I’ve noticed a trend recently in the past 5-10 years of horror films that I at first thought was a coincidence, but has now occurred so regularly that it is emerging as a pattern. That being: horror movie endings suck. As in: horror movies (in a genre already plagued with a lot of steaming piles of shit) that have a lot of potential, good writing, good performances, an interesting premise and are on the whole executed well, suddenly fall apart at the end. Perhaps it has always been the case, perhaps across genres? With some, it merely keeps an average film with potential from being a great and memorable film. With others, the piss poor ending feels like an insult and actually leaves me deeply offended.
For the sake of this argument I will be looking at a few examples from Hollywood studio films only, as I feel like this trend is one of mainstream genre films rather than the independent scene. Independent horror, as well as the indie film scene in general, is a large pool with a lot of diversity and its fair share of gems, but just by sheer numbers and less marketing they don’t receive the same audience and exposure. Not all of the films mentioned below were Hollywood productions, but did eventually end up receiving studio releases in North American theatres.
I will be looking at The Woman in Black, Sinister, The Awakening and Splice. Do I have to warn you that there will be spoilers in this? SPOILERS.
“The Woman in Black” 2012
This was the first Hammer Horror film released in decades, the beloved British studio that brought us such classics as the Christopher Lee Dracula films, introduced Peter Cushing as a genre icon, and with this new release tests Daniel Radcliffe’s acting chops post-Potter. If one views this knowing it was released by Hammer I think the enjoyment of the film increases. It is a Hammer film through and through, following Hammer conventions and even a little bit of its campy style with a contemporary dose of grittiness we expect from our cinematic fare these days. It isn’t anything special, it doesn’t really stray from the safe, beaten path of Hammer films past, but if you want a solid, entertaining ghost story then the film is still enjoyable. It could easily be subtitled Jump Scare: the Movie but at least has a sense of atmosphere and tension the Paranormal Activity franchise lacks.
However – we get to the end. This film falls into the odd trend of horror films that have been set up nicely, with story and scares being balanced and executed well thus far to suddenly take an odd change in tone for the third act. The plot suddenly decides it needs to race along, all pacing is shot to hell, and a large plot hole arrives leaving you scratching your head, puzzled, in the theatre.
The titular ghost and antagonist of the film is the grieving mother of a child that was taken away from her as an infant, and her haunting has been the spirit’s attempt to reconnect to a long-lost son. Experienced audiences can foresee this plotline right from the beginning of the film, but that’s fine because with this movie it was more about the journey than the end. However, Daniel Radcliffe’s character discovers her story, finds the long-dead son’s bones, and performs a funereal ceremony and burial within the ghost’s old rooms of the house – in other words, with this horror universe that’s been created, firmly setting itself within a specific niche of the genre, it has followed certain conventions and rules an audience has learned to expect from decades of establishment. The hero of the film did everything right, he played by the rules, he solved the mystery, he put the ghost to peace. He is supposed to live. And yet…despite being reunited with her son, the ghost still decides to blindside the protagonist and murder him in the last sixty seconds of the film purely out of premenstrual bitchy spite. WHAT? If you just spent the last ninety minutes establishing that you were operating under a certain set of laws, follow them. Subversion and iconoclasty within cinema is fantastic as long as it was intentional (and well executed).
What makes this kind of a tragic waste is that further research into the production history reveals a crucial plot element that was left out of the theatrical cut. A ten second soundbite. And once you learn what the soundbite is it exponentially improves the film’s ending, and at the very least gives it a believable context. After the hero performs the last rites for the child, he staggers off exhausted leaving the ghost some privacy for her reunion. What he doesn’t witness is the voice of the ghost child who suddenly begins to cry and scream in terror asking where it’s mother is, because it does not recognize the woman in black as its true mother, thus dissolving any closure for the spectre and instead exacerbating her tragedy. Does that soundbite elevate the entire film? No, not really. Does the ending make sense with it instead of being needlessly confusing, spiteful and feel like a cynical manipulation? Yes. Ten seconds, guys. Ten seconds.
Probably the most competent, well-executed studio horror production to have come out in the last five years. Sinister was a sleeper hit over the summer, genuinely creepy, well balanced in tone even at times being darkly funny, having interesting flawed characters that were believable, and executing good scares without resorting too much to cheap jump scares.
Ethan Hawke is the glue that ties the film together, turning out a very enjoyable and memorable performance and one that I will associate as the best of his career (coming from someone who finds him in general underwhelming), many kudos to him. The snuff film motif is genuinely disturbing with the images in Super 8 touching the right note of beautiful, haunting and stomach churning. The film is uncomfortable, tense, filled with dread and for once has characters in a Hollywood horror movie not behaving like active killer bait and actually saying, “fuck this place, we’ve seen disturbing shit and we’re leaving“.
So what goes wrong? …the demon in this movie is just goddamn stupid. I can’t even spell its name, but suffice to say the way its name is pronounced is like if you tried to say the word “bagel” with a kazoo struck up your nose, decided fuck it and railed ten tequila shots. The look for the demon is disappointingly unoriginal and quite average for a horror film. Tall, pale, dressed in black, yeah we get it – he’s Robert Smith’s more depressing younger brother. The film is most interesting when the demon is underplayed and the true horror really comes from the lead protagonist: the salvation of him and his family all depends on whether he can finally swallow his pride and take responsibility for his failures, or will he allow his altruistic nature to take the lead and endanger them? The outcome of horror is dependent upon human decision – this is good. Your character’s choices and efforts resulting in nothing because of an overpowered monster in the closet is boring.
Also the film ends with the cheapest jump scare in the world for a monster that isn’t even scary. It feels like a slap in the face after an hour and a half of mostly consistent, solid filmmaking.
“The Awakening” 2011 (Britain)
This was a film that did receive a studio release but I think was largely overlooked and passed away unnoticed and unremarked upon after its opening weekend. A British production that was released a year previously to its North American debut, earning a lot of critical buzz and acclaim and rightly so. The Awakening is a gorgeous, deeply tragic film where the paranormal elements of the story are well played and used expertly as the backdrop to a very personal story of one woman’s experiences.
The basic premise is our protagonist is a paranormal investigator in post-WWI Britain who debunks seances and psychic mediums. Her main struggle lies in the death of her lover, a soldier who died in action, and her obsession with uncovering hoaxes is paired with a deep desire to see real evidence of ghosts so she can absolve herself of the guilt she feels over her partner’s death. She believes she drove him away and he joined the army because of her rejection and neglect.
Everything about the film works: the cinematography is muted and beautiful, the production design meticulous, memorable performances from every actor, and a lyrical sense of pacing. The period and setting of the film acts as another character – highlighting the collective trauma of a nation torn apart by war and the idea that this lends itself to sudden rises in ghost sightings based out of people’s desires to see their lost loved ones again. Our lead takes a job at a boy’s grammar school where a student committed suicide and disturbing things are happening that are putting the students at danger, as she is contacted by one of the school masters. The devices and methods she use, even back in the time period, to scientifically record and in her view disprove, the unusual happening at the school are fascinating in themselves.
The fact that the inevitable question of whether the paranormal disturbances are hoaxed or real tips in favour of the spiritual realm doesn’t leave you disappointed if you are a skeptic like me, because the film actually creates a story and a context in which this is the more complicated answer and the avenue worth exploring more. The lead actress, Rebecca Hall, is fantastic as we follow her journey and also just take in the moodiness of the torn English countryside, the emptiness of the school hallways and the repressive atmosphere of the time which becomes suffocating. While there are a few jump scares in the film, they are largely forgivable as most of the scares are genuinely spine chilling and admirable in that they hold for an uncomfortably long time and manage to continue to grow in dread with each passing second. The motif of dolls and doll houses in particular are note worthy.
And then the third act happens. And it’s like The Awakening tried to give birth to The Hours and an entirely different film tries to push its way through. It is truly jarring and mind-boggling. The third act is fast-paced and seems to deliver a new twist and pay-out every five goddamn minutes. And it completely ignores a lot of the motivations and narrative threads that built the first two acts. In sum, the third act reveals that the protagonist used to live in the school which was once a house, witnessed her father murdering her mother, had a young friend who was the son of the housekeeper who was also murdered, completely lost her memory of the entire event, the little boy at the school is that boy who was her friend and is a real ghost, the school janitor suddenly tries to rape her for no reason, the house matron somehow manipulated the school master (Dominic West) into contacting her without knowing her intentions, and then the housekeeper tries to kill her by giving poisoned tea. Oh and the school master who she’s been building a torrid, tug-of-war relationship with suddenly reveals that he sees ghosts too.
What the fuck? What happened to my movie? What happened to the boyfriend she lost to the war, how come he is never mentioned again and she almost committed suicide because of him for fuck’s sake? How come the fact that she is an orphan and had large chunks of her past missing were never established in the first or even the second act? How come the school master never butted heads with her over her skepticism if he was a believer?
Wait – why am I even trying to make sense of this – what happened to the movie?
This is the second most infuriated, frustrated and disappointed I’ve felt for an ending completely coming out of nowhere and ruining a perfectly good film. And despite my gripes with it, I still have to recommend it because it IS so well made. So much love and care and originality when into this movie, it really is stunning, and if a third act had been executed to the calibre of the first two I honestly believe this could have been a film to elevate the genre and actually get mainstream audiences to take horror seriously, or at least show that the genre has credibility and can make films worthy of longevity, discussion and thought. That horror or the supernatural can be used as another thematic tool and in the hands of the right director can tell just as “highbrow” a story as any awards-contender.
But instead the film contracted schizophrenia and I was left out in the cold again.
And we come to it…The Film I saw that started this whole line of thought and has offended and disappointed me the most to the point where I felt insulted and angry after my viewing experience. I went through a rollercoaster of emotions with this one, oh boy, and to look at it objectively I’d say that my personal experience probably does colour a lot of my disappointment and that The Awakening was the better made film with more potential and a bigger let down. However, this all started with Splice.
I watched Splice at a point where I had completely given up on studio horror films. I thought they were made on the cheap, were rushed, tired, unoriginal and depended on too many exhausted cliches that catered to the lowest common denominator. This is still mostly true. The horror films I enjoyed were black and white, old or not considered straight horror (Eyes Without a Face, Dead Ringers and Alien being among my favourites). So, my boyfriend convinced me to watch Splice with him, a film I had already dismissed after its poster and trailer campaign. I came into it jaded and as I kept watching I grudgingly had to admit that I liked it. That I really liked it. That by the halfway point I was hooked and very invested in the characters and the premise.
What can I say? It was like it was catered for me! Scientists, genetic manipulation, human hubris, an interesting creature, taboo relationships and fucked up actions based off selfish motives – I ate it all up. The movie was interesting, well-paced, the story was clean and sparing, the relationship between the two leads was understated and flawed, their relationships to the creature Dren were wonderfully bizarre, the tone was dark but not exhaustively so…it was good, it was just good. Dren was an interesting monster, and her relationship with Sarah Polley’s scientist was like a good mix between Doctor Frankenstein and Grace. These were selfish characters who had gone in too far over their heads and created life when they couldn’t even get a handle on their own, and this life wasn’t evil it was just different and growing. And because life was created without enough thought, it brought the question of even if science can achieve something should we do it? And without consideration or respect for its sentience, things end up going pear-shaped for our protagonists.
Things go wrongly, as you would expect. Or maybe not expect. Jealousy sparks as Dren, now really only reaching the emotional maturity of a preteen, becomes infatuated with Adrien Brody’s character as he is the only male figure she’s ever known. Shit happens and…they have sex. It sounds lame when I say it, but it plays out well enough in the film. One misstep leads to another, it is revealed that Dren has been created with Sarah Polley’s DNA, Dren mutates beyond their predicted trajectory and the bizarre three-way triangle between the characters leads to violence being incited, not by Dren as one would expect, but by Sarah Polley’s character, and after the climactic confrontation Adrien Brody’s character ends up dead.
AND THEN DREN MUTATES AND RAPES SARAH POLLEY.
…AND THEN THE FILM ENDS WITH HER PREGNANT SIGNING A CONTRACT TO GIVE THE ALIEN BABY INSIDE HER OVER TO THE SCIENTIFIC INSTITUTION SHE USED TO WORK FOR.
…DO I HAVE TO EXPLAIN HOW STUPID THIS IS OR DO I NEED TO KEEP ABUSING CAPSLOCK?
All this happens in the last five minutes of the film. Without any hints or leads. The prediction that Dren’s DNA might be able to switch genders is mentioned ONCE before, buried under other expository dialogue and scientific technobabble and is the filmmaker’s idea of foreshadowing, when in reality it’s just lazy and insulting. It doesn’t fit with anything else the film has been trying to do or with any of the situations its set up for its characters. There hasn’t even been a trajectory for this explained in the science of the film.
Now you might think I’m objecting because it’sa rape scene. Yes, I think that is one of the most tasteless devices you can turn to, but I also think that rape along with other taboo subjects or difficult situations can be used to great effect. Irreversible, the very dark French film is essentially a film all about rape with a nine minute scene that unflinchingly lets it all play out in one shot – and it is a film worth seeing, every bit as horrific as you’d think, but it isn’t tasteless, is well done, and treats its subject matter with thought and care. In Splice it appears out of nowhere, has no place within the thematic arcs of the film and just comes off as a cheap shock tactic and is frankly so insulting, to make us invest in a character for all of their flaws, spend ninety minutes with them on an already difficult journey and then slap us in the face with a crudely done rape scene…all in service of a cheap twist ending. AND BLATANT SEQUEL BAITING.
I like unhappy endings. I like dark, hopeless, soul-crushing endings. I’m fine with that, I don’t need everything to end up all right. But just like you can’t have a token happy ending just because your movie needs a happy ending, you can’t go dark just for the sake of being able to call your film “edgy”. It was already edgy! It was already doing just fine! EARN IT. Sarah Polley’s scientist has been shown to be ambitious to a fault, being confronted with the decisions to choose her relationship over her work and choosing her work, feeling like she mothered Dren and that is her rite of passage to being a complete woman and scientist, she feels a biological tug to Dren because of the fact that they share DNA, and that her life including its relationships and previous triumphs wasn’t worth a damn to her until her most recent achievement and that her life must now be in service to this.
She should have created another Dren, having lost everything and being broken but still unable to let go of this obsession that ruined her life. Or, she should have isolated whatever mutation was within Dren’s DNA and injected herself and taken the experiment further so that her body becomes the next arena for her work. Or if the filmmaker really couldn’t let go of the twist that Dren could mutate and change genders, it should have been planted much earlier and more consistently through the film, and she should have had sex with Dren willingly – because you know what? You want to be edgy – that’s WAY more fucked up than your mutant creature forcing itself upon its maker, that’s allowing the character to continue with the trajectory you’ve been building for an entire film where every horrible thing that happens to her is a result of a decision she comes to consciously and fully commits to. At this point she’s lost Noah, her partner, lover and her only connection to humanity and the voice that asked if her work should hold some responsibility apart from just existing and pushing boundaries. Dren is a part of her and now it is male, she can replace Noah’s role in her life with this creation she has made, her perfect dream where she can make everything she needs and if she consciously decides to conceive a child it has more impact than her simply resigning to a disturbing fate.
I was so angry after watching this movie I actually just slammed my fist down on the keyboard to close my video viewer and fumed for an hour. All I could say was what a waste, what a waste, goddamn cheap rape scene.
I don’t know if this is a recent trend in horror films, if it’s a trend that comes and goes, if this presents itself in other genre films or if I’ve just had a weird streak when it coms to films I watch. Is this linked with the current societal fears that inform contemporary trends, or is it linked with studio methods of the day?
I don’t know, though it is something I would like to keep my eye on. I may come back to this subject if more extensive research presents an answer or some new insights, but for now all I’m dong is presenting this and going – “kind of weird, huh?”. And as a sort of plea to fans and creators within this genre, for godssake if you’re smart and you actually care and give a shit about what you'[re making then carry through to the ending, okay? This trend is more heartbreaking than films that were eye-wateringly bad from the start…those had no hope to begin with.