevine that Costner’s career turned out just fine in the long run, though.
Mufasa in The Lion King
No ’90s kid suffered a more devastating moviegoing moment than having to accept the murder of Mufasa as part of the “circle of life.” James Earl Jones lent his formidable acting chops to the role of Simba’s dad, ruler of the Pride Lands. And though his ghost plays an important role later in the film, we still never really got over his devastating early demise. We dare you to watch Simba snuggle up to his dad’s body without crying. (Even writing this blurb has us reaching for the tissue box!)
Alec Guinness in Star Wars
Alec Guinness had a knighthood and an Oscar to his name when he signed on to a science-fiction film from a relatively untested director starring a trio of unknowns. When it came to marquee-worthy stars, Guinness was the project’s only hope. The only thing more surprising than his agreeing to do the role was his character’s shocking surrender to death at the end of the second act. Obi-Wan Kenobi has remained an iconic figure in the Star Wars mythos, but Guinness didn’t always love being associated with the blockbuster franchise. That said, he did briefly return (in spectral form) in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez in Mission: Impossible
The first Mission: Impossible film opens with quite the star-studded IMF team, including Kristin Scott Thomas (whose fame reached new heights with The English Patient that same year) and Emilio Estevez. But audiences couldn’t get too comfortable — the starry agents were dispatched by the end of the first sequence, leaving Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) wrongly accused of their murders. The film also set an important precedent: If you want to live, it’s probably best not to be involved in any of Hunt’s opening missions in the franchise.
Loki in Avengers: Infinity War
Audiences were anticipating some character casualties in Infinity War, but fan favorite Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) brutal death in the opening sequence made it clear Thanos (Josh Brolin) did not come to play. Loki has been presumed dead numerous times before, but his onscreen end felt a lot more permanent this time around. On the plus side, reports recently emerged that Hiddleston could return for a Loki-focused streaming series.
William Holden in Sunset Boulevard
William Holden’s star was on the rise when he landed his Oscar-nominated role in Sunset Boulevard, and while trailers for the film made it clear that murder played a role in the storyline, audiences were in for quite the shock when the movie opened with Holden’s dead body floating in a swimming pool. The film uses its entire running to explain how Holden’s Joe Gillis got to that point, but it was disturbing to start the film knowing one of its biggest stars wouldn’t survive until the end.
Cloris Leachman in Kiss Me Deadly
Cloris Leachman was already a Broadway star and making headway on television when she earned her first big movie role in the 1955 noir Kiss Me Deadly. Her screen time was short, though, as her mysterious trench-coat-wearing hitchhiker met her demise early in the film, setting the central mystery in motion. The title could certainly refer to her, but there’s lots of kissing and death in the film, so who really knows?