In many ways a film is only as good as its ending. How many times have you, in the horror genre especially, been onboard with a flick up until the final few moments...only to be thoroughly disappointed by some rote, stultifying piece of shit finale that makes you wanna hurl large objects at your screen? We've all experienced it...all too often I imagine. Which is why, after a couple of weeks of theatrically related Top Ten's, I'm shifting gears this week to the very topic at hand. Per a suggestion by a reader named Scott (big ups sir, I had a lot of fun with this one), this week we're looking at the most awesomely unpredictable horror film endings. Snap finales, shocking twists, surprising revelations...whatever the case may be...here now is the Top Ten conclusive "WTF" horror moments!
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#10. SCREAM (2000)
I almost kicked off the list by throwing a little love to the 1986 pseudo-slasher APRIL FOOL'S DAY, but in the end, Wes Craven's self-reflexive reinvention of the genre is a far superior film. From the masterful opening sequence (which still holds up today), Craven instantly sets up a post-modern slasher-whodunit, cloaking his killer(s) in what's now become an iconic piece of global pop culture. Fresh, funny, self-aware...SCREAM has so many synergistic facets at work that we never really get the chance to even ponder the film's bold final revelation. Instead of an innocent hoax serving as a jarring climax (APRIL FOOL'S DAY), an elaborately murderous "game" with two...repeat TWO assailants working in tandem is a conclusion as innovative and hip as the rest of the movie. Wonder what Craven and company have up their sleeve for a second trilogy!
#9. THE MIST (2007)
Time will tell if Frank Darabont's ineffably bleak ending to his 2007 flick THE MIST will hold up, but today, it remains unexpected enough to warrant a coveted top spot. Perhaps not as circuitous or even as cool as some of our snap finales, what really strikes you about Darabont's conclusion (staying faithful to Stephen King's text) is how the man we've come to identify as a hero (Thomas Jane) is the one ultimately responsible for his family's undoing. It's a sad, soul-crushing capper to an otherwise standard monster movie. Standard in its structure, a paradigm that lulls you into a false sense of knowing what comes next. Then, just as we think an inevitable escape is on the brink, Darabont bucks convention altogether to give us something far more affecting. Hopefully he continues to do the same with his superb new AMC series "The Walking Dead."
#8. DON'T LOOK NOW (1973)
Anyone who hasn't seen Nicolas Roeg's 1973 Venice-set spookster DON'T LOOK NOW must do so stat! Deftly fusing art-house tenets with intense psychological drama, Roeg's film deals with a bereaving couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who retreats to the canals of Italy to cope with the loss of their daughter. There, after meeting some awfully shady characters, including psychic sisters, Sutherland's character becomes plagued with eerie visions and clairvoyant flashes that make him think his daughter is alive and well in Venice. Meanwhile, a rash of grisly murders are taking place. The final snap-scenario? It's not the couple's daughter that Sutherland is spotting about town, it's a murderous midget, or a deleterious dwarf...whatever you wanna call it...decked in a red rain-slicker creepily reminiscent of the daughter's own. A truly gut-punching finish!
#7. THE WICKER MAN (1973)
What I love so much about Robin Hardy's 1973 cult-classic THE WICKER MAN is how difficult it is to codify. Is it a horror film? A police procedural? A psychological thriller? What the hell is it? The answer is that the film is an enigmatic mélange of all those genre tropes...the result being an extremely unpredictable and at times discombobulating experience. As we follow Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) looking for a missing girl on the Scottish island of Sommerisle, we slowly get an unnerving sense that something's amiss. Meandering in and out of sleazy pubs and eateries, we gradually begin to feel as lost as Howie does. By the time the film unleashes it's brazenly downtrodden pinnacle, we the audience are left as stunned by what transpires as Howie is: A pagan ritual sacrifice in which most of the townsfolk are complicit.
#6. SE7EN (1995)
One could argue Kevin Spacey's last minute involvement is David Fincher's 1995 masterpiece SE7EN was quite a shock in its own right (remember, he was cast a mere 2 days before filming), but it really, who wasn't rendered mouth agape by the films unflinchingly nihilistic finale? Brad Pitt famously refused to partake in the film if New Line opted for an altered ending, a stance of integrity I think we can all appreciate. We all know the steez...when Spacey's Jon Doe directs detectives Somerset (Freeman) and Mills (Pitt) to the desert to lay witness to his final bout of homicidal handy-work...a shattering twofold truth is unearthed. Not only has Somerset's wife (Paltrow) been decapitated...Mills' unexpected child was consequently victimized. In every way conceivable, SE7EN is a superlative film...the conclusion of which aptly heightens its sense of evil.
#5. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
As far as superhuman slasher-villains are concerned, I'm a Voorhees man through and through. Of course, we all know it wasn't the murderous man-child dispatching many a lakeside teen in Sean Cunningham's 1980 original...it was his psychotically overbearing mother Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer, despite insert shots of man hands and feet to the contrary). When the maddened matron deems a cadre of promiscuous punks responsible for the drowning of her little boy (Jason), a gruesome bout of recompense is served. The fact that it's Jason's mother is the killer is in itself a shocker, but even that penultimate tell is outdone by the film's final twist. When Alice (Adrienne King) awakes in a canoe amid a serene lake, only to be startled one last time by a zombified adolescent Jason leaping from the water to take her under...dream or no...that shite rules!
#4. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
I vividly recall watching M. Night Shyamalan's THE SIXTH SENSE for the first time on video when I was about 17. Funnily enough, about halfway through the picture, I turned to my sister and said: "dude, what's up with Willis...f*cker looks dead." Little did I know that was the exact literal narrative device on which the film is centered. In what's probably M. Night's finest hour, I think what becomes equally instrumental to the power of the film's final twist is the precocious performance of Haley Joel Osment. Despite all the hints and dead giveaways (pun?) that become obvious during repeated viewings, we become so heavily invested in the little boy's ethereal torment that we hardly even notice what's going on below the surface.
#3. HIGH TENSION (2003)
The recent renaissance of French new wave horror can be largely attributed to Alexandre Aja's splendid 2003 slasher flick HAUTE TENSION...a film infamous for its polarizing love-it or hate-it climax. I for one love it, even if irked a bit upon immediate first viewing. You know the gist, when Marie and Alexa vacation at the former's parental abode in the country, they soon become stalked by an axe-wielding maniac. It's a small, intensely gritty film with a star-making turn from Cecile De France...and much like THE SIXTH SENSE...the entire picture works up to...and is totally dependent on that last piece of startling exposition. If that pay off doesn't work, the whole film falls flat...quite a precarious place to be as a filmmaker. When you add to Aja's accomplishment the unflinching NC-17 rated carnage depicted onscreen...there's no doubt HIGH TENSION is high on the list!
#2. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)
In terms of craft and quality, Robert Hiltzik's 1983 sexual-slasher joint SLEEPAWAY CAMP would probably rank dead last on this list...but if we're strictly talking awesome endings...this bastard is positioned right about where it should be. In one of the all time most jaw-dropping final reveal shots, we learn the spree of brutal slayings have been committed not by an otherwise innocent looking teenage girl (Felissa Rose), but by homicidal-herm whose been masquerading as that very female, Angela. That's right y'all, it's a dude! Equally audacious as it is visually revolting...SLEEPAWAY CAMP'S finish is precisely the kind we yearn for. It's a truly hair-raising, unpredictable, downright unsettling image...one that's hard to shake even some 27 years later. I mean, c'mon...how many murderous shims have ever been committed to celluloid?!?
#1. PSYCHO (1960)
Not only is PSYCHO the forerunner of the modern day slasher film, Alfred Hitchcock's inimitable low-budget tour de force is one of the finest films ever crafted. END OF STORY! But even more bold than killing off the female lead half way through the picture (a movie superstar in Janet Leigh no less) is Hitch's highly disturbing denouement...where we learn Norman Bates has long ago killed his mother and since developed strangely Oedipal schizophrenia...an illness that propels him to commit brutal acts of murder. It's pretty amazing how well the film holds up 50 years later, the ending being no exception. When you consider the film's place in history, how utterly shocked and revolted the last reel must have rendered audiences in 1960...there's no wonder why PSYCHO is awarded our gold trophy.