My recent rant about the ending of The Mist made me start thinking of various horror films which have really atrocious endings. Horror films seem particularly susceptible to crappy endings, as many writers and directors think that all horror movies have to end with a ‘shocker’ or an ‘ironic twist’. If well-planned, such an ending can be magnificent, but more often than not it ends up being a complete non sequitur. (Think about the ending to the remade Planet of the Apes.) A really goofy ending can also ruin what otherwise might have been a perfectly nice film. I decided to dredge my brain for examples of some of the worst horror movie endings. I’ll give a list, and then a spoiler-laden explanation of why I think they’re terrible. To clear the awful taste out of our mouths afterwards, I’ll list a few of my favorite horror endings… feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!
Let me gripe about each of these in turn (SPOILER ALERT: I’M GOING TO BE TALKING ABOUT THE ENDINGS OF THESE FILMS. On the other hand, since the endings are ridiculous, you won’t lose anything if I ‘ruin’ them for you.)
1. The Mist. So Frank Darabont, the writer/director auteur of The Mist, provides for the most part an excellent, atmospheric, creepy, true to the novella movie. The novella has an open ending, however, in which the surviving characters don’t know what will happen to them. Frank Darabont thought this would make an unsatisfactory ending for a movie (probably true), and decided a grisly ironic twist at the end would be great (false). So he has the main characters driving through the mist, hoping to find their way out of it, and they run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. This was an immediate eyebrow-raiser: even considering the nasty creatures out there, when my gas tank hit 1/4 to near-empty, I’d be looking for a safe place to refuel, or ANYWHERE where we could safely stop. So characters who showed lots of intelligence throughout the film suddenly become dumb.
Stuck in a car in the mist, they decide to all shoot themselves to avoid letting monsters eat them. Again, this seems completely against everything the characters had done previously in the film. Furthermore, it makes them all look like idiots: they left the supermarket, a place with food and relative safety, to shoot themselves in the middle of nowhere. Alas, there are five of them, and only four bullets. So the ‘hero’ of the story shoots everyone but himself, including his young son, and then leaps out of the car, sobbing madly for the monsters to take him (at this point, I could hear most of the audience giggling). But — and here’s the ‘ironic twist’ — the mist almost immediately breaks, to reveal that the army is clearing out all the monsters and everything is safe now. If only he had waited a few more minutes before killing everyone! This sort of twist is especially grating in the film because it has been otherwise completely irony-deficient. It completely destroys the tone.
Furthermore, the apocalyptic feel of the rest of the film is ruined because we now know that the threat is over, and the army’s in charge again. Yay! The world is safe! Aren’t you scared?
2. Invaders From Mars. This remake of a classic cold-war paranoia tale was directed by Tobe Hooper, creator of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who really should have known better. A young boy notices that his family and others in his neighborhood start acting strangely. It turns out they’ve been taken over by… wait for it… INVADERS FROM MARS!
Actually, I found the film quite enjoyable, for the most part. But when the climax of the movie arrives, and the army is driving the aliens back, suddenly the young boy wakes up! IT WAS ALL A DREAM! But… wait! What’s that noise in the hall? The aliens are out there! It wasn’t a dream after all… or was it? No, seriously… was it? I have no clue.
The ending doesn’t provide any shocks or scares whatsoever, only a ‘what the hell was that all about’ feeling. Having confusing things happen in a horror movie can be unsettling, but having things happen which make no freaking sense at all is just dumb.
3. The Village. M. Night Shyamalan’s fourth major film demonstrated the trap he put himself in when The Sixth Sense became a hit. He had done such an amazing job setting up a clever, unexpected ‘twist’ ending that apparently he felt like he needed to keep them coming. Unfortunately, when everyone is expecting some sort of ‘twist’ at the ending, you probably aren’t going to surprise people at all, because they’re watching the movie very carefully for clues.
The Village is about a seemingly 19th-century village which is isolated from the outside world by sinister creatures in the surrounding woods. When a young man in the village challenges the creatures, and ventures into the ‘forbidden zone’, the truce between the villagers and the creatures seems to come to an end.
The story has a lot going for it, and there are a lot of clever ideas built into it. At the end of the film, however, young blind Ivy Walker is sent out by the village elders to fetch medicine for the dying young man. In our ‘surprise’ twist, we find that the village is actually in the modern world, and a bunch of rich people decided to return to a simpler time by isolating themselves in the wilderness. The creatures were invented to keep their unknowing children from leaving.
I was excited when I heard Shyamalan was making this film. Unfortunately, when I read the plot synopsis, I immediately said to myself, “I hope it’s not a village in the modern world isolated by the use of fake monsters.”
Among other things, the power of twist endings relies a lot on misdirection. If people are warned about the twist, and are looking for clues, they will find them; there’s only so many places you can hide things in a 2-hour movie. Stories that successfully surprise you give you clues before you know that you should be looking for clues. The extra problem with The Village‘s twist is that it was very obvious. It was, in fact, the first thing I thought of.
4. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. This one isn’t particularly distinguished, but is indicative of a whole group of cheesy slasher movie endings. The original ‘I know what you did…’ concerned a group of kids who hit a stranger with their car, dump the seemingly dead body in the ocean, and are later haunted and stalked by a killer who ‘knows what they did’. The killer apparently dies at the end of the first film, but in the sequel crazy Ben Willis is back to kill again. By the end of the film, he’s dead again, which sets us up for the ‘shocker’ ending where he appears alive yet again to attack Jennifer Love Hewitt.
I suppose that sort of ending works for teenagers, who only care about being shocked yet one more time, but for me it ends up being a “What the Hell?” ending. In my defense, I only saw the film because I had it on in the background on cable while doing work on the computer. Every Friday the 13th after the first, and every Halloween after the third, suffers from the same sort of sad ending.
5. House on Haunted Hill and 6. The Haunting. 1999 was a bad year for bad remakes of classic horror films with really bad tacked on endings. Both films here suffered from a severe case of CGItis: the need to throw in some hokey computer-generated effects to make the film more ‘scary’. The plot of the original House on Haunted Hill turns out to involve no supernatural shenanigans at all, only a clever murder scheme. The remakers decided that the end of the film needed the ‘heroes’ to be chased around by spooky black goopy ghosts. The original Haunting, based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, is a subtle film that is one of the scariest of all time. It concerns the efforts of an evil house to drive a psychologically vulnerable woman over the brink to madness and death. Again, the remake, by action film director Jan de Bont, substitutes CGI for subtlety, and puts in a final CGI chase scene in the end in which the woman survives!
I hardly need explain what’s wrong with these endings. The most effective scares come from not seeing the monster or ghost clearly, and tacking CGI onto a film ‘just because’ ends up feeling like a pointless non sequitur.
Incidentally, there is one reason to see House on Haunted Hill, and that’s Geoffrey Rush’s excellent imitation of Vincent Price.
Whew! That was rough! Now, I feel duty-bound to describe some of my favorite horror movie endings. This list is by no means complete, but are some of the films that immediately came to mind. Of course, this section will also be SPOILER-LADEN, so tread carefully. These endings are definitely ones you want to see for yourself.
1. Halloween (1978)
2. The Thing (1982)
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
5. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) (WARNING: ONLY the ending is good!)
6. The Sixth Sense (1999)
1. Halloween. Michael Myers, having stalked Jamie Lee Curtis and killed all her friends through out the movie, finally has six bullets emptied into him by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and tumbles off the balcony. After attending to Jamie, Dr. Loomis looks out again on the fallen Michael — only to find him gone! The sense of relief we felt when Loomis opened fire immediately disappears — and the movie ends…
2. The Thing. John Carpenter in his day could really make an ending! The movie, about an Antarctic research team who are stalked by a shapeshifting alien parasite, culminates in the destruction of the Antarctic base in an attempt to destroy the creature. Were they successful? Two men survive, and face each other on the frozen plain. Neither is sure if the other is infected, and they can’t let the alien reach the civilized world, which would certainly result in the end of mankind. So they just sit, and watch each other, and wait to freeze to death…
3. Night of the Living Dead. I hardly need explain what this film is about! A small group of people barricade themselves in a house to defend against an onslaught of the living dead. The ending is completely irony-laden: the sole survivor ends up barricading himself in the basement for protection, after arguing through most of the film that it would be the worst place to seek refuge. At last, he is awakened by the sound of gunfire. The ‘cavalry’ has arrived, in the form of law enforcement with rifles. Stunned, emotionally drained, and not unlike a zombie himself, the survivor looks out on his rescuers… and is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead. This is how an ironic ending should be done, and it fits perfectly with the tone of the rest of the movie.
4. The Blair Witch Project. Often vilified, this ‘reality-TV’-esque horror film is shown from the video point of view of a group of college kids who get lost in the woods and are apparently stalked by the legendary Blair Witch herself. The end of the film involves a frantic chase by two kids through an abandoned house, looking for their missing third member. A second man disappears, and we get a brief image, through the eyes of the camera, of him standing in the corner of the basement just before the camerawoman is struck down. The legend of the Blair Witch involved her standing up victims in the corner before slaying…
5. Tombs of the Blind Dead. This old, low-budget Spanish horror film involves undead, blind Knights Templar rising up, chasing down and feasting upon people. The film overall doesn’t have a lot to recommend about it, and includes some scenes that are quite offensive, including a gratuitous and unnecessary rape scene near the end. The ending, though, is a gem, and had me laughing: the sole survivor of the Templars flees towards a passing train. The good-natured engineer sees her, stops the train, and gets her on board, but not before the Templars catch up. They slay the engineer, who in dying starts the train again, and then they turn on the innocent, unsuspecting passengers of the train. The film ends with the train pulling into the nearest town with its deadly cargo. This ending exemplifies the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished!”
6. The Sixth Sense. This is the way a good surprise twist ending should be done. Shyamalan does a masterful job of misdirection — we’re so focused on all the dead people chasing down the young boy we don’t think to ask whether everyone else around him is alive…