“This isn’t going to have a happy ending” William Somerset (Morgan Freeman in Seven )
Life, eh? Read the newspapers or tune into the ambulance-chasing apocalypse that is the TV news and you might reasonably think there’s no real point in even getting out of bed. According to them we’re all going to be bankrupt by next Tuesday; killed, raped and then killed again by hoodie-wearing 12 year olds outside Somerfield before that; dirty-bombed to buggery by terrorists; and fall victim to a brand new and extremely contagious form of arse cancer. Sheesh, could someone hurry up with this whole “death” thing and put us out of our misery?!
The horror genre has always been good at reflecting the grimness of our times. The world has always been a grim place, and one of the genre’s main responsibilities is in exploiting the real-life things currently freaking out the masses. (John Carpenter’s “Raped In The Face By A Hoodie” and Wes Craven’s “Bum Cancer : An Epidemic” are both due in cinemas this summer).
Someone wise (and probably dead) once said that great horror should “scar”. Sure, horror movies can be scary fun-house rides : John Carpenter’s original Halloween is as good a demonstration of the horror-film-as-ghost-train as you’ll ever see : a suspenseful narrative punctuated by regular jump-scares in which the killer (and the director) does the equivalent of shouting “boo” at the audience. You shit your pants but then chuckle at your own silliness while washing out the stains.
Often times the horror movies that really stay with you, the ones that haunt you for years after watching them, the ones that still freak you out on repeat viewings, are the ones that leave you feeling like you’ve just spent five hours stuck in a lift with Crazy Ralph from Friday The 13th , repeatedly intoning “You’re all doomed...doomed!”.
The genre is expansive enough to allow for all kinds of approaches, but the really, really scarring stuff tends to be the stuff that pulls no punches, the movies that refuse to let the audience relax or feel safe, the ones that want to leave us with the feeling that the world (inside and outside of the movie itself) is a scary, unforgiving place. Such movies will usually leave us reeling with a sucker-punch of an ending in which good people die, evil is not destroyed and the world as we know it is either doomed or in a shittier state than when we came in.
A lot of great downbeat horror movie endings didn’t make it into this countdown. You will have your favourites, though in whittling them down to just ten, we’ve tried to select some of the most unforgettable finales, those that leave us choked, those without ambiguity about the fate of the world and the characters. Carpenter’s The Thing just missed out with its wonderfully chilly parting shot of two men facing an undetermined fate. Alien 3 , The Descent , The Blair Witch Project , Rec , and The Beyond , among others, are bold enough to leave their protagonists either very dead or trapped within an inescapable, hellish situation that may be worse than death. Spare a depressed thought too for the very black joke that gives a final grim frisson to the end of Pet Sematary or the pessimism of most David Cronenberg movies – notably The Brood , which follows a hollow rescue mission with the hint of an unending cycle of abuse.
Ultimately it came down to these ten. Some of these movies end with obvious apocalypse, others end with small scale personal tragedy...but all leave us without hope. A bit like the experience of watching Celebrity Big Brother, albeit with the bonus that these endings are attached to intelligent, superbly made movies and leave you with the desire to shove hot knitting needles into your scrotum for all the right reasons. Needless to say spoilers lie ahead, so if you don’t want to know how these flicks end, busy yourself with some hermaphrodite porn or go and do something useful like making new hermaphrodite porn. Some of us have a lot of free time, you know.
10 .The Seventh Victim (1943) Val Lewton’s deservedly beloved horror productions for RKO in the 1940’s are among a select few vintage genre flicks that refuse to date. Most of them are set in a recognisably unforgiving modern environment and almost all o f them possess a thematic bleakness that stretches far beyond what you might expect from movies made seven decades ago within the Hollywood studio system.
The bleakest is this subtle but harrowing New York City-set tale of contemporary Satanists and the woman (Kim Hunter) on a mission to find her sister (Jean Brooks) who has fallen into their clutches. The movie has very little overt horror but sustains an oppressive sense of impending doom fulfilled by the extraordinary climax. The whole movie sympathetically follows Hunter’s quest to save her troubled sibling, and her quest is destined to go miserably unfulfilled.
The final reel discreetly conveys the hopeless Brooks’ suicide via the sound of a chair falling over, a sound heard but ignored by a misanthropic neighbour who has already expressed the sentiment “I’ve wanted to die all my life”. Thus, the film’s heroine loses the sister she has tried so hard to save while the audience is left with the cheery message that, in a life without joy, the only way out is death. Anyone got a D.I.Y. Euthanasia kit?
9 .Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1978) Although the most recent version, The Invasion , is depressing purely for being so thigh-slappingly useless, all three other versions of Jack Finney’s classic Bodysnatchers tale have pessimistic endings. Abel Ferrara’s 1993 interpretation ends with a series of triumphant explosions meant to destroy the alien threat only to cruelly cut away to reveal that they have solved nothing. Don Siegel’s 1956 version closes with the alarming spectacle of Kevin McCarthy warning unsuspecting motorists “You’re next!”.
As for Philip Kaufman’s post-Watergate, uber-paranoid 70’s adaptation, it has the most unsettling conclusion of the lot. Kaufman’s San Francisco-set invasion is brooding and sinister throughout but seems to be offering the audience a glimmer of hope in the final furlong, as survivor Veronica Cartwright spots health-inspector hero Donald Sutherland across the way. He turns around, opens his mouth and, outstretching his arm, lets out the shrill, ear-piercing shriek synonymous with being a pod-person. Our hero has been taken over, our heroine is doomed and, quite frankly, the human race is fucked. And not in a good, bent-over-the-kitchen-table-by-a-guy-in-an-Esther-Rantzen-mask way either.
After the camera has zoomed into Sutherland’s other-worldly, gaping mouth, the credits unfold in a suitably uneasy silence. If you don’t shudder at this one, they got you when you slept.
8 .Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1983) The most inventive and mean spirited of the Halloween sequels turns out to be the only one to forsake the Michael Myers slashing-by-numbers plotline. This tale of a deranged toy maker using a combination of Stonehenge rocks, rigged Halloween masks, super-strong robots and a national TV broadcast to resurrect the grim true spirit of All Hallows Eve also has one of the most memorable finales of 80’s horror.
A typically solid Tom Atkins spends the whole movie getting to the bottom of said Silver Shamrock boss Dan O’Herlihy’s diabolical plot, racing against time to prevent a national catastrophe at 9pm on Halloween night. A gruesome “demonstration” early in the film gives a visceral idea of the fate awaiting every child in America if the plot is a success (basically their heads will erupt into a mess of bugs and snakes and icky shit – similar to what happens when intelligent adults watch Britannia High).
The final moments see Atkins frantically striving to stop the TV networks from broadcasting the all-important signal that will trigger mass child death. Too bad that it’s already 9pm and the signal is already on the TV screens as Atkins screams “Stop It!!!!!!!!!” down the phone. Parents all over America suddenly realise that Christmas is going to be a whole lot cheaper and quieter as a result. Very few movies display such an obvious dislike of kids.
7 .Session 9 (1999) Influenced as much by The Shining as The Blair Witch Project , this digital video-shot chiller from a seriously underrated filmmaker is among the most disturbing mind-fuck flicks of recent times as it follows the grim fates awaiting a small group of contractors working on an abandoned asylum.
What initially appears to be a slow burning tale of the supernatural turns into a nihilistic study of escalating madness as we realise the most psychologically vulnerable of the group (an outstanding Peter Mullan) has been driven to acts of extreme violence by a malevolent force known only as “Simon”. “Simon” is the evil alternate personality of a mental patient formerly at the asylum, a personality that drove her to cut up her family and whose voice is heard in a series of increasingly disturbing tapes of old sessions with the asylum doctors.
The last time we see Mullan he is ringing his house on a broken cell phone, desperately apologising to the wife he has recently killed (along with all of his workmates). Session 9 ends with one of the most eerie moments of horror cinema : a helicopter shot of the asylum accompanies one final excerpt from the tapes. A doctor asks the mysterious, evil “Simon” one last question : “And where do you live?”. “I live in the weak and the wounded, doc” is the harrowing reply. When you watch the film, you will realise why those final words are so unnerving. Brrrr.
6 .Inside (2007) French horror got real dark and twisted in the wake of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible , and it’s hard to imagine a darker, more hopeless cinematic experience than Inside . Part hardcore slasher movie, part ordeal cinema, this simple story of a heavily pregnant woman (Alison Paradis) being relentlessly tormented on Christmas Eve (don’t expect much fuckin’ festive cheer!) by a stranger (Beatrice Dalle) obsessed with her unborn child, hits the “extreme” button early on and just keeps getting nastier.
Relentlessly intense, Inside offers a downbeat survivalist horror scenario in which the plucky heroine we root for from the start does not survive. Any preconceived notions we may have of how this is going to end (they wouldn’t kill an unborn baby, right?) are tossed out of the window (and then stomped on and then disembowelled) by a finale that redefines the word “grim”.
In unflinching detail, Dalle succeeds in her mission: she cuts open the mortally wounded Paradis’ belly with scissors to extract the baby she wants so much. Paradis’ determination and strength comes to nowt and the film ends with the bone-chilling image of a horribly burned Dalle cradling the dead infant. That sound you hear is the nation uttering a collective “Eek!”.
5 .Se7en (1995) Having made a blockbuster franchise movie ( Alien 3 , still vastly underrated) that killed off all of the franchise’s heroic characters and offered nothing but unrelenting misery, David Fincher made the ultimate in nihilistic serial killer movies. How a movie as devoid of hope as this one ever got approved by a major Hollywood studio is one of the great cinematic mysteries of our time, though it’s best not to dwell on it and just wallow in the misery, being grateful for the fact that it did.
“This isn’t going to have a happy ending...” bemoans disillusioned detective Morgan Freeman at an early point in Seven , following one of his regular lamentations about how the world has gone to Hell and apathy has taken over. It proves prophetic during a famously jaw-dropping climax in which the surrendered killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey, skin-crawlingly creepy) reveals the final part of his ingeniously diabolical plan. Said plan involves Gwyneth Paltrow’s sappy head in a box (so it’s not all bad) and the unrestrained rage of her husband (Brad Pitt) unwittingly fulfilling the seventh sin of Doe’s canny plot.
The killer gets everything he wants, several lives are destroyed in the process and the audience is left with a sense of overwhelming despair brought on by the realisation that, sometimes in life, evil wins out. New Line Cinema, who bravely put the movie out, insisted on an epilogue, rather than Fincher’s intended fade-out from the crushing climax. Even this tacked-on final scene, however, fails to lighten the pessimism, as Pitt is escorted away, ruined, while Freeman drifts into the night to resume his joyless existence, his voiceover solemnly quoting Ernest Hemingway : “’The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agreed with the second part.”
4 .The Mist (2007) An abnormal mist descends upon Castle Rock and brings with it a menagerie of monsters and slimy tentacled things. A disparate group of characters hole up in a supermarket to try and figure out what to do, but no one can agree either on where the mist might have come from (“It’s death” insists religious nut Marcia Gay Harden) or on what the best way forward for survival might be. Everything goes horribly wrong, as much due to the average weaknesses of humankind as the deadly mist itself.
Writer-director Darabont, best known for life-affirming, optimistic movies like The Shawshank Redemption – about the sheer goodness inherent in people - , returned to his low budget horror roots for this outstanding Stephen King adaptation, unfolding in a recognisably paranoid post-9/11 world. Darabont ladles on grim ironies and unpredictable narrative turns with the fearless conviction of early Romero, specifically referencing Night of the Living Dead as survivors turn on each other and no one appears to be safe. One key character bleakly spells out one of the movie’s key themes : when it comes down to it, stripped of our machines and our comfort zones, we humans are “fundamentally insane”.
What reinforces The Mist as one of the great horror movies of the 21st century is its ending, singled out for praise in virtually every major review of the film – even those by non-horror-savvy critics. Thinking the world to be doomed – a sentiment echoed by the audience thanks to repeated ominous visuals of the mist-cocooned town – our hero (Thomas Jane) reacts with panic and cowardice. Not knowing of what else to do, he kills his fellow survivors and shoots his young son in the face...but it’s all for naught because, had he held out a little longer, he would have seen the authority figures that have arrived to save the day. For once, the military are a positive force in a cynical siege-based horror film. Too bad that they turn up to late to save those we cared about the most.
3 .The Wicker Man (1973) You may be too psychologically scarred by what happens in the last 5 minutes of The Wicker Man to recall that the movie, although driven by a mystery (the disappearance of a young girl on a Pagan island), actually starts out as a kind of demented jubilant musical laced with fish-out-of-water comedy. Britt Ekland’s first class (body-doubled) bare ass, jaunty / bawdy musical numbers, Christopher Lee wearing purple dresses and the amusing prudishness of our disapproving, never-been-laid hero (Edward Woodward) make the first hour surprisingly, deceptively light.
There are hints of what is to come, however. On repeat viewings you notice the clever way writer Anthony Shaffer introduces an increasing element of the sinister: look out for jars of brains and foreskins; a beetle tied to a nail inside a school pupil’s desk; and a local child pretending to be dead just so she can fall out of a cupboard to scare Woodward. At the midway point there is a creepy foreshadowing of the finale when someone says to Woodward “You’ll never understand the meaning of sacrifice...”.
Still, it’s the final reels that reinforce The Wicker Man as a classic of modern horror. Our hero solves the mystery, appears to save the imperilled girl...and learns that everything has been a trap designed to make him “one of the great fool-victims in history”. For he is to become the virgin sacrifice the followers of Lord Summerisle require to ensure a good harvest. In a finale that haunts your very soul, we get the extraordinary image of Woodward inside the burning wicker man, defiantly singing the Lord’s Prayer and powerless to escape the doom that has been sealed for him from the very beginning. The whole movie’s disarming combination of horror and beauty is once again prominent for the very final image : the burning Wicker Man topples over to reveal a glorious setting sun.
2 .Who Can Kill a Child? (1975) One of the finest horror films of the 1970’s is still unavailable on DVD in the UK, though its influence continues to be apparent in British horror cinema of 2008, namely Eden Lake and The Children . This masterfully controlled, surprisingly subtle tale of juvenile terror follows the plight of Brits abroad Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome who find the remote, picturesque island of Almandora dominated by a remorseless gang of homicidal children. As in Night of the Living Dead – a prominent influence throughout the film – the outbreak of youth violence spreads like a virus, though there is no explanation or apparent solution for the epidemic. The only thing you can do is try to survive...though, as one character notes when weighing up the situation, the chances are slim: “No one did anything...because who can kill a child?”.
Employing disarmingly ordinary-looking kids, director Sarrador cleverly avoids explicit violence and gore throughout, instead suggesting a lot of horrible things. This serves to heighten the impact of the harrowing climax. The key, still-shocking turning point comes when Fiander shoots a sweet-faced (but gun-toting and murderous) little boy in the head – signalling the transformation of the imperilled hero into a child murderer. Sarrador cruelly lingers on shots of dead kids while the pregnant Ransome’s child kills her from within in a truly horrible moment.
The conclusion is drenched in grim irony as the cops shoot dead Fiander, the only surviving adult on the island, having assumed he is responsible for the island’s out of control carnage. In the face of a threat like this, the movie concludes that we are all doomed. Though, on the plus side those of us with an irrational hatred of children turn out to have been right all along. Annoying little bastards.
1 .Night of the Living Dead (1968) There’s no getting away from the fact that most of the movies on our top ten Downbeat Endings list are heavily indebted to the modern American horror film that boldly paved the way for so many others to follow...Romero’s post-Kennedy, Vietnam-era zombie masterpiece. With the possible exception of the similarly small-scale Martin , Romero never made a movie as cynical and disciplined as this 40 year old classic. We live in an age of manufactured horror movies, where it’s perfectly normal for a DVD release to include three or four alternate endings, suggesting certain filmmakers have no idea how to end their genre works, merely throwing it open to whatever test audience the studio has lined up. Romero’s film is consistent in its unflinching depiction of the unravelling of the human race in the face of a national crisis. It begins as it means to go on – with sudden death, shock and unease. Nothing happens like it’s supposed to, no one is safe, mankind is meeting its unpleasant end.
Romero’s main scenario is an equally apocalyptic variation on The Birds with zombies, though his execution and themes cut deeper : the depiction of human weakness within a desperate siege situation is amplified, the fates of key characters are harsher and the ending is without the almost-reassuring ambiguity of the Hitchcock film. There are regular cruel twists and subversions, though none are more shocking than the infamous finale.
Ben (Duane Jones) makes it through the night but winds up taking apparently safe refuge in the cellar where, ironically, he had earlier argued against hiding with the other survivors. He had earlier asserted “The cellar’s a death trap!” though the death he meets while hiding in the cellar is not the kind anyone had in mind. Trigger happy rednecks, driven into action by a world gone badly wrong and operating on a shoot-anything-that-moves basis, gun down the film’s last remaining semblance of hope.
In a decade ripe with nuclear war paranoia, political assassinations and racial tensions, Romero provides an ending that bitterly reflects that social unease. The film bows out with a montage of still images of Ben becoming just another slab of meat while the soundtrack picks up chillingly ironic assertions from unspecified bystanders like “Everything appears to be under control” and, of course, the unforgettable “That’s another one for the fire.” Four decades on it still feels like Romero pointed a camera at the end of the world. Talking of which, it’s scheduled for next Thursday according to “The Daily Mail”, so now’s your chance to beat to death all the people you hate with hammers and force yourself upon that nice friendly girl who works on the tills at Tesco. Enjoy!
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