As anyone who's paid attention to my weekly column Permanent Midnight should know, I'm an outspoken and proud horror junkie. Which is why I have no hesitation in saying this: Last night's Game of Thrones episode's final moment absolutely out-holy-shitted my beloved genre in all things head-smashing gross-out imagery.
The topic of discussion is, of course, how The Mountain ended the "trial by combat" against Oberyn Martell by jamming his meaty fingers into his opponent's eye sockets, pushing those digits into the ground through Oberyn's skull, before crushing the poor bastard's head into a red pile of brains, bone, and viscera. Meaning, Tyrion, whom Oberyn was representing in the battle, is royal fucked now. But, at least here, the imp's fate is beside the point.
Craniums have been crushed numerous times in horror movies and films that toe the line between genres, but those scenes have never reached the level of horrific disturbance that "The Mountain and the Viper" did last night.
Orchestrated by frequent Game of Thrones episode director Alex Graves, the brutish homicide was a maximum-frequency shock. Oberyn had The Mountain on the ground, his spear jammed into the massive pugilist's stomach. In other words, he was about to win. Yet, Oberyn's obsession with getting The Mountain to say Oberyn's sister's name and admit that he raped and killed her gave The Mountain enough time to leg-sweep Oberyn, choke him, and catch his face with a nasty right hook that sent Oberyn's teeth flying. Then, he powered those thumbs of his into Oberyn's eyes, causing the helpless Martel to emit a banshee-like scream of nightmarish pain. As the blood flowed out of Oberyn's face like lava, The Mountain said his sister's name and added that he'd "smashed her head in like this," right before doing the same to him.
Though Graves doesn't show the head smashing apart—he spares the faint of heart, kind of—he doesn't need to show everything. Simply by letting Oberyn actor Pedro Pascal's mind-scarring screams and the sheer brutality of the moment do all the work, he achieves an unshakable image of horror that, to my knowledge and opinion, no horror filmmaker has pulled off before. The key to Graves' accomplishment: There's not a damn thing fun, cheeky, or heightened about the scene. It's played straight, and for that, it's incredibly effective.
Perhaps Game of Thrones' knockout blow has me rattled, but I can't recall any comparable moment from a horror movie that nails such exceptional ferocity. The most memorable head-smash scenes in horror movies linger in the mind because of their ridiculousness. They're cartoonish, not paralyzing. For example, there's the bit in Jason X—yes, the one in which Jason Voorhees goes to outer space after killing David Cronenberg—where Jason dunks a beautiful blonde victim's head into cryogenically frozen water, yanks it out, and then smashes it into hundreds of ice particles.
Pretty awesome, right? Indeed, but there's nothing remotely lasting about it. Like most other slasher movie kills that go for theatrics over practicality, it's perfect for high-fives from gorehound viewers but not for genuinely leaving you shocked and speechless.
It's not much different from, say, this immortal piece of C-grade horror schlock, from Wes Craven's 1986 oddity Deadly Friend:
Game of Thrones' closest comparison takes place in the brutal French masterwork Irreversible, a film that's psychologically horrifying but not "horror." If you've seen writer-director Gaspar Noe's movie, you should know exactly what I'm referring to: head pulverization via fire extinguisher.
(Obviously that GIF doesn't even scratch the Irreversible scene's grisly surface. Be thankful.)
Even there, though, the scene's held onto for so long that its initial revulsion gives way to uncomfortable laughter and self-questioning—"Ha ha, I can't believe I'm watching this right now. Why can't I stop?"
Oberyn's send-off on Game of Thrones doesn't allow for that escalation into smiling and giggling hysterics. It's quick, devastating, and extremely painful. Even Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and their whole lot would flinch in shock.
And for this lifelong horror fan, watching it live on the air last night was the closest I've ever come to feeling this guy's struggle:
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer whose brain is officially mush after scouring the Internet for those, to put it lightly, unpleasant GIFs. He tweets here.