There are few things more potentially impactful in a movie than a major character's death. Get it right and an indelible cinematic moment has been immediately forged, leaving audiences emotionally wrecked, horrified, or in rare examples, even deeply amused.
However, there are countless cases of movies that leave a key character's fate ambiguous as the credits roll, and every so often filmmakers will decide to take things even further than that, by burying the lede deep within their story.
These 10 films, each of them unforgettable experiences in their own right and most of them undeniable genre classics, so subtly killed off a major character that, unless you're a major fan, there's a strong chance you never even noticed.
Granted, the majority of these "deaths" qualify more as convincing fan theories than strict canon, but examining the facts, there's no reason to believe they're wrong, no matter whether confirmed by the creator or effusively denied.
If nothing else, they add yet another layer - be it tragic, shocking, or otherwise meaningful - to movies that already give audiences plenty to think about...
10. Carl Fredricksen - Up
Get ready to feel really, really sad. Pixar's Up opens with perhaps the most memorable prologue in animated movie history, as a montage chronicles the life and times of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) and his wife Ellie, culminating in Ellie's tragic demise in old age.
The film of course charts a depressed Carl's quest to reinvigorate his life, but according to a popular and honestly damningly plausible fan theory, that's really not the case at all.
The theory posits that Carl actually dies in his sleep shortly after he's told to vacate his home, and the fantastical journey with his house taking flight - ascending to the heavens if you will - simply represents Carl heading to the afterlife.
As for the presence of Carl's young companion Russell (Jordan Nagai)? He's a guardian angel of sorts who, as a Boy Scout trying to claim his last badge, is actually on a quest to get his wings, while also symbolising the child that Carl and Ellie were sadly unable to have.
So, there you have it. Up is now even more devastating than you already thought.
9. Dr. Ryan Stone - Gravity
As relieved as audiences were to see Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) touch back down on terra firma at the end of Alfonso Cuaron's masterful sci-fi film Gravity, not everyone is quite convinced that's actually what happened.
The movie memorably features a sequence where, after Stone makes a failed bid for rescue, she accepts her fate by shutting off her capsule's oxygen supply in an act of suicidal desperation.
But before she succumbs to oxygen deprivation, she witnesses a vision of the dead Lt. Kowalski (George Clooney), who insists she must endure and resume her rescue attempts.
If we accept that everything but the vision of Kowalski is real, then Stone indeed made it back to Earth, but isn't it far more likely that oxygen deprivation killed her before she could get a hallucinogenic pep-talk?
The rest of the movie, miraculous survival and all, is far more likely the final images pulsing through her increasingly oxygen-starved brain as she dies.
That's not to ignore that the first piece of ground Stone sets foot on after returning to "Earth" looks coincidentally, if not suspiciously, like an idyllic afterlife setting, no?
8. John "Scottie" Ferguson - Vertigo
The opening sequence of Alfred Hitchcock's masterful psychological thriller sees detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) chasing down a perp, when he slips on a roof and is left hanging from the gutter.
A police officer partaking in the chase then stops to help him, but Scottie's hesitation - per his fear of heights - causes the cop to slip and fall to his death.
After a moment, the scene transitions to Scottie now safely off the roof and recuperating at home, with the audience offered no explanation as to how he was rescued.
Given the film's overall cerebral tenor and Hitchcock's well-noted penchant for toying with audiences, this has prompted some viewers to suggest that, in fact, Scottie died after falling from the gutter.
The rest of the movie, then, is simply a trippy result of his synapses firing wildly during his brain's final moments of activity.
Considering the film's increasingly surreal absurdity and central focus on Scottie's fear of heights, it follows that the story is really nothing more than Scottie's mind frantically trying to make sense of his fate in the nanoseconds before he disappears into nothingness.
7. Marla Singer - Fight Club
David Fincher's Fight Club is of course host to one of the most iconic plot twists in cinema history, that the narrator protagonist (Edward Norton) and his suavely destructive new pal Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are in fact the same person, the latter being a second personality in the former's mind.
The film's wilfully unreliable nature has invited countless theories and interpretations over the years, though perhaps none more interesting than the assertion that the protagonist's lover Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) also does not really exist.
The "evidence" is myriad - that Marla dresses similarly to both the narrator and Tyler at various points, that she was probably the "person" who packed a dildo in the narrator's luggage, and that Tyler saved Marla from committing suicide to keep all three of them alive (because if Marla dies, they all do).
Hell, there are even theories that Marla represents a gender crisis within the narrator, so make of that what you will.
And while a film as multi-faceted as Fight Club clearly thrives on its ambiguity, the "Marla is dead" theory is as valid as any other.
6. Walker - Point Blank
If accepted on straight terms, John Boorman's 1967 crime classic Point Blank follows ruthless criminal Walker (Lee Marvin), who at the start of the movie is betrayed and left for dead by his partner Reese (John Vernon), sending Walker on a quest for revenge.
But there's a common theory among fans that Walker actually dies in that very first scene, and everything else we're seeing is simply a hopeful, vengeful final dream from Walker as he expires in the Alcatraz jail cell where he was shot by Reese.
This theory is held up by Boorman's storytelling, which is at times both non-linear and incredibly surreal, reflecting the jumbled thoughts of a person about to enter the eternal void.
At best, we can accept that Walker is an unreliable narrator, but given that Boorman himself has "confirmed" the validity of Walker dying in the opening scene, we'll take his word as gospel.
5. The Ghostbusters - Ghostbusters
Early on in Ghostbusters, Egon (Harold Ramis) warns his ghost-hunting cohorts that they should never cross the streams of their proton packs, lest they cause "all life as you know it stoppinginstantaneously and every molecule in your body explodingat the speed of light." Or as Ray (Dan Aykroyd) puts it, "Total protonic reversal."
But at the end of the film, Egon desperately tells them to disregard his prior advice, with the team crossing their streams to defeat Gozer (Slavitza Jovan) and save the world. Or so it seems.
Yet a prominent fan theory suggests that crossing the streams actually killed the Ghostbusters just as Egon said it would, and so their subsequent celebration and the entirety of Ghostbusters II simply amounts to the team being stuck in purgatory.
This would explain why the sequel is such a programmatic rehash of the original, and why all of New York seems to have amnesia about a giant anthropomorphic marshmallow attacking the city.
We'll have to wait and see how the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife ultimately figures into the theory, though.
4. Sandy Olsson - Grease
Grease fans the world over had their noodles well and truly baked by this mind-melting Reddit theory, which posits that protagonist Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) actually died at the start of the movie, and everything else is merely her dying soup of thoughts.
You see, the film begins with Sandy and Danny (John Travolta) meeting on the beach, and in the later song "Summer Nights," Danny sings, "I saved her life, she nearly drowned."
But what if, in fact, Sandy did drown, and the increasingly implausible fantasy that follows is simply her oxygen-deprived brain trying to make sense of it all as she dies?
Beyond the ridiculous whirlwind romance with Danny, there's the fact that the film concludes with the couple literally driving off and taking flight into the sky.
If that's not indicative of a "drowning woman's coma fantasy," as the theory puts it, then what is?
3. Laurie Strode - Halloween II (2009)
The theatrical cut of Rob Zombie's Halloween II - as in, the version people have actually seen - ends with Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) finally killed for good by Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), after which she emerges in front of the police wearing Michael's mask.
The final scene sees Laurie seemingly committed to a psychiatrist hospital, as she witnesses a vision of Michael's mother Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie) with a pale horse - the very same vision that Michael himself saw throughout the film.
The implication, of course, is that Laurie has lost her mind and is destined to follow the same murderous path of her brother, but according to director Zombie himself, that ambiguous final vision was really meant to signify Laurie's death.
This was confirmed when Halloween II's Director's Cut was released, which instead concluded with a crazed Laurie picking up Michael's knife and heading towards Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), only to be gunned down by the police.
Given that the Director's Cut ends with the same hospital scene from the theatrical cut, the implication seems to be that Laurie ended up dead no matter which version you saw - and whether you knew it or not.
2. Travis Bickle - Taxi Driver
Perhaps the most popular "dying dream" theory in cinema history stems from Martin Scorsese's classic thriller Taxi Driver, in which lonesome cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) slowly descends into murderous insanity.
The film climaxes with Bickle shooting up a brothel and rescuing child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), and when the police arrive, they find a bloody Travis staring at them, who mimics firing a gun at himself before passing out from blood loss.
Ultimately, Travis is held up as a hero for rescuing Iris, who returns home to go to school, before Travis has a promising encounter with the object of his affections, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who rejected him earlier in the movie.
Many have interpreted this almost parodically "happy" ending as nothing more than Travis' optimistic death dream, and that he really bleeds out following the brothel shootout.
The theory picked up major traction after Roger Ebert supposed it in his 2004 re-review of the film, and though both Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader have rejected the idea, we're going to invoke some Death of the Author here and suggest that the truth doesn't really belong to them anymore.
1. Hedwig Robinson - Hedwig & The Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell's deliriously entertaining musical comedy follows transgender punk rocker Hedwig (Mitchell) and her titular band as they tour the U.S. while following her former bandmate Tommy (Michael Pitt), who became a successful rock star by stealing her songs.
Near the end of the film, however, Hedwig and Tommy appear to reconcile, after which they accidentally crash his limo, resulting in a media swarm surrounding the pair.
Hedwig is then suddenly catapulted to fame in her own right, with the remainder of the movie comprising a series of surreal musical interludes wide-open to interpretation.
A popular theory among fans of the cult classic musical is that Hedwig was killed in the limo crash, and the jumbled ambiguity of the film's final 10 minutes is, yes, a dying dream.
It would certainly explain not only the heightened nature of the closing musical sequences, but also Hedwig's sudden and improbable rise to fame.