Our Ten’s List: Characters Who Faked Their Deaths in Film
One oddly specific conspiracy theory usually involves a beloved celebrity who has faked their death in order to escape the lime-light. Elvis, Tupac, JFK, and even perennial prankster Andy Kaufman are all believed to have staged elaborate fake deaths and slipped away quietly to live a more peaceful life…being relentlessly hunted by devoted fans hoping to spot the non-dead entertainers. I understand not wanting to let a beloved person go, but some of these stories have gotten a little silly. People are still seeing a handsome and spry Elvis Presley making his way around life when even if he did escape a cocaine and peanut butter fueled death, he’d be an old duffer by now. Must have been the alien technology which helped him escape…
There are plenty of films that explore the crazy nooks and zany crannies of each of these celebrities and their life-after-public-death conspiracies, but I wanted to look at films where a character faking their own demise was pivotal to the plot. Plenty of movies involve a ruse where the hero plays possum, but few spend any significant amount of time out of the action. It’s rare when a movie is willing to sideline a character not only long enough to fool their enemies but to also fool the audience. Here is a list of ten cases where a character faked their own death and it was instrumental to the plot, as our final nod to conspiracy theory films for April.
*As these are usually big reveals or turning points in the plot, this is of course a list littered with SPOILERS! Read with caution, as even skimming a spoiler will mark you as a terrible person and your friends and pets will shun you afterwards.
Top Ten Faked Deaths in Film
10. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
In this famous tale from Alexader Dumas, a young French man is denied happiness and the woman of his dreams by three conniving friends who want the fortune of his soon to be bride for themselves. They cook up a conspiracy implicating young Edmund Dante as an English spy and turn him over to the authorities who throw him into the darkest hole in France, an island prison nobody returns from. With the help of a lifer on the rock, he is able to escape and use smugglers gold to return in a new guise, The Count of Monte Criston, and to exact his revenge on the three who do not realize the new nobleman is secretly Dante.
The premise of the whole film is misdirection and long-plotted revenge, and none of the conspirators technically think Dante is dead – only put out of action in prison, but all of this would not have come to pass had Dante not pretended to die in the prison, assuming the corpses shroud of his teacher and fellow inmate. Having dug tunnels between their cells, he is able to switch his friends body out and climb into the body bag, which is then dumped into the ocean. From there its only a short swim across miles of shark infested ocean with treacherous currents to freedom! Nothing a guy who’s lived on rotten potatoes and revenge fantasies can’t manage!
9. James Bond (multiple films)
James has a tendency to misreport his demise. He’s pulled the trick at least three times, the first being the whole premise of You Only Live Twice, where Connery fakes his death early in order to infiltrate Blofeld’s SPECTRE organization, and the new guy, Daniel Craig, has already used in to get some R and R in Skyfall. For all the times Bond has done it, it is actually his villains who get the most mileage out of this old spy movie canard. In the latest movie, both Bond’s primary informant and his main nemesis are characters from James’ past who he thought to be dead. Maybe kick the body once or twice, super spy!
For all that, the best return from the afterlife has got to come in the franchise-saving masterpiece, Golden Eye. The first Pierce Brosnan Bond, this film took a shaky property and returned it to glory and profitability. It did so by having a serious but charismatic lead, solid set pieces, and a great villain…one we saw die in the very first scene of the film! 006 agent Alex Trevelyan was Bond’s partner and trusted associate, and Bond feels remorse over the scotched op that cost him his life, but apparently 006 took the proceedings much more personally. Having survived an explosion, he flips sides and creates an elaborate world-ending scheme just because he knows Bond will eventually show up. That’s dedication to a plan.
8. SAW series (2004-2010)
If you’ve seen even the first SAW film, you’ve probably seen a character return from the grave at the very end to provide an ironic twist to the events. Hell, if you’ve seen ANY SAW film, you’ve probably seen that happen. This series probably doesn’t even work if you don’t have a dead character return at some point! The first film had an implausible but shocking twist involving a suddenly animate corpse, but the whole convoluted spree begins to hinge on the big bad being possibly dead/alive at any given moment, and for previously vanished players to return to the game as either heroes or villains. The final installment, SAW 3D may not have been the finest in the series, but it did manage to end the franchise on a bookmarked ending by revealing that a character who was supposedly dead for 5 movies shows up again. It seems in the faking death business, the longer you wait for the reveal, the bigger the pay-off.
7. Species (1995)
Not many recall this film for anything other than the absolutely gonzo amount of full frontal nudity that actress Natasha Henstridge endured for this piece, but at its core its a pretty fun sci-fi thriller. The SETI program makes contact with supposedly helpful aliens who give us a recipe for unlimited fuel and a sequence of DNA to splice with humans to make a bitching hybrid…so of course scientists decide to skip straight to making a booby monster instead of unlimited free energy. Science! The alien-human-nipple hybrid has one objective: mate, so it escapes in short order and tries to find a suitable donor. A team is assembled to hunt it, with Michael Madson, Forrest Whitaker, and Ben Kingsley (right around the time we began to realize that Ben was not just slumming it, but actively choosing bad roles) taking point. They almost succeed…
It turns out that the creature is quite clever, and gives them all the slip by faking its death. Now faking your death as a tall gorgeous blond may be hard enough as it is, but as a tall gorgeous blond with alien DNA, you’re troubles are doubled. So our runner decides to do a little self maintenance, cutting off her own thumb and placing it on the victim before orchestrating a scenario where the feds will incinerate the body and make the ruse work, having only the surviving thumb to ID. It all goes to plan, and the alien should be well on her way to freely screwing the human race out of existence…but she decides that one of the science team is a perfect DNA match and seduces him, letting the team of hunters realize they’ve been duped. So much for a well laid plan.
6. Clue (1985)
This delightful spoof of the murder mystery genre has its whole premise based upon a mistaken case of homicide. Ten individuals find themselves summoned to a forbidding mansion, only to have it revealed that they are all being blackmailed by one person – their host! Each is given a weapon to kill the host, and then the lights are turned off. Sure enough, when the lights come back, the man is dead, but nobody admits to making Mr. Body a body. Suspicions are aroused, and they decide another person must be in the house who actually did the foul deed. As the plot progresses, the bodies pile up and it turns out that nobody is who they claim to be.
This is a great film and a wonderful ensemble comedy which skewers a genre made famous by Agatha Christie in her story “Ten Little Indians” (more on that later!) The film deftly turns on the false death premise by not only having several characters re-animated (only to be shortly permanently de-animated) but also has several jokes where a person pretends to be dead to show the others just how the original person may have pretended to be dead! There are three endings, so you get a wonderful spread of possible solutions, each one changing who faked what, with the ultimate “real” ending being the real doozy that changes how you remember the whole series of events. A great time, a great cast, well worth your attention.
5. Devil (2010)
Few may have seen this M. Knight Shyamalan thriller, but knowing who directed it probably clues you into the fact that there is a twist ending. Luckily for viewers, this twist is pretty good. Five individuals are stranded in an elevator where it quickly becomes apparent that they are locked in for a reason. When one of them dies, it sets off a cascade of events where the occupants try to find the killer amongst them while the police desperately try to get them out of the elevator car before more bodies are created. A superstitious security guard thinks this may be the work of a malevolent spirit, but that spirit turns out to be more down to earth than they believe.
Since few have seen it, I wouldn’t spoil this. Its a pretty decent thriller from Shyamalan, and is paced really well. As it is on this list, you can guess somebody comes back to life, but the clever nature of this film is that the initial death is so well hidden so early that you can easily miss it. If you want to see what I mean, check this flick out.
4. And Then There Were None (1945)
I said I was going to return to Agatha Christie’s classic “10 Little Indians” and here we are. Like Clue, ten individuals are alone, this time summoned to an island where they cannot leave till a shuttle arrives three days later. They initially suspect nothing, but soon are accosted by a tape recorded message which accuses them all of being guilty of murder. It lists their sins in damning detail, and sentences them all to death on the island. The shame-faced caretaker admits to his past where he accidentally killed someone in an accident, but is soon silenced by poison. Convinced that the killer must be among them and on the island in order to strike, they fan out, trying to find the killer and avoid the suspicions of their fellows. As each murder happens, a statue piece with ten Indians continually has a piece removed…
This is the archetypal faked death story, and you could probably guess that the killer is hiding amongst the bodies…but the movie goes one step further. By the end you are unsure of who is actually out of commission and who is playing possum, and the end is a double reveal that gives the whole piece a tremendous climax that still can shock many fans of the genre.
3. The Sting (1973)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford are small time con-men with a common enemy: a criminal banker who has wronged each man in the past. They team up and devise a plot within a plot that turns on every person playing multiple roles, such that it is hard to keep track of who is one either side, and who is still alive and kicking.
If you haven’t seen it, give it a go. Its two of the best actors at the top of their game, a brilliant con movie, and a excellent period piece that is redolent of the 1930’s. There’s a faked death in here somewhere, but damned if I’m going to give it away other than by saying it is a fantastic double twist in a movie with more turns than a game of shoots and ladders.
2. The Third Man (1950)
Orson Welles is famous for Citizen Kane, but he also had a tremendous catalog of fantastic movies to his credit. This is one of them. Here he plays a rich business man, Harry Lime, in trouble with the law who reaches out to an old friend and serial novelist. The friend arrives just as news breaks that Lime has been killed in an accident. The novelist hears many conflicting reports about his friend’s life, and decides to track down the facts himself. His search ends up ruffling many feathers within the secretive world of power brokers, law enforcement, and criminal gangs.
You may have guessed who isn’t dead by this point, but the point becomes almost academic. There is so much great noir atmosphere and mysterious happenings that the story still stands up to repeated viewings, no matter what you know about Harry Lime. Each time you get a chance to see the shifting clues with new information, and appreciate how fine these old British noir thrillers really were.
1. Gone Girl (2014)
Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) seem like a happy couple on the surface, but trouble is brewing in their marriage. When Amy suddenly disappears, the resulting media circus and search effort begin to drag all of the couples problems into the spotlight, casting an incriminating finger towards the bereaved husband who may have much to hide from the press.
This film reveals pretty early on that Amy’s disappearance and presumed murder are a hoax, but the manner in which the movie proceeds is pure sociopathic gold. Both Nick and Amy are pretty much monsters, and both use every tool in their arsenal to get even with the other before an explosive ending reveals whose plot is superior. It is a rousingly good mystery that some may have missed due to initial plot line sounding boring (I know I wrote it off till finding out about how deep down the rabbit hole the story goes,) but if you missed it, now is a great time to give it a view.