And they lived unhappily ever after

  • Jacqueline McCartney
  • Monday, October 20, 2008 7:54pm
  • Life

(I won’t comment on movies that were recently released in theaters or on DVD. But we’re talking about endings of movies, so enter at your own risk.)

Horror movies, unlike other genres, frequently call for unhappy endings. Everything goes to hell and stays there, the hero or heroine dies, the bad guy wins. That’s the nature of our dear little beast, and too many films play it box-office safe by not having a downbeat ending.

I’m not ragging on happy endings per se, if for no other reason it wouldn’t be of much interest if you knew in advance that the outcome of the movie is everything falls into the toilet and gets flushed. Happy endings are sometimes the most appropriate.

The end of “The Sixth Sense” was downright sweet, and entirely deserving. I don’t know how the story would end poorly for little Cole and manage to work. I don’t begrudge Regan emerging relatively unscathed in “The Exorcist” or Chief Brody escaping “Jaws.”

But “Cujo” doesn’t call for a happy ending, and neither does “28 Days Later.” Or, but to a lesser extent, does “House on Haunted Hill.” I wish “Rosemary’s Baby” didn’t wimp out in the end. “The Descent’s” conclusion was especially disappointing even if it’s ambigious, unless you rented the unrated DVD, which restores the original British ending. That’s the one it should have had all along.

Speaking of, the “gotcha” moment in the closing seconds of the film is an ending leaned upon so often that it’s become a cheap trick. I’m so utterly bored with those endings that when upbeat suddently goes south, I don’t even blink. Perhaps wince.

The ghoul thought to be dead pops up and grabs the last victim standing; the demonically preyed-upon little girl has a tell-tale glow in her eyes as Daddy’s driving her home; a ripple under a character’s skin shows that the devastating disease hasn’t been wiped out after all.

The quality of average horror movies is such that I have little emotional investment in characters’ fates anyway. So if all’s well that ends well then, whoops, not so much, well, sucks to be them, doesn’t it?

Those cop-outs taint the movies that use those “gotcha” endings effectively, such as “Night of the Living Dead” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

“Night of the Living Dead” is a good example of the best kind of unhappy ending: The ones I don’t want. When we’re watching a movie that’s done its job and made you care about the character(s) and root for them, it’s especially a sense of loss if they come to a bad end. The films about which I’ll say later that I hated how it ended are the most effective. Even then, I do appreciate the conclusion. I have an even better example than “Living Dead,” but I did say I wouldn’t comment on movies that have been somewhat recently released.

One of the weirdest endings comes from “Cabin Fever.” It’s definitely an unhappy ending. But a bizarre “comedy” scene is added after the credits that “explains” a racist remark made early in the film. They should have let that strange little mess go.

The happy end.

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