Many horror films tacitly celebrate and reiterate conventional values, both by punishing violation of the social order and by restoring that order at the end, maybe with a hint of future danger as a playful stinger.
But not these films. In these films, the end is the stinger, loaded with poison. There is no order; there is no safety; there is no peace or play or pleasure. There is only terror, repeated and rampant.
In honor of Halloween (and cross-posted to The VideoReport), I give you…
… the five movie endings that scare the bejeebers out of me.
NB: This list is ALL SPOILERS. There are SPOILERS HERE. This is NOTHING BUT SPOILERS.
Mulholland Dr. I’m a little shame-faced to admit how deeply the last few minutes of David Lynch’s twisty-turny neo-noir mindbender unsettles me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it does. When I obsessively watch and re-watch the film (and of course I do, oh, I do), if I’m alone, I almost always stop just short of the terrible booming knock on Diane’s door; if you could peek in my window at that moment (and of course you do, oh, you do), you’d see me lunge for the remote in comical terror to avoid having to see the shrunken, tiny figures of the elderly visitors creep under the door and then grow to loom over her as she shrieks. Just thinking about it is giving me the actual, literal creeps.
The Blair Witch Project. The Blair Witch Project was something of a phenomenon at release. The simple premise: three student filmmakers disappeared while shooting a documentary researching a terrifying local legend; this is their last known footage. The film’s eerie realism, achieved by casting then-unknown actors (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard) who improvised around a skeletal script as they trekked from campsite to campsite over an 8-day shoot, was reinforced by a then-innovative online promotional website tying in (fictional) police reports of missing film students, (faked) investigative interviews, and (embellished) reports of historical legends. The film hinges on the uncertainty of their fates, so it’s no surprise that the end is ambiguous. Some viewers were jarred by the sudden ending; some were annoyed by the lack of resolution. But for me, the mixture of simplicity and obscurity in The Blair Witch Project’s final moments is bone-chilling.
Night of the Living Dead. After a long night trapped in an abandoned house fighting off unending hordes of shambling corpses, only one of our characters survives, and deservedly so: even under attack by the inexplicable horror of shambling corpses, Ben (Duane Jones) is quick-thinking, capable, and tenacious. As the film draws to a close, Ben falls into a brief, uneasy slumber. He’s awakened to morning’s bright light by the sound of gunshots as sheriffs amble through the countryside, casually dispatching the last of the zombies. Thinking the nightmare is over, Ben approaches the window… and is shot dead by a deputy and tumbled onto the pyre of burning bodies. Given the social and political tensions in 1968 and the lazily assured good-ol’-boys cast as the posse, it’s not clear whether Ben’s killing is a moment of tragic negligence or an opportunistic hate crime, an ambiguity that caps off 90 minutes of supernatural horror with a far more resounding moment of mundane horror. Night of the Living Dead remains the only horror film that still leaves me sobbing – in sorrow, in frustration, in rage, in existential despair.
The Tenant. Polanski’s The Tenant feels like one long, sustained nightmare: oppressive, humiliating, paranoid, sweatily unstable. Meek expatriate Trelkovsky (Polanski) has been scouring Paris for someplace to live. Finally – what a lucky break! – he finds an apartment, newly vacated when the previous tenant threw herself out the window, smashing through the glass awning to the street. Trelkovsky snaps up the place despite the hostile proprietress (Shelly Winters) and standoffish fellow tenants. And that’s where the nightmare begins. The entire film is suffused with dread, but the first time I saw it – at the too-tender age of 11 – nothing in my small experience of the world prepared me for the horrors of the ending, when Trelkovsky’s doppelganger finally catches up to him.
Let The Right One In. The contrast between the tone and the reality is jarring: in the moment, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is happy, smiling in the sunshine as the train zips through the frozen landscape, his new and dear friend Eli (Leana Leandersson) safely sheltered in the trunk at his knee, the sadistic bullies and negligent adults of his former life left behind, only adventure ahead. But in reality, we know what lies ahead for Oskar, and it’s the same fate Eli’s former caretaker suffered: to cut all ties of human contact, to stalk and slaughter victims for Eli to batten on, to practice and hone his appetite for violence and cruelty, and finally, inescapably, to grow older and older while Eli stays young, to lose his value to Eli, to see his charge’s affections wither and waste, and finally to be discarded for another. Oskar sees a world opening up before him, but that world is as empty and frozen as the winter terrain speeding by the window.