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Out with a Whimper: When Horror Endings Disappoint

There’s nothing better than a horror movie that really nails its ending. The axe comes down, the blood splatters the screen spelling out “You’re Next!,” and I leave the theater giggling like a hyperactive child who’s been told he gets to fly to Disney World on the back of Falkor the Luck Dragon. That good movie high lasts all night long, and a huge part of the rush comes from it being such a rare occurrence.

(Warning: the following article contains SPOILERS for The Devil Inside, It Follows, The Blair Witch Project, and The Houses October Built.)

Horror films tend to end on a down note. It’s pretty much obligatory to tack on an ending “stinger”­­—one last scare just when you thought the survivors were safe. It’s now so clichéd that it would seem downright revolutionary to actually let the protagonist get away. But not all downer endings are cheap fake-outs. Some of the most potent horror films derive their power from a raw gut-punch of an ending (Night of the Living Dead and Martyrs come to mind). In the best of these, the whole point of the film is expressed through the bleakness of its ending. As depressing or infuriating as these endings can be, they are always powerful and rarely disappointing.

Powerful downer endings are just as rare as those finales that have the whole audience hooting at the screen with an overflow of unbridled awesome. Much more common are those flat-out letdown endings that leave you mourning your misspent 90 minutes. And they seem to be reaching epidemic proportions as of late.

No recent film has drawn as much ire for its “out with a whimper” ending as 2012’s The Devil Inside. Not only does the film end abruptly, killing off the entire cast with a car wreck, it adds insult to injury by following it directly with “For more information visit ScrewYouTicketBuyers.com.” As anticlimactic as the car wreck was, it did make sense in terms of the overall narrative. It could even have been a pretty great ending were it framed in a way that made you feel the danger of high speed driving while fighting off a possessed woman. But I’m pretty sure it was mainly the URL that pissed people off. We paid for a whole ticket, we want a whole movie.

The Devil Inside

Which leads me to It Follows.

I missed something, right? With so many people calling it the best horror film of the decade, I know something must have gone over my head. Why else would so many people be so stoked about a movie that ends with zero resolution?

My disappointment was all the more palpable because the movie was almost really good. The evil spirit as venereal disease angle was highly original, if a tad goofy. But they made it work, and I was especially eager to find out how on earth they were going to get rid of the thing. I was glad their pool electrocution plan failed miserably because that was just dumb. But I couldn’t think of a better plan, other than staging an orgy and passing it to so many people that you’d buy yourself a couple of months. I doubted they were going to take it there. I was utterly stumped. I couldn’t wait to see what those clever filmmakers were going to pull out of their bag to get those kids off the hook. And then…

The two leads walk hand-in-hand down the street with the thing still after them. Roll credits.

It Follows

What? Did you run out of fucking film? Money? Ideas? You don’t tell half a story and then just shrug. And how are so many people fine with this?

I’m fine with ambiguous endings. I love them, actually. But they have to pose an interesting question, and that question should be central to the interpretation of the film. That question can’t be “What do you suppose happens next?

Since I can be a little slow on the uptake and the fact that people aren’t rioting in the streets demanding refunds leads me to believe I’ve overlooked something. It happens. Sometimes an ending sneaks up on you, follows you home, waits until you’re alone, and then pounces. My friend likes to tell the story of the first time he saw The Blair Witch Project. One of his friends hadn’t connected the last shot with the story about Rustin Parr making one child face the corner while he killed the other. It was several hours after the movie had ended, but when someone in the group pointed out the connection, everyone witnessed this guy’s face going white and saw his almost comical full-body shiver as he recalled the film’s final image.

The Blair Witch Project

I had a moment like that in the shower this morning. Last night I watched The Houses October Built and, for the most part, enjoyed it. Except for the ending. It wasn’t terrible, just sort of a letdown. While my claustrophobia kicked in big time during the live burial scene, I had been hoping for something more visceral and brutal. After seemingly interminable screaming and pounding from inside the coffins, the camera pans up to a masked figure and credits roll. Yawn.

But thinking about it this morning, I recalled the masked figure’s long brown hair. I thought about how almost all the “scare actors” had appeared at earlier haunted attractions, except for the one they ended with. And that hair, it looked almost exactly like… Click.

The Houses October Built

HOLY SHIT! IT WAS THE GIRL THEY JUST BURIED!

The implications of this one simple, easily overlooked detail changed everything. The whole time you’re thinking that nothing supernatural is going on, that it’s just this group of masked psychos who happen to be very good at following their prey from campsite to campsite, but no. Once you fall victim to them, you become one of them. That’s why there were 50 of them in one scene. Suddenly all the little details I’d written off as unrealistic and nothing more than moments of sloppy screenwriting made sense. Brain = Kapow!

The moral of the story is that sometimes a lame ending is actually an awesome ending that just went over my head. Which is why I’m counting on all you astute horror hounds out there to tell me what I missed in It Follows. I beg you to enlighten me to the hidden brilliance of its non-ending. Because from where I’m standing, the film just seems to

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Robert Marvin