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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