Endings are crucial in horror. During the reign of the Motion Picture Production Code (1934-1968), evil had to be punished, which obviously dictated a certain kind of ending—an inevitable and often abrupt closure that restored the status quo. (Remember the evil Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed , struck by lightning at the end, a conclusion most definitely not in the novel.)
It wasn’t until 1968, after the demise of the Code, that modern horror saw its first truly shocking and nihilistic ending in George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead. The protagonist of the film (Ben [Duane Jones]), who was the sole survivor of a night of carnage after a group trapped in a farmhouse were attacked by ghouls arisen from their graves, was shot in the head by a posse “cleaning up” the staggering zombies. There was closure here, but it wasn’t about the destruction of the monster but of the good guy. And, if order was restored (which is arguable), it was indiscriminately brutal. Then came the slashers of the 70s and 80s and, as great as many of them are, they did usher in the kind of ending that unfortunately still prevails in much horror: monster dies; monster isn’t dead; monster is even more angry; cue sequel. Such endings can be shocking, but the shock is cheap, and it really isn’t that shocking after you’ve watched enough of them.
So it’s hard to craft a good, shocking ending to a horror film, especially one that shocks fans who think they’ve seen it all. The following five films did manage to create shocking endings—endings that are not, in my view, gratuitous—that is, they don’t do damage to the narrative but emerge organically from it, albeit in surprising ways.
These films also happen to be five of my favorite recent horror films (and, I didn’t plan this, but all of them except one are independent productions). I’ve written longer reviews of three of them which I’ll link to, as well as let you know where you can watch the films (because you should!). The endings of these five films shock, but it’s not a fleeting and superficial shock: it’s one that pushes you into re-thinking everything that you thought you knew about the events and meaning of the film.
–5. Honeymoon (Leigh Janiak, 2014)
Honeymoon tells the story of newlyweds Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) who head off to spend their honeymoon at a remote cottage by a lake. One night, Paul discovers that Bea has disappeared and, after a frantic search, he finds her standing dazed in the middle of the woods. Then she starts acting strangely . . . . There are two “endings” to Honeymoon, and the second, final, one strains just a bit too much at the bounds of the realism that has characterized the film to that point. What comes just before that, however, as Bea and Paul reprise their earlier idyllic boat trip on the lake, is brilliant and appalling. And importantly, it sustains the knife-edge ambiguity that the film has expertly maintained between natural (realistic) and supernatural explanations of what’s going on.
Honeymoon is streaming on Netflix.
-4. The Break-In (Justin Doescher, 2016)
Doescher has crafted a strikingly original independent found-footage horror film. Its low-production values and lack of well-known actors are evident, but they also serve to create the horror of the film: this is a film about mundane “normal” people living in a consummately familiar place. There have been a string of break-ins in Jeff (Doescher) and his wife Melissa’s (Maggie Brinkley) neighborhood, and so they’re already on edge, especially after someone breaks into the house next-door where their best-friends live. Things happen quickly after this close brush with the intruder—and I really didn’t see the ending coming, though (in hindsight) I see how Doescher cleverly plants the seeds for it. In the end, the film turns the idea of the intruder on its head and makes you realize that the threat isn’t always coming from where you thought it was.
You can see The Break-In on Amazon Prime.
-3. The Boy (William Brent Bell, 2016)
With The Boy, I’m using “ending” a bit loosely to mean the last twenty minutes or so of the film, when it strikingly transforms into an entirely different genre. The film begins as a Gothic ghost story, as protagonist Greta (Lauren Cohan) is hired as nanny for the unusual “boy,” Brahms, and then left alone in an isolated country house in England. The advertising campaign for the film really played up the shocking “twist” ending, which does the film a disservice, I think. I watched the film waiting for some single shocking event—and was still waiting when the film ended. In some way, it spoiled my first viewing a bit because I was waiting for something that didn’t actually come. What does come is a seamless and yet utterly unexpected shift into a different kind of horror film, and yet it’s not a shift that does damage to the uncanny Gothic narrative that has come before; far from it, in fact. What comes after only enriches what has led up to it. To my knowledge, The Boy is the first film that blends these two particular horror subgenres—and it does so beautifully. The Walking Dead’s Cohan is the force behind the film’s success at both genres, delivering a fantastic performance.
You can rent The Boy on Amazon, Vudu, or itunes.
-2. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)
As with The Boy, the ending of The Invitation entirely transforms the film. At the beginning, it seems more psychological drama than horror. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), go to what is pretty clearly a dinner party from hell at Will’s ex-wife’s house. Things get stranger and stranger—still mostly in the domain of normal dinner parties—until the film takes a dramatic turn. (It’s a turn you’ve been waiting for, in some sense, but which is agonizingly delayed.) But even this turn toward the sinister doesn’t prepare you for what comes at the very end. Again, it’s an ending for which the groundwork has been carefully laid (as you can see in hindsight), but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s utterly unexpected. I’m pretty sure Kusama did not (and does not) intend to create a sequel, but the ending certainly made me want one.
The Invitation is streaming on Netflix.
-1. Creep (Patrick Brice, 2014)
I’ve been recommending Creep to anyone who’ll listen—and those who’ve seen it all respond with equal enthusiasm. You just have to watch this film—a low-budget indie production that is directed and written by its only two actors. Aaron (Patrick Brice) is hired by a man he’s never met, Josef (Mark Duplass), to film what he does over the course of a day: he’s dying of cancer and he wants his son to know something of his father when he grows up. Needless to say, things aren’t what they seem, and the viewer (along with Aaron) is plunged into the strange and unpredictable world of Josef (he’s in the lead image for this post). I spent this film completely clueless about what was coming next and utterly filled with ineffable dread; at the same time, though, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the brilliant absurdity of Josef. What’s great about the ending of Creep is that you actually can kind of see it, or something like it, coming from almost the very first frame of the film. And yet, it’s still shocking, not least because of Brice’s fantastic directing. Like the film itself, the ending keeps you enthralled and off balance.
Creep is streaming on Netflix.