NOTE: Spoilers, of course, including mild ones for Cabin in the Woods
You may have noticed a teeny tiny little change in the tagline up there. That’s because I want to broaden this blog a little. Yeah, I mean, I only have about twenty or so posts, and now I decide writing solely about cartoons is a little limiting. I mean, when I covered It and Lucky, I was stretching things a bit. So while I plan to cover an array of pop culture here, I will not only primarily be looking at toons, but the world of horror as well. Therefore the blog title – derived from a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror short – makes a hell of a lot more sense. So let’s talk for a minute about horror.
A good horror story, like all stories, needs a good ending. Since horror is about evoking fear within the viewer or reader – making them look behind themselves before going to bed, making them think twice before going out camping – the ending to a good horror story should either provide a fitting release from that fear, akin to that feeling you get when you depart from a roller coaster – ie.the monster is dead – or go out with a bang and leave the viewer feeling even more afraid – ie. the monster isn’t dead after all.
Sadly, a lot of horror I’ve seen has a bit of a hard time keeping a consistent quality. For example, Cabin in the Woods was probably my favourite movie of 2012, but while it had an intriguing beginning and an utterly spectacular ending, a lot of it just felt like a generic slasher film with Pete vs. Life type commentary peppered all around it. The spot where a lot of horror seems to fail though, is in the ending. Sometimes the monster will be over-explained, destroying its mystery. Sometimes the climatic epic battle is anything but. Or rather that there’s a climatic epic battle where there doesn’t need to be one. A bad horror movie with a bad ending is…well, bad enough, but it’s especially disappointing when something starts off intriguing and then turns sour on its last notes.
So here are four examples of when horror starts off good but ends…meh.
The NES Godzilla Creepypasta
We’ll start off with a slightly non-professional horror story, one put up for free on the internet rather than distributed in theatres or bookstores, but is no less disappointing because of it.
Stories about haunted video games are dime-a-dozen in the creepypasta community; every day brings a new, banal story where somebody plays Sonic and sees Knuckles bleeding. As clichéd as it is, there is still a spot of potential; video games make people feel comfortable, horror is supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, so something horrific tainting the escapist world of gaming can be effective. It may very well be the modern equivalent of the old chestnut where a childhood doll comes to life and becomes evil – something innocent poisoned by demonic forces is terrifying due to the contrast utilised.
There are two video game creepypastas that stand out among the millions, due to the fact they utilise more than prose to tell their tales. There is the Haunted Majora’s Mask story which has videos of an effectively-modded version of the titular game, and there is the NES Godzilla Creepypasta, where the story is told mostly through edited screenshots.
And it’s told well too, for the most part. It does seem to understand how something comforting being subverted can make one feel. When one Zachary gets a copy of Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, he is at first intrigued, but the game gets more and more malevolent as he progresses through it. The arbitrary ‘hyper-realistic graphics’ that pervade so many of these creepypastas is saved until the last level, with the game using more effective, surreal setpieces, like animations of humans with strange heads, snow-covered forests with frozen corpses and hallucinogenic temples. There is a good variety of creatures and places, which helps to keep a sense of dread, and the main villain, one Red, looks appropriately creepy and clashes with the rest of the game in a way that gives him power.
Then there comes Melissa.
Yes, in Chapter 5, Zachary tells a story about a girlfriend he had who ran into traffic that comes completely out of left field, taking the reader out of the story. That isn’t a wise thing to do if you want your reader to feel like he’s playing the game along with the character. Also she’s trapped in the game as a fucking angel, looking like Zordon from the Power Rangers if he got a sex change. Appropriate, considering she gives Zachary an all-powerful monster that kicks Red’s ass and saves the day. A good horror story should make it feel like the protagonist is unsafe, and how can he be in danger when he’s got an angel on his side throughout his journey?
Needless to say, the alternate ending is better.
John Carpenter’s The Ward
Now we come to someone who should be held to higher standards, the director of such classics like Escape From New York and Halloween brought us his first film since the dull Ghosts of Mars sometime in 2010. It had its fair share of clichés, but the clichés are done well, so who am I to complain?
The Ward revolves around a young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard) who is taken to a mental institution after she is seen setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse. Said institution, however, is haunted by a vicious ghost named Alice (Mika Boorem), who all of Kristen’s fellow patients had killed. Yep, what did I tell you, cliché. Asylums have pretty much replaced abandoned Victorian houses and Medieval castles as the go-to setting for ghosts to live in, and while the asylum of The Ward isn’t abandoned like in most films of this ilk, it still feels like we’re treading familiar ground.
Thankfully, the film still keeps itself interesting through its main characters. The interactions between Kristen and the other patients remind one of more ‘grounded’ institution-based movies like Girl, Interrupted, meaning that one does care a bit about their fates – it’s definitely executed better than in Sucker Punch, which came out not long after Ward – and the chases and scares are edited in a way to provide a sense of fun and excitement.
Sadly, at the end, we find that DUN DUN DUN Kristen is not Kristen but really Alice herself! And all the other patients were alternate personalities!
Now, I love me a good psychological story. I definitely think a good tale can be told with the main character having another self in his head – examples include Fight Club and The Machinist. More often than not, however, it feels an utter cop-out. Secret Window, where this twist was obvious from the start, still made it feel abrupt and silly.
So it is abrupt and silly here. I suppose it could be seen as being a twist on the old ‘final girl’ scenario so many horror flicks have, but other films, like the aforementioned Cabin and especially Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon have done better twists on that cliché. It really just means that we’ve spent some time getting to know these characters, joined them on their journey against the forces of darkness, and then being told ‘Surprise! They don’t exist!’ and finding out our main character was a different character entirely. Kristen burning down the farmhouse and her PTSD memories do tell us there’s something wrong with her brain, but the twist still feels sudden. At least with Lucky, Mudd pretty much stayed Mudd and Lucky’s appearance felt somewhat natural. Oh crap, am I really saying fucking Lucky did something better than a John Carpenter movie? Maybe I’m going insane too.
The Descent (Revised Edition)
There are times when the American cut of a movie differs from the way the movie is shown in almost every other country. A good example is Army of Darkness – the American ending found Ash return to his own world, but other countries, including here in merry old England, saw the movie end with Ash trapped in a post-apocalyptic future, with the American ending as an extra on the DVD.
Another good example can be seen in the UK horror movie The Descent. The movie follows Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her five friends as they get trapped in unknown caves, and find themselves stalked by strange creatures reminiscent of that creature in that one photo that people claimed was a real creature but as it turns out it wasn’t.
So, this is another horror movie that pretty much follows the ‘final girl’ scenario. At the end, Sarah is the sole woman who manages to escape the caves, so she embraces the outside world once again and goes back to her car before a screamer ending where she sees one of her friends turned into Samara.
Typical horror movie ending. She escapes the evil and there’s a screamer sequel hook. All fine and dandy, let’s go home.
At least that’s how it went in the American version. International versions had an extra scene that made the ending much more disturbing. You see, Sarah escaping? Yeah, that didn’t happen. After the screamer with her friend, she snaps awake to find that, yup, she’s still in the cave. And she hallucinates her dead daughter with a birthday cake – an unnerving sight, due to looking out-of-place in the setting and reminding Sarah of what she has lost – as the monsters close in on her. Much scarier, much more somber, much more effective.
Sure, a lot of people watch movies to help them relax, but a movie can really benefit from a scene that feels like a kick in the teeth, especially an emotion-driven genre like horror. Buried, for example, had a similar scene where the hero imagined he had been released, only for the final words of the movie to be ‘I’m so sorry’. Even comedy can benefit from scenes like this. The Descent was pretty bleak from the beginning with the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter, and the uncut ending follows suit. The universe is against Sarah at this point, it’s saying, ‘Sure, you could have escaped, and your daughter could be alive, but that’s not the way things are, so neh neh neh neh neh.’
I haven’t seen the sequel, but apparently it follows on from the abridged ending, so yeah, fuck the abridged ending.
Insidious. Oh boy, Insidious. This just doesn’t have a bad ending, it has a bad second half. At least for all its stupidity, NES Godzilla Creepypasta had some impressive levels and creatures in the second half of its story.
Okay, Insidious starts out as a haunted house story, or at least that’s what it wants you to think. A family move into a new house, and when the ghosts and demons start making their appearance, the family reveal they have more brains than the usual horror movie protagonists and move house again, only for the haunting to continue. Now that’s what horror is all about. If ghosts just stay in their haunted house, they aren’t scary if you can just leave the haunted house.
VICTIM: *enters house*
VICTIM: Ta-ta. *leaves*
The protagonists are parents, and it is the child that is in danger, reduced to a coma by the strange goings-on, and of course, the parents’ fear of their child’s safety is the greatest fear of all. It also successfully replicates that feeling you had as a child when you lay awake in bed all night thinking the bogyman was going to get you , with its secrets lurking in shadows and it following the golden rule for haunted house movies – not showing your ghosts is good.
The difference between the first half of Insidious and the second half is the difference between the original version of The Haunting and the 1999 remake. The Further, the spirit world where the ghosts come from would have been much more effective had it not been shown, but the second half has Patrick Wilson’s Father going in there to rescue his son from what looks like the result of a one night stand between Darth Maul and the Other Mother. All the atmosphere drains away in order for the same generic horror schlock director James Wan brought us with his dire Dead Silence. It’s pretty much two different horror movies sewn together, and the stitches are showing.
Honourable mentions go to the ending of the original Nightmare on Elm Street and the ending of the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street.