The top 22 haunting endings to modern movies

Odd List Simon Brew Ryan Lambie 17 Feb 2014 - 06:24

Whether they're bleak, shocking or sad, the endings to these 22 movies have haunted us for years...

Because this article clocks in at about 5,500 words, we've put a page break in to help with the loading times and other technical things.

We try to do this as seldom as possible, but it made sense with a piece as wordy as this one.

Anyway, on with the rest of the list, which continues with a fabulously tense thriller courtesy of Paul Greengrass. The usual spoiler warnings still apply.

11. Captain Phillips (2013)

There's an enormous amount to like about Paul Greengrass' expertly made account of the hijacking of Captain Richard Phillips' cargo ship by Somali pirates. Careful to frame both sides of the story, Greengrass' frenetic, documentary style is a perfect match for the film, which even before it reaches its final moments, has plenty to commend it for.

But it's the ending that's proven to be utterly haunting. One series of 24 ended with Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, the hard man hero throughout, breaking down in tears. Outside of the first season of the show, it was the best final scene of a season the show managed.

It can't hold a torch for the moments that Greengrass allows us at the end of his film though. This wasn't the original ending of the film - in fact, a different one was shot. But while shooting on the real USS Bainbridge, Greengrass asked the ship's captain just what Richard Phillips did when he first came on board after his ordeal. When told that he went straight to the infirmary, Greengrass and Hanks went to have a look, and on the spot the director decided the try a scene in there.

The result is the moving, mesmerising and quite brilliant five minute sequence where the sheer impact of the ordeal that Phillips has gone through hits him. It's some of the best acting of Tom Hanks' career, going against the calm, control and sense of authority that he's displayed in the rest of the film. Given that we're used to seeing the ending then the credits rolling, this five minute extension into what happens to people once the cameras are packed away turns out to be the absolute highlight of an already impressive film. Little wonder that one scene has become the main talking point of a film with no shortage of issues worth dissecting.

10. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

As zombies continue to cut a swathe through pop culture, George A Romero’s 60s film is rightly regarded as a seminal moment in horror. Although he certainly didn’t invent the zombie, it was Romero who first put it in a compelling modern context; spreading like a plague across North America, we get a sense of a society in collapse from television and radio announcements even though the film takes place on a relatively small canvas.

Night Of The Living Dead, as well as being groundbreaking in its gore and conception, was highly unusual for having a black leading man; in a clapboard house of panicking survivors, Ben (Duane Jones) emerges as the level-headed leader, managing to survive multiple waves of flesh-hungry zombies staggering in from the fields beyond.

Ben’s strength as a lead gives the conclusion an even greater jolt of horror: having staved off the undead for so long, he pokes his head out of a window at the sound of approaching humans, only to be shot between the eyes by a redneck with a rifle. The final still shots, of Ben’s body being burned among a heap of dead zombies, is unforgettably disturbing. At the time the film was made, America was awash with Vietnam and Civil Rights protests, adding further to their resonance. But even now, Night Of The Living dead’s abrupt ending still has the power to shock.

9. The Mist (2007)

It takes a special filmmaker to adapt a story by Stephen King and make the ending even more dark and downbeat than it was before. In fact, King greatly approved of screenwriter and director Frank Darabont's new conclusion, which remains startling even after repeat viewings.

Aside from its title mist and the deadly Lovecraftian monsters lurking inside it, the movie's story is essentially about survival and the strength of the human mind in extraordinary circumstances. Having fought his way out of a supermarket besieged by monsters, protagonist David (Thomas Jane) acquires a car and drives off into the mist with his son and three other survivors. When the vehicle runs out of fuel and he hears the sounds of more creatures closing in, David decides it would be better to end it all rather than die horribly in the jaws of the supernatural. It's only after the fatal bullets have been delivered that the army emerges triumphantly from the mist - leaving a distraught David grieving over the terrible mistake he's just made. Had he hung on just a little longer, they could have all survived.

As Stephen King once said, "It's frightening. But people who go to see a horror movie don't necessarily want to be sent out with a Pollyanna ending." He's right. Pollyanna this is not.

8. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2008)

We talked about this film just the other week when we looked at the underappreciated movies of 2008. In a very powerful film, it's the ending that sticks in the mind for a long, long time afterwards.

What the film does is frame loss, devastation and tragedy incredibly well. One of the generally unsaid things about life is if we read a news story about a million people dying, the reaction tends to be 'that's awful' and people move on. When it's, say, 100 people, there's a lump in the throat.

When it's one? That's when the power of loss, for outsiders at least, hits the hardest.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas proves that, and Mark Herman's hugely powerful film expresses that through Vera Fermiga's haunting, agonising screams and tears, and David Thewlis' thoroughly in control camp commandment starting to break. The final shot, as the film pulls back, practically etches itself onto your eyelids. Several films telling stories of wartime atrocities - Schindler's List being a prime example - have similar power. Herman's film remains absolutely devastating, however. And that ending is a significant reason why.

7. Don't Look Now (1973)

Director Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel is several things at once: an account of a couple grieving over the loss of their daughter, a moody exploration of the nooks and crannies of Venice, and above all, a creepily effective supernatural horror. In an attempt to get over their loss, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) make a temporary move to the city of canals, where John helps to renovate a church. Yet among the canals and walkways of this ancient city, something ghostly seems to be waiting; Laura is told by a blind psychic that her husband's in danger, while John keeps seeing a child in a red coat out of the corner of his eye.

As the leading couple, Sutherland and Christie display real chemistry - we get a real sense that they’re a couple reeling yet still clinging to one another following a mutual tragedy. The deliberate pace of Roeg’s direction means that the ending seems to come out of nowhere - even in horror, final sequences as grotesque and unexpected as Don’t Look Now’s remain rare. Even after multiple viewings, it still has a raw, disturbing impact.

6. Planet Of The Apes (1968)

An ending so powerful, its marketing department couldn't resist putting it on the poster. At the conclusion of Franklin J Schaffner's adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel, luckless astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) falls victim to one of the most celebrated rug-pull endings in cinema history.

Riding along the shore of what's described as the Forbidden Zone, Taylor learns that what he assumed was an alien planet is in fact Earth - the shattered remnants of the Statue of Liberty revealing that humanity has long since fallen, and the apes are the new dominant species. Distraught, Taylor drops to his knees and delivers a now famous  closing rant: "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

The ending was the idea of co-screenwriter Rod Serling, and differs substantially from Boulle's book. The image of a broken Statue of Liberty wasn't entirely new, though - similar images had turned up on the covers of pulp sci-fi books and magazines years before, including Fantastic Universe Science Fiction in 1953, and the Ballantine edition of John Bowen's novel After The Rain, published in 1959. But it remains a striking symbol of a fallen species, and must have looked all the more startling when moviegoers first clapped eyes on it in 1968.

Frequently lampooned since - not least in Mel Brooks' 80s Star Wars spoof Space Balls, which went to incredible lengths to recreate the scene with a giant transforming robot vacuum cleaner - Planet Of The Apes' final sequence still holds an eerie power.

5. Dead Ringers (1988)

When it came out in 1988, David Cronenberg’s drama was often praised for its seamless use of special effects, which allowed Jeremy Irons to play his own identical twin brother. But it’s the strength of Irons’ dual performances, and the cool efficiency of Cronenberg’s direction, which makes this tragedy so timeless.

Based loosely on a real life case, Dead Ringers sees Irons play Beverly and Elliot Mantle, a pair of twin gynaecologists who share everything - a successful medical practice, a luxuriously appointed apartment, and soon, the affections of a patient, actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold). But the love triangle begins to pull the twins apart, and the pair succumb to a mixture of paranoia and drug addiction.

Dead Ringers is, in Cronenberg’s own words, about “unrequited life”, about one soul born into separate bodies - the twins essentially forming the left and right hemispheres of one brain. Unable to live either with or without each other, the brothers die intertwined in a heart stopping final scene, where their bodies lie fused with wax, together at last. It’s the kind of final image that sticks in the head for days, and something Cronenberg has excelled at throughout his long career as a filmmaker.

4. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro's fantasy masterpiece is about the fragility of the innocent in the face of war. Here, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl growing up in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and deals with the horror of reality by retreating into a world of fauns and make believe. As she does so, the people and situations around her (not least her stepfather, the terrifying Captain Vidal) become fictionalised and folded into her fantasies, resulting in such unforgettable moments as Ofelia's encounter with the Pale Man.

Captivating throughout, Pan's Labyrinth's ending is a real tear-jerker: attempting to escape into the titular labyrinth with her newborn baby brother, Ofelia's pursued by Captain Vidal. In Ofelia's mind, she's passed the final test set by the King of the Underworld; in reality, she lies dying at an altar, with Vidal having made off with the baby. There's a victory of sorts, as Vidal's finally killed by Ofelia's uncle, but the ending is overwhelmingly tragic. In bringing his love of fantasy face to face with the grim reality of conflict, del Toro created one of the best - and most moving - movies of 2006.

3. The Wicker Man (1973)

As much a jet-black comedy as a horror film, The Wicker Man builds irresistibly to a grim conclusion. Edward Woodward plays Sgt Howie, a police officer investigating the disappearance of a young girl on the remote British island of Summerisle. Led a merry dance by the pagan community, which includes Christopher Lee's Lord Summerisle and Britt Eckland's comely landlord's daughter, Howie's devoutly Christian values are tested and mocked at every turn.

Howie suspects that the heathen islanders have sacrificed the missing girl in the hopes of improving the following year's harvest. But in a shocking climax, Howie learns that he's to be the virgin sacrifice - a realisation played with unvarnished brilliance by Woodward. The wicker man burning on the hilltop with a praying Howie inside it is an incredibly powerful final image - perhaps the most powerful in horror. Director Robin Hardy's concluding scene proves that you don't need gore or explicit violence to curdle an audience's blood.

2. Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)

As an account of how war effects the young and vulnerable, movies don't come much more shattering than Grave Of The Fireflies. Beautifully animated by director Isao Takahata and his team at Studio Ghibli, Grave Of The Fireflies is about a teenage boy and his little sister, who witness the firebombing of Kobe during the last days of World War II, and attempt to subsist in the face of homelessness and malnutrition. Sadness permeates every frame of the movie, but there's a melancholy sense of beauty, too. Like the fireflies of the title, which glow brightly one day and are gone the next, the two young characters at the story's centre are simply too fragile to survive. At a time when anime was relatively unknown in the west, Roger Ebert championed Grave Of The Fireflies as one of the best war films ever made, and we'd have to agree.

The final shot offers a happy ending of sorts: the spirits of the boy and girl, together again and happy, faces lit by the glow of fireflies. It's a haunting film from beginning to end.

1. The Vanishing (1988)

Surely the very definition of a haunting ending, but before we get to it, one thing to make clear: avoid the English language remake at all costs. Remade by the same director - George Sluizer - the Hollywood version knocked all the edges off, and criminally, butchered one of modern cinema's best, most haunting endings.

The original Dutch film - Spoorloos, to give it its original title - sees a young couple by the name of Rex and Saskia stopping off at a service station. Saskia is abducted, and Rex begins a years-long quest to find out what happened. But how far would Rex go? That's the question he faces when the man responsible for Saskia's disappearance decides to get in touch.

Sluizer keeps his film free of much in the way of action, keeping the pace as slow as he can get away with, building up an incredible sense of tension as he does. But then how many times have you sat through any kind of thriller (although this is a film that could sit in many genres, in truth) and the ending lets you down.

Not here. In fact, it'd be little surprise if the ending to The Vanishing resulted in bona fide nightmares. It's a finale that chills to the bone, as Rex goes through just what Saskia did, and pulling off a final shot that burns itself in your retinas. We've resisted describing the exact moment here because this is a film that genuinely deserves to be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible.

In short: a genuinely great, surprising ending can lift a very good film to the level of something great. That's just what happens here.

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I wouldn't call 1968 modern, but this is a very good article :).

How could you miss out Easy Rider???????

What about Donnie Darko?

How about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest..? That has a memorable and dark ending. Good list, a few i haven't seen and will endeavor to do so and some I now wish to see again...

All great choices, but what about 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'?

I still find the decision to cancel Sarah Connor Chronicles mind-boggling. It had some brilliant ideas going on and was a superior addition to the franchise than either T3 or Salvation. It obviously goes without saying that Summer Glau is quite easy on the eye, too.

I expected Body Snatchers after seeing Donald Sutherland in the montage up top! Good choices though.

Top spot could only go to The Vanishing. I was sat in silence, chilled, for about 15 minutes when the credits rolled and couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Horrifying.

Dark City, surely?

The end shot of that film was amazing.

Honourable mention to The Thirteenth Floor, too.

Spoorloos is as horrible a film as film can be horrible while still being a quality film

The ending of Arlington Road spoiled everything that went before. The final chase is convoluted and requires immense amounts of luck. This destroys the whole 'That was their plan all along' idea that the film was aiming for.

Firstly, I've never liked Don't Look Now. I've always thought the ending was ridiculous. But I think I'm very much in the minority here!

Secondly, I'd add the dark ending to Jeepers Creepers to the list and the 70's Invasion of the Body Snatchers - that still creeps me out today.

Also worth a mention - Carrie (the original natch), The Crazies, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Soylent Green.

I'd also throw in Take Shelter

I'd disagree with including Pan's Labyrinth in this list. Rather than clear-cut imagination vs reality, I always took it to be ambiguous whether or not the fantasy events were genuinely happening or merely Ofelia's imagination. I don't dispute for a second it's an emotionally draining film, but one way you can look at the ending is that regardless of what truly occurred, either way Ofelia was free.

I expected Body Snatchers on the list twice! You've got to have the original running down a highway yelling "they're here, you're next" on the list as well.

Soylent green, Knowing, Easy Rider, The Road and not forgetting the 2000 TV movie remake of On the Beach!!! Sloppy article.

Kill List?!?!? Come on, guys!!!

Where's Requiem for a Dream?

It's unfortunate that as someone who grew up in a world where Apes was already well part of the culture, I was incredibly aware of the ending before I saw it. Now they put that scene right on the damn dvd cover, it's kind of a bummer.
The Wicker Man end is so powerful and bleak, considering all the singing and music through the film, and then totally cutting the score as they approach the titular wicker man, leaving the void to be filled with Howie's screams of horror... chills.

There are so many films with haunting endings, but few in today's cinema, as they usually feel familiar. I've got to disagree with Arlington Road, (I know I'm in the minority) but I hated that film and thought that the twist required too much good fortune on behalf of the terrorists. I saw When the Wind Blows when I was 8 or 9 and remembering that sitting with me for a while as did the endings to Southern Comfort and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

TV seems to get the haunting ending better than movies these days as you get to see the characters response in the next episode or season. A prime example of this was the episode of Deadwood where a group of events conspire to result in the death of Bullocks adopted son. Also several episodes of Breaking Bad and The Wire.

No eden lake

I'd argue for Inception or even The Prestige over The Dark Knight. Both of the endings of those films are fantastic.

I agree with everyone who said Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I'd also like to mention Brazil.

A good list, but I think it needs Synechdoche, New York.

The entire last half hour is one long, haunting final scene. An extended meditation on life and the inevitability of death... So not one to watch with grandma, but a masterpiece and arguably Philip Seymour Hoffman's finest hour, I think.

Hang on, let me check to see if there's anything by Lars Von Trier in this list. Hmmmmm, nope, nothing there. Not sure how that's possible.

In the commentary to The Mist, it's mentioned that an alternate reading of the ending is potentially MORE horrible... that Marcia Gay Harden was right all along. Think about it - once the boy was sacrificed, the world turned on a dime and the good guys started to win. Creepy.

No The Cabin in the Woods? For shame.

Top list, but Melancholia just has to be there. That, for me, is one of the most powerful endings to a film I've ever seen. I was literally speechless the first time I saw it. A completely terrifying, gut-punch of an ending.

Am I the only one that thought there was a slim element of hope in the ending of 'The Vanishing'? Spoiler! After all, Rex got precisely what he wanted, and the final expression on the killer's face is one of...confusion? It's almost as if he realizes he's been had...after all, as a man that got a kick out of being in charge, he might be nonplussed if he realized that he became just a means to a better man's ends...

I was thinking that...In fact anything before 2000 is pushing the definition of Modern.... (Well my definition anyway lol)

Freaked me out for days.... essentially spent the week telling everyone about it... relaying the plot to various confused and bemused people...

an excellent list. I recall a friend wanting to buy an anime dvd and asking my advice. What's the best anime ever. 'Grave of the Fireflies'. but after a moment 'er, don't buy it though. It's a movie everyone should see once, but probably not one you'll have the stones to watch again.'

I would throw Oldboy into the ring. Not the remake, but the original. Setting aside that this movie has that 'oh my god, did that just happen' feeling several times, but

the ending, where he decides to have his memory taken so he can go on being romantically involved with her and not remember who she really is...'s an emotionally brutalizing ending, after a movie that's already given you a beating.

I thought for sure that The Prestige would make the list!

"What's that coming out of it's nose?" ..... "They're Spaceballs!" ........ "Oh s**t! There goes the planet!"

You forgot the ending of "Carrie" (1976). Amy irving's character has lost all of friends, is haunted by horrific nightmares and may have PTSD

Not afraid to admit - the ending of the Mist was so upsetting that I started hyperventilating and almost passed out. I usually don't mind tragedy because it often has a sense of beauty to it, but the ending of the Mist was just brutal.

Also- The Great Escape, Jacobs Ladder, Kill List

Shutter Island - I don't mean the twist but the final comments by DiCaprio's character are haunting.

An older film, but you have Planet of the Apes. Easy Rider?

Erm, that isnt Josh staring at the wall. It's Michael.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I was going to mention Knowing too. A supremely silly film, but impressive for its unconventional ending alone...

But they did include The Wicker Man, which pretty much did the same ending decades earlier.

That ENTIRE MOVIE is haunting. Also: apparently, drugs are bad for you.

Stupid heroin. Poor, poor Shirley Temple.

Terminator 3 was necessary, no judgement day, no John Connor. If he exists, it has to happen.
And Grave of the Fireflies, that's not a haunting ending, that's a haunting movie, I was sobbing most of the way through (and as a result I will never watch that film again)

I have real issue with that ending! It's been a while since I've seen it but I remember me and my friend thinking that the film cheated the audience in order to get a bleak and bizarre ending.

I always thought Dark City was better in concept than execution. It sidelined the most interesting character (and best performance) in Keifer Sutherland's character for too much of the film - it's a character that shouldn't be front and centre, but the montage ended up a bit of a cheat.

Bleak would have been if, after Sutherland's character's efforts to create a superhuman that could fight off their captors, the main character decided to just rule the place and keep running it as it was:-)

Angel Heart.
Jacob's Ladder.

What about Time Bandits? You think it's an oddball comedy featuring some ex-Pythons, they defeat the bad guy at the end, and then, BOOM! A piece of pure evil in a microwave blows up his parents.

No Gallipoli? No Empire Strikes Back (too obvious, perhaps?) The Fog? I would have thought the endings of any of those should have come before that of Terminator 3. T3's story seemed far too contrived and inconsistent with its predecessors, totally going against the 'No fate but what we make' idea of T2, and replacing it with some 'it was all meant to be' nonsense, giving the climax (in my opinion) no impact whatsoever. Gallipoli and 'Empire', on the other hand...

De Palma is a master when it comes to haunting endings, Carrie, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and Sisters all have endings that emphasis that something important has been lost or fundamentally broken within the heroes due to the events of the movie

Has the author of this article down arrowed all the replies?? lol

Dancer In The Dark? Or anything else by Lars von Trier?

I really enjoyed the ending of "The Mist". Made me chuckle.

But the ending is the beginning. Not like you didn't see it coming.

I actually didn't mind US version of The Vanishing - Jeff Bridges was quietly brilliant.


The ending of "the boy in the striped pyjamas" left me stunned and unable to sleep that night, for me it is as hard hitting as the pianist or schindlers list.

Can't fathom why T3 is on here. Where are the likes of The Hunt, Chinatown, Requiem for a Dream or crucially Richard Burton's Absolution? How in the hell was Invasion of the Body Snatchers overlooked? Also The Mist surely should be in top 2-3. Harrowing final scene...

Speaking of TV series, how about the series finale of the Disney / Henson Associates series Dinosaurs?

For several seasons it was this family-friendly sitcom featuring Muppet dinosaurs (the main characters were mostly human-sized Muppet costumes worn by real actors / puppeteers, but several others were hand-Muppets, and they blended seamlessly) that lampooned aspects of then-modern American society. You come to really care for the characters, as well as laughing at their antics and the brilliant social satire.

And then that last episode’s final scenes hit you in the gut.

Elysium's ending was pretty memorable too. I'd recommend checking the movie out.

Eden Lake should be on here.

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