Over October, I performed by annual ritual of watching one horror film every day of the month. Some were old favourites, others were DVDs I had lying around but hadn’t watched yet.
One of the films in the former category was A Nightmare on Elm Street. Now, I dig Elm Street, but the ending always annoyed me. Freddy Krueger, despite having been apparently destroyed by Nancy, suddenly takes control of her dream once more and drags all of the main characters to an unseen but presumably nasty fate.
Watching it, I recalled Alfred Hitchcock’s comments on his film Sabotage:
I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.
Given that the narrative thrust of A Nightmare on Elm Street was the build-up of Nancy’s fight against Freddy Kruger – her attempts first to solve the mystery of his identity, and later to find a way to finally thwart him – the film’s ending seems like a betrayal: it renders the preceding story pointless. I was scarcely surprised when I found out that Wes Craven’s original script had a different ending, but the studio insisted on Freddy’s survival so as to leave room for a sequel.
But then, in all fairness, anybody making a horror film will be faced with a catch-22 when it comes to ending the thing. For obvious reasons, the horror genre cannot rely on Hollywood happy endings; and yet, it is Hollywood happy endings that audiences have been trained to expect from a trip to the cinema. Any departure will – like Hitchcock’s exploding delivery boy – risk leaving the viewers dissatisfied.
This got me thinking. As I watched the 31 horror films I’d selected for my October viewing, I made a note of how each one ended. I found six main answers to the question of how you end a horror film (needless to say, this post contains spoilers for multiple films):
The Monster Slain
Here is the most basic ending: the monster is destroyed, all transgressions are punished, and normality is restored. In other words, the closest thing to a Hollywood happy ending. Wary of things becoming too clean, it is common for films to add a macabre touch by giving the monster a particularly gruesome death: something that has evolved from Dracula’s groans as the stake is hammered into his heart, to the cannibal killer of Anthropophagous trying to eat his own innards as they tumble from his ruptured abdomen.
The Monster Survives
This ending reveals that the villain, previously thought destroyed, is actually alive and well. This is where we find A Nightmare on Elm Street, and countless lesser movies that lazily tack on a final shot of the monster returning – but other films, it has to be said, have employed this twist to better effect.
Consider Halloween, which I believe popularised this ending in the first place. Towards the end, Michael Myers is repeatedly shot at point-blank range and tumbles from a window, his presumably lifeless body landing on the lawn below. But the next time we see that lawn, Michael is nowhere to be seen…
This works for two reasons. First, it is internally consistent: Michael has previously been established as a ghost-like figure who can withstand seemingly any injury. Secondly, the film archives a strong effect by using Michael’s absence, rather than his presence, to signify his survival. Had the film ended with him jumping out and stabbing everyone, it would have been merely banal; but having him slip into the shadows while the protagonists’ backs are turned creates an eerie atmosphere.
Ring (the Japanese one; I haven’t seen the American remake) is another example of a film that does this, and does it right. When the ghost of Sadako turns to have survived the attempted exorcism, it works because 1) the film makes the twist revelation that the curse operates in a way that is not what we had expected, but which follows internal logic; and 2) Sadako’s survival allows for the single most iconic scene in the entire film, where she crawls from the television series. Had Ring ended with Sadako’s ghost being driven away by the heroes’ trip down the well, it would have been a much weaker film.
In some cases the monster’s survival works as a moment of black humour; I suspect that this is what Nightmare on Elm Street was aiming for, but it failed as the film as a whole did not work as a set-up to the punchline. The comedy slasher Hatchet, by contrast, gets away with its monster-survives ending because the conclusion fits in with the film’s gross-out, retro-80s tone.
A common variation on this ending could be termed A Monster Survives. This occurs when the film follows a large-scale threat (a zombie outbreak, for example) which appears to have been successfully halted at the climax; but then, just before the credits roll, we see that a small but still dangerous trace (such as a single zombie lurking in the undergrowth) has survived. Examples include Cannibal Apocalypse, Black Sheep and Little Shop of Horrors.
The Monster Slain at a Cost
Here we find films that destroy their monster, but refuse to patch things up neatly. The most obvious cases are films such as Frankenstein and King Kong, where we are asked to feel pity for the monster, even if the film concludes that the beast must ultimately be destroyed for the greater good.
Alternatively, this ending can emphasise the sacrifice on the part of the heroes in routing the villain. Nosferatu is an early example: the heroine gives her life distracting the vampire, so that he can be destroyed by the rising sun. Later came Universal’s Son of Dracula, where Dracula is destroyed in the climax – but the ending is far from happy, as the final shot shows the hero, now a broken man, incinerating the vampirism body of his lover. In each case evil has been destroyed, but innocence is forever lost.
A common variation on the latter involves the previously clean-cut hero descending to rank brutality in their efforts to take down the villain, to the point at which lines between the two are blurred. We can see this in Last House on the Left, Witchfinder General and Hostel.
The Self-Destruction Narrative
This is what we get when a film ends with the monster slain – but it is the monster, rather than the slayer, who has been the focal character throughout the plot. Mad scientist films, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man, tend to fall into this category, as do werewolf films. Sometimes the path to self-destruction begins with transgression (as with mad scientists), other times with sheer bad luck (protagonists in werewolf films tend to be unfortunate souls who happen to get bitten by lycanthropes). How much pity we are asked to feel for the monster varies from film to film.
The Magician Punished
This is what happens when the monster is slain by an even worse monster.
It is a favourite of films with Satanists or black magicians as villains. The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil, A Daughter, Curse of the Demon and Sleepy Hollow each end with the central antagonist being punished by the infernal forces with which they meddled: no matter how much terror they created in the physical world, they will be facing even worse horrors in the hereafter – although the full extend of these will generally be only hinted at.
Expanding definitions a little, we could use this category for any film that concludes by dwelling on a particularly nasty punishment meted out for the villain – Freaks being a classic example.
The Final Twist
This is, I admit, a bit of a none-of-the-above category. Here we find the films that surprise us with a final twist (a twist more sophisticated than “the monster survives”, of course); exactly what this twist entails will depend on the film.
In The Wicker Man, it is when Sgt. Howie learns how he has been manipulated by the islanders, and the true nature of the sacrifice to be held. In Night of the Living Dead it is when Ben survives the zombie outbreak, only to be mistaken for a zombie himself and shot dead. In horror films that take a whodunnit approach (this is common in slashers), the twist will be the revelation of the killer’s identity.