The frame above is from the end of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). Having made it home from his weekend trek into the terrifying “backwoods” of Georgia, where he faced the rape of his friend Bobby (Ned Beatty), the prospect of his own rape, and the death of his friend—where he saw a man killed and then himself killed a man, Ed (John Voigt) struggles to return to familiar domesticity. The film concludes with Ed jolting awake in terror from a dream in which a hand rises out of the water—the same water into which had disappeared the body of his friend as well as those of the two “hillbillies” he and Lewis (Burt Reynolds) killed.
A recent Twitter poll I conducted suggested that fans of Deliverance narrowly consider the film horror (53% to 47% out of 40 votes). I don’t think it’s quite so unclear. And the ending of the film is one of the principal reasons why I believe that Deliverance deserves an unambiguous place in the horror canon. For Ed, there is no closure, no safe return to normalcy. The ending suggests that he is permanently traumatized by his sojourn in the wilderness—that the horrors he saw, the horrors he perpetrated, will forever inhabit him.
In this way Deliverance offers us a trope that is truly a staple of the horror film: the disruption of what appears to be closure, at the end of the film, with a violent reminder that nothing is done, nothing is finished. I recently wrote about how Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) famously ends this way, showing that the survival of the Final Girl is always only ever a precarious survival.
Well, strikingly, this trope begins with Deliverance—a film often omitted from the horror tradition. In fact, even more specifically, Deliverance begins the trope of the hand, in particular, reaching out for the character who appears to have managed to evade its grasp. Not so, these endings tell us. Carrie, of course, ends, with the hand bursting from the ground to grab Sue (Amy Irving)—and, more recently, both The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) and The Descent: Part 2 (Jon Harris, 2009) use the same image. In every case, we’re told, characters can’t escape.
It’s really important, too, to notice that in all three of these shots, the camera is near the water, near the ground. There is no transcendence here, no elevation above and beyond the horrors in which the characters have been mired. They remain mired, a stuckness encapsulated in the camera’s placement near the ground—and, in the case of Deliverance, so near the water it seem immersed in it.
I’ve actually been fascinated for quite a while with the prominent role hands play in horror film. That they signal the way characters can’t escape the horror is only one of their functions. I’d love to hear more instances of hands in horror—and what you think they might mean.