The top 22 haunting endings to modern movies
Whether they're bleak, shocking or sad, the endings to these 22 movies have haunted us for years...
WARNING: There are spoilers to the endings for every film we talk about in this article. So if you don't want to know an ending for a film, then don't read that entry.
It's probably best to start by talking about what this article isn't. It's not a list of the best movie endings, the best twists, the most depressing endings or anything like that. Instead, we're focusing here on the endings that seeped into our brain and stayed there for some time after we'd seen the film. The endings that provoke in an interesting way, and haunt you for days afterwards.
As such, whilst not every ending we're going to talk about here is a flat out classic - although lots of them are - these are the ones that made us sit up and think, or crept under our skin for some reason, or both. Do feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments, too...
22. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)
We're not going to sit here and argue that the third Terminator movie is an overlooked classic, nor that it's a necessary extension to James Cameron's first two films in the series. It's a bit of a muddle of a film, but it does have an ending that's bold, bleak, and sticks in the mind long after the rest of the film - "talk to the hand" - has been forgotten.
What sets the ending apart is that it effectively renders the battle that John Connor and Catherine Brewster have been fighting for the duration of the film useless. He thought he was battling to fend off Skynet's attack. As it turns out, the latest Arnie model Terminator has, all along, been working to a different agenda. He just needs to get them safe before all hell breaks loose.
It's a pity that Terminator: Salvation wouldn't pick up on this, as its melancholy ending invited further exploration. This is where a television series would have worked, too: removed of the need to shoehorn another starring role for Schwarzenegger into it, a Terminator spin-off series could have picked up with John and Catherine walking out of that bunker, and picking up the battle.
Mind you, we got an excellent Terminator spin-off series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and they went and cancelled that after two seasons...
21. Right At Your Door (2006)
It's a bit of a bumpy film this one, predominantly taking place in a single location with a premise that just - just - about stretches to feature length. The ending, however, turns things around and makes - for interesting reasons - much of what has gone before really quite futile.
The core idea feels very real for a start. The explosion of a dirty bomb in Los Angeles brings with it a toxic cloud, and the advice that people should stay indoors at all costs. Brad, played by Rory Cochrane, heeds that advice, and seals up his house to keep the bad stuff out. The film poses one moral dilemma when Brad's wife arrives home, covered in ashes from the explosion, and he has to decide whether to let her in and potentially contaminate the house. But then writer-director Chris Gorak pulls a twist ending, but also a creepy one, that questions just what's being kept in and just what's being kept out.
It's an ending that certainly lifts an already quite decent film, aided by a narrative that could have been lifted from a news bulletin, given how skilfully it plays on very real life fears.
20. The Dark Knight (2008)
It's generally accepted that the middle part of a movie trilogy is where things go darker, following the template set effectively by The Empire Strikes Back. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins was hardly a light, happy comic book movie in the first place, but The Dark Knight takes time to explore the depths of the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and also the psychotic Joker who is pitted against him.
The Joker, of course, is the villain that's the hardest for Batman to do battle with, as exposed by the futility of the caped one's interrogation room moment. There's nothing that he can do to rile The Joker, whose aim ultimately is to take the best of people and turn them to rubble. He does it with Harvey Dent, and by the end of The Dark Knight, he's effectively done it to Batman too.
The haunting element to this, and a further example of just how bold the film is, comes in the dialogue that Gary Oldman's Gordon delivers as Batman flees the scene of Harvey's death. It's the bit where he's asked by his puzzled son why Batman, who has just saved Gotham, has to run away. "Because we must chase him", Gordon solemnly replies. "He didn't do anything wrong", protests his son. "Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight."
It's a tonally perfect end to an excellent film, one that creeps into your brain and resonates for some time to come. In a film not short of exploring moral darkness, it's arguably the darkest passage of all.
19. Arlington Road (1999)
With similarities to the excellent 1970s thriller The Parallax View, Arlington Road, up until its last moments, is a good, effective, well-acted piece of cinema. It's tense, interesting, and hinged around a question: is Tim Robbins' Oliver actually a terrorist? That's the fear of his neighbour, Michael, played by Jeff Bridges. Arlington Road thus frames Michael as a paranoid man not short of conspiracy theories. Oliver, meanwhile, is the happy, warm neighbour.
Mark Pellington's film skilfully turns the tables on Michael by the end of the film, with an excellent twist ending. But what's particularly haunting about the finale of Arlington Road is the part where Robbins' Oliver, along with his wife, put their house up for sale. Their mission accomplished, the implication is that the pair are ready to move onto their next quiet neighbourhood, with absolutely none of the blame landing on them. It's an ending that lifts the film perfectly.
18. Videodrome (1982)
There have been suggestions in recent years that a remake of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome might be in the offing. If one does somehow make it to the screen, we’d wager that it won’t be as unpredictable, prescient or downright flesh-crawling as the original. James Woods is on career-best form as Max Renn, the sleazy producer of a late-night cable channel that specialises in “softcore porn and hardcore violence”. Searching for the next big thing to boost the ratings, he (or rather his goofy tech geek Harlan) stumbles on something called Videodrome: an illegal underground programme apparently being broadcast from Pittsburgh.
Comprising of little more than the torture and murder of nameless ‘contestants’, Videodrome immediately captures Max’s imagination, and he becomes determined to find the source of the broadcast to cut a deal with its makers. But as he digs into the mystery, he discovers that not only are the atrocities in Videodrome real, but also that the broadcast contains a hidden signal that causes hallucinations and other strange physical manifestations.
Renn is drawn into an inter-company rivalry that becomes more complex as his grip on reality begins to loosen, until the fabric of the film itself appears to break down. In the process, Cronenberg - aided by effects wizard Rick Baker - lets his imagination run riot, assaulting us with a kaleidoscopic images, each more weird than the last. A sarcastic comment on the suggestion that movies could corrupt people’s minds (here, Max is literally controlled by corrupted videotapes), Videodrome is also about the dawning age of interconnected technology, and Cronenberg even finds time to bring us a prototypical virtual reality helmet.
Cronenberg movies seldom end cheerily, and Videodrome’s no exception. That final shot of a suicidal Renn, reflected in an infinite mirror of flickering television screens with a gun to his head, is an indelibly bleak one. “Long live the new flesh” indeed.
17. Seven (1995)
By now, just about everyone must know what happens in Seven's once shocking final reel. Deadly sins-obsessed serial killer John Doe (a brilliant Kevin Spacey) has led detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) to a remote site in the middle of the desert, where he promises to reveal the location of one of his victims. But instead, a delivery van arrives with a package which John knows will force Mills to, as he puts it himself, "become wrath."
We may all know the contents of that package by now, but it's the scene that comes after that still sticks with us. As an emotionally shattered Mills is ushered into a police car, Somerset's weary narration kicks in: "Hemingway once said, 'The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."
It's an astonishingly downbeat way to end a mainstream thriller, and one the cast and crew had to fight to retain. But it's also an unforgettable one - it says something that, almost 20 years after Seven came out, we can still remember that final line word for word.
16. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's The Thing is the very definition of chilling. From its Antarctic setting to its low-key score by Ennio Morricone, it's a masterpiece of both suspense and full-on gore. As a shape-shifting creature wreaks havoc in a remote station in the South Pole, replacing its inhabitants one by one, a kind of miniature Cold War takes place; no one's sure who they can rely on. As Kurt Russell's MacReady dryly puts it, "Trust's a tough thing to come by these days..."
In a film as grim and nihilistic as this, it's probably a bit much to hope for a cheery ending where the beast's defeated and the heroes are rescued, and John Carpenter doesn't provide one. Instead, the surviving MacReady and Childs (Keith David), exhausted and freezing, simply sit amongst the dwindling embers of their demolished camp, neither sure whether one can trust the other.
Their exchange of glances and terse dialogue in this final scene could be interpreted several ways. Are they both still human? Could they both have been assimilated by the Thing? All we have to go on is MacReady's enigmatic laugh as Childs swigs from a bottle of booze, and his final, ambiguous line, "Why don't we just wait here a little while? See what happens."
These could be the words of a man grimly accepting his icy fate, or they could be the words of a creature that is willing to freeze and wait for the inevitable moment when a rescue party scoops him up and takes him somewhere more populated, where his assimilation can begin afresh. Either way, it's certainly what we'd call a haunting conclusion.
15. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Although ostensibly a drama, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin is a nightmare from start to finish. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a former travel writer who puts her career on hold when she becomes a mother, yet somehow can't form a bond with her young son Kevin. As Kevin grows up (here played by Ezra Miller, who's terrifying) he's first distant and then downright psychotic, as a childhood fascination with archery and Robin Hood leads to a horrifying massacre.
Ramsay's handling of Lionel Shriver's book is superb, and she gives the film an atmosphere of quiet, astute observation rather than melodrama. The climax is all the more striking because of its restraint, and the scene where Eva finds the bodies of her husband and young daughter is utterly shocking because of the subtle way it's handled. Swinton's performance is stunning throughout, but never more so than in the concluding scene, where Eva visits her son in prison. They sit opposite one another, Eva's eyes full of torment: all she wants to know is why her son grew up to be the maniac that he is. What did she do wrong as a parent? Kevin has no answer, no insight into the moment of madness which has wrecked dozens of lives, including his own. The lack of a cosy resolution makes the film's final scene all the more chilling.
14. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Steven Spielberg's AI, based of course on the film Stanley Kubrick would have made of it, has enjoyed something of a critical turnaround in recent years. Derided by some on its original release, the focus of much ire aimed at the film was the ending, where Haley Joel Osment's David is still sat, 2000 years after we last saw him.
To a degree, this is a happier ending than the one the film could have had. Had Spielberg rolled the credits 2000 years earlier in the story, then David would have lost everyone and everything. The hope in his eyes would have been surrounded by doom. Instead, in spite of the years that have passed, he's still sat there, hoping.
Yet that's arguably even more tragic. That in 2000 years, he's still sat there, hoping for things that haven't come, and show little sign of coming. Whilst he's been removed from the immediate aftermath of the film just minutes before, his unconditional hope - that he's held on to for so long - feels fruitless. Of course, there's another interpretation, that he's been found and things will get better. But there's no certainty of that, and those final moments, for us, make a creepy, tragic character all the more haunting.
13. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
So mimicked and spoofed are the final moments of The Blair Witch Project that it's easy to forget just how creepy, scary and full of impact they were. The final journey into the house, the heavy, frightened breathing and the grainy visuals build up to something. But it's the suddenness of the finale that's the killer here.
So we go up and down the stairs on the search for Josh, getting ever more panicked. And in a film that provides no easy way out for anyone, we eventually find Josh alone staring motionless at a wall, Cue more screaming, our guide being knocked to the floor, and the film cutting to black. No easy explanation (although we'd been told before that children were taken to the basement in twos, so they needed another person there), no hand holding. Just a brutal end to a creepy film.
Time may have dissipated the power of The Blair Witch Project somewhat, and inevitably its ending was divisive at the time of release anyway. Theories about said conclusion have abounded online ever since. But if you're locked into the style of the film, and if it grabs you, it's a suitable, tremendous and uneasy way to end. In fact, it less ends, more stops.
It's important to contextualise this though. At a point where scripts were worked and reworked to try and give over-satisfying conclusions to movies, The Blair Witch Project was genuinely different. The saturation of found footage movies hasn't helped over the years, certainly, but for the very definition of an ending the gets right under your skin, The Blair Witch Project certainly fit the bill.
12. Das Boot (1981)
Das Boot exists in three different forms. The original miniseries, the original movie cut, and the director's cut. Whichever you opt for, you're getting Wolfgang Petersen's finest work, as he charts the journey of a German U-boat crew in World War II. The film captures the tedium of most of their time spent on the boat (but not in a bad way), as well as how this is punctuated by sudden moments of action. Petersen is also careful to make sure that the characters have the feel of everyday human beings thrust into a horrible situation.
We follow these men for over two hours, even in the shortest version of the film, and they finally arrive at their destination, with most of them intact. And then something so random happens that it's led many over time to complain that the ultimate finale feels forced and just a little tacked on.
We don't buy that, though. History tells that three quarters of German U-boat crews failed to survive. What Petersen's film demonstrates vividly through its ending, however, is the unfairness and sheer randomness of war. That a crew can stagger out of a U-boat they've finally got home against huge odds, only to be cut down by an air raid. It feels like a massive slug to the guts, and repeated viewings make it all the more haunting.
When we first saw the film, and it was the director's cut we checked out, we were left numb and dumbstruck by the ending. It's stuck with us ever since.