I don’t get to watch as many horror movies these days as I used to, yet I still seem to have seen the same ending quite a few times recently.
It goes like this: Our hero or heroine has conquered the monster, overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and made it to the closing moments of the film. We have seen a heartening demonstration of human resilience in the face of terrible things.
And then … all hope is lost.
It turns out that our protagonist was never really free of the evil forces they seemed to have outrun. Or the tables are turned unexpectedly. Or some random event happens that snuffs out our hero’s life or ensures it won’t be worth living.
At this point, you may be wanting me to cite some examples, which I’m reluctant to do for fear of spoiling several films for other people. So for the time being, I’ll ask you to take me at my word and to consider whether you’ve noticed this trend as well. There have been too many late nights when I’ve taken a DVD out of the player with a sigh and retired to bed with the sense that the previous hour and a half has been a bit pointless.
This gloomy trend has come along at a time when downbeat endings seem to have become unthinkable in every other kind of film.
Science fiction, which could once get away with almost gratuitously gloomy closing acts like some of those in the massively successful Planet of the Apes series, has been resolutely optimistic ever since Star Wars came along. Meanwhile, even the worthiest drama aimed squarely at the Academy Awards voters has to be life-affirming. And we’d all be a tad surprised if romantic comedies routinely ended with Jennifer Aniston or Reese Witherspoon suddenly finding themselves single and miserable in the closing moments.
Perhaps horror movies, which often exist in opposition to mainstream cinema, are giving us downbeat endings because other genres refuse to. But they’re doing it so often that I’m coming to expect it, as surely as I expect Sandra Bullock to find true love after 90 minutes of only faintly amusing clowning.
My complaint about this trend is that (a) it’s becoming a cliche and (b) I find it disturbingly nihilistic.
It’s not that I’m against troubling endings. Let’s take, as an example, The Wicker Man. (I’m assuming just about every genre fan has seen that one – but if you haven’t, please skip the next paragraph and rejoin me in about 80 words’ time.)
The disturbing ending to The Wicker Man worked because it was unexpected. A friend told me how he saw the film on its first UK release, when it was the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now. He recalled how astonished the audience was when no one came to rescue Edward Woodward from the wicker inferno at the eleventh hour. I think The Wicker Man is a powerful, if slightly over-praised film, but if every movie ended so bleakly, we’d soon grow irritated.
Welcome back to the readers who skipped the Wicker Man spoiler, by the way.
I should add that I am not against ambiguous or problematic endings, or endings that have a grim twist in the tradition of horror comics like Tales from the Crypt. And I love those rare instances of a film leaving the audience with an interesting question on their minds, as with The Cabin in the Woods.
But I am troubled that so many film-makers like to close their movies with the death of all hope.
Some critics have long argued that mainstream horror movies are profoundly conservative. In films from the Hammer cycle to Alien, they contend, we see the forces of unbridled violence, sexuality or anarchy released for us to enjoy for an hour and a half – only for these forces to be finally conquered and put back in the box when the running time is up.
But my defence of these stories is the same argument Paul McCartney uses about people who want to fill the world with silly love songs: What’s wrong with that?
Why shouldn’t horror stories allow us to enjoy a few reels of terror and mayhem while maintaining some hope that humanity might just triumph at the end?
When did it become the case that to enjoy the subversive excitement that horror films can offer, you also have to enjoy seeing the human spirit defeated and resistance turning out to be futile? Surely there is more to the genre than such despondency.
I think there’s nothing wrong in wanting the vampire staked, the mummy returned to the swamp or the demon resoundingly exorcised, hopefully in a way you haven’t seen before – and with the faintest thrilling prospect that the chaos might be unleashed again.