“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.”
– Stanley Kubrick
As the days pass, reality seems to mimic the horror films we have come to admire and 2020 isn’t even over yet! We don’t know what the end of the year has in store for us but we do know the sick, twisted endings that the films listed below have in store for us. They challenge conventional rules about how a narrative should be resolved.
John Carpenter once said, “Horror has been a genre since the beginning of cinema, all the way back to the days of silent films. I don’t think it will ever go away because it’s so universal. Humour doesn’t always travel to other countries, but horror does.”
He added, “Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid, we’re all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I’m afraid of, you’re afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense. We were little kids once and so it’s taking that basic human condition and emotion and just fucking with it and playing with it. You can invent new horrors.”
As a new feature for our ‘Far Out Fear Club’, we take a look at some cult-classics as well as relatively recent films in the horror genre which are revered for their horrific endings.
10 horror films with dark endings:
10. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar – 2001)
This 2001 horror-thriller stars Nicole Kidman as Grace, the mother of two photosensitive children. Set in 1945, Grace moves into a remote country house in Jersey with the kids but she begins suspecting that supernatural forces are haunting the house when a series of inexplicable events occur.
However, Amenábar saves the real reveal for the end. We find out that Grace, the kids and the servants in the film are dead. They are ghosts who are co-existing with the living. How did they die? Grace lost her mind, smothered her children in their sleep and then shot herself.
The director said, “I like to ask questions that are big to me, but have an audience ask them of themselves, in their own way. So, in the case of The Others, it has to do with death, and how religion gives meaning to death and the concept of destiny, and how it responds to not really knowing. I would say that my position is agnosticism, and it should be the same for the characters at the end of the film. It’s about not having big answers for everything, but questioning ourselves.”
9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick – 1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the horror genre has gone down in history as one of the defining horror films of all time. An unfaithful adaptation of the best-selling Stephen King novel, Kubrick’s The Shining is an unsettling exploration of isolation, psychosis and the human capacity for violence.
The ending is preceded by a sequence featuring Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), an unsuccessful writer and a terrible father chasing his son Danny (played by Danny Lloyd) in the ominous maze outside the Overlook Hotel with the intent to kill. The Shining ends with a close-up of a picture from 1921 that is hung in the hotel. It’s of a 4th of July party and we see Jack in the middle of it, smiling.
Theories ranging from time travel to paranormal mechanisms have tried to explain this anomaly but I think this was Kubrick’s way of declaring that evil is human and it has been present throughout our history on this planet. It’s not clear whether Jack is a ghost but it does not matter. What matters is that Jack is an idea and ideas are more terrifying because they cannot be destroyed.
While speaking about the ending, Kubrick revealed, “To be honest, the end of the book seemed a bit hackneyed to me and not very interesting. I wanted an ending which the audience could not anticipate. In the film, they think Hallorann is going to save Wendy and Danny. When he is killed they fear the worst. Surely, they fear, there is no way now for Wendy and Danny to escape. The maze ending may have suggested itself from the animal topiary scenes in the novel. I don’t actually remember how the idea first came about.”
8. The Thing (John Carpenter – 1982)
Set in the hostile landscape of Antarctica, The Thing is a sci-fi-horror thriller about an alien entity that has the capacity to assimilate living beings. A remake of The Thing from Another World (1951), John Carpenter weaves a sense of claustrophobia into his masterpiece.
The film ends as the only two survivors are stranded in the Arctic cold, hoping that they can get through this seemingly never-ending ordeal. Carpenter dismisses any semblance of hope by hinting that one of the two survivors has actually become the host for the hungry extraterrestrial. Death is inevitable.
Despite being regarded as a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, time has been kind to John Carpenter’s brilliant work. In a 2001 interview, Carpenter reflected, “Had it worked, my career would have been very different. Very different.”
7. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero – 1968)
One of the most iconic zombie films of all time, Romero’s 1968 sci-fi horror classic imagines a world where the radiation from a fallen satellite causes the recently deceased to clamber out of their graves and prey on the living. Over the years, the film has been heralded as a formative work that shaped the genre.
Its famously bleak ending features our hero who is mistaken for a zombie, shot, and burned in a bonfire of defeated zombies. Zombies can be scary but they are not as terrifying as the absurdity of being erased from existence for no good reason.
Romero reflected, “They told us their main reason for turning it down was that it was in black and white. And AIP then said it was too unmitigated. They said, ‘Well, if you shoot a happy ending to the thing, or shoot the guy surviving, or develop a romantic interest, then maybe we’ll talk about it.'”
6. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy – 1973)
Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror film follows Sergeant Howie (played by Edward Woodward) as he explores the small Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the report of a missing child. A conservative Christian, the Sergeant bears witness to the strange pagan rituals that the inhabitants have embraced.
Howie suspects that the missing girl is going to be used as a human sacrifice but towards the end, he realises that the human sacrifice is him. He is trapped inside a giant wicker man statue and burnt alive, screaming in horror as the locals keep dancing and swaying.
“I don’t think The Wicker Man has a negative attitude to their religions at all and I know [Anthony]Shaffer didn’t,” Hardy said “I mean, pagans on this island and throughout Europe did practice human sacrifice. But I’m by no means anti-pagan. Lots of things in our culture date back to before Christianity.
“A lot of my research came from The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer and we did rely heavily on that. Ironically, when that book was published [in 1890] it offended Christians because it dared to approach and catalogue Christianity equally and on a par with other religions.”
5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock – 1960)
The enduring legacy of Psycho is absolutely justified because it marked the application of a new language of cinematic narrative as well as a deeper exposition of the framework of the human psyche. At the time of its release, it dismantled the repressive societal norms with the depiction of widespread “immorality”. Norman Bates will go down in history as one of the most memorable cinematic psychopaths of all time.
When the penultimate scene dissolves, for a brief moment, a set of teeth (presumably belonging to his mother’s corpse) is juxtaposed on Norman’s closed mouth which is easily missed if you blink. Hitchcock is meticulous in his arrangement of minor details, revealing the duality of Norman’s psychology. However, if we know anything about Hitchcock it is that nothing is ever as it seems.
Hitchcock explained how he balanced the expression of violence with impeccable narrative techniques, “They thought the story was about a girl who stole $40,000. That was deliberate. And suddenly out of the blue, she is stabbed to death. Now, a lot of people complained about the excessive violence. This was purposely done, because as the film then proceeded, I reduced the violence while I was transferring it to the mind of the audience. By that first impact, so the design of the film was very clearly laid out.”
4. Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi – 2009)
Sam Raimi’s 2009 supernatural horror film revolves around a loan officer Christine chooses not to extend an elderly woman’s mortgage because she has to prove to her boss that she can make the “hard decisions”. As revenge, the old lady places a curse on Christine which turns her life into a nightmare and threatens to relegate her to hell for an eternity.
At the end, Christine believes she has overcome the curse only to discover that the curse was never really lifted. In shock, she backs away from the platform and falls onto the tracks. Fiery hands emerge through the ground and drag Christine into Hell.
Raimi said, “I wasn’t really thinking about other films when I made this picture. I was just trying to make this story as dramatic and fun as I could. Our goal was never to follow any trends or even to try to give the audience what we thought they would want. We always tried to please ourselves – myself and my brother Ivan Raimi – when we were writing the script and in doing so, hoped that we would please the audience.”
3. The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick – 1999)
This is the purportedly true story of three student filmmakers who hike in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994 to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. They never make it back but what the audience sees is their recovered footage.
In the end, two of the students (Heather and Mike) follow the sound of their friend Josh’s screams to a derelict house. Upon entering, get separated until Heather sees Mike standing motionless facing a wall. She gets attacked by something off-screen, drops her camera to the floor and the screen fades to black.
“Editing in regular motion pictures often pulls the audience away from the fear,” Myrick commented. “We wanted to do something with long takes where the audience is stuck with the protagonist of the film – where the editing and the way the film is shot don’t let you escape from the reality of what’s going on with the characters. So we came up with the idea of having some kind of documentary-style feel to the film.”
2. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski – 1968)
Roman Polanski’s classic psychological horror film stars Mia Farrow as Rosemary who moves into a new apartment with her husband (played by John Cassavetes). When Mia gets pregnant, things start getting increasingly weird as her neighbours try to control her life and consequently, the future of her child.
Rosemary finds out that her kidnapped son is being brought up witches and practitioners of the occult. She looks at her child for the first time and screams, “What have you done to him? What have you done to his eyes?” but Polanski never shows his face. We are merely told that the Antichrist is lying in that crib.
“I had only seen her on the cover of Life,” Polanski said of Farrow. To be honest, I was not enthusiastic about her until we started to work. Then I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that she is a brilliant actress. This is one of the most difficult woman’s parts I can imagine.”
1. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg – 1973)
An adaptation of the 1971 short story by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple who travel to Venice to recover from the recent accidental death of their daughter after the husband John accepts a commission to restore a church. They are warned by a clairvoyant that their deceased daughter is trying to talk to them but the husband dismisses such claims until he experiences mysterious sightings himself.
The ending of the film magnificently employs striking visual narrative and an effective use of cinematic tension. John keeps seeing a small figure in a red raincoat – the same raincoat his daughter wore when she drowned but he finally manages to corner the strange individual at the end. The person in the red raincoat turns out to be a dwarf and the killer who stabs John to death.
Roeg reflected on the trajectory of his career, “Films occupy whole sections of your life – all my films have a stamp of my life in them. My films seem to mirror life in how they develop – the child prodigy doesn’t always have the final say!”