For Horror Films to Truly Linger, the Endings Must Resonate
(Warning: Spoilers for Suspiria, Mother!, Hereditary, and The Witch.)
Over the past couple of years there has been a rejuvenation of contemporary horror films. Some are calling it “evolved horror” others might lean into “literary horror,” but whatever you want to call this impressive wave of new horror, the key to success comes in a powerful, layered, impactful ending—one that resonates, and stays with the viewer. Let’s look at four examples, to see what works, and what doesn’t.
Description: “A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.”—IMDB
For the majority of this film I was mesmerized—the art direction and cinematography, the acting of Tilda Swinton and (surprisingly) Dakota Johnson, the homage to the original, and the new ways in which the film cut, and moved, and captured our attention. On the big screen the film was immersive.
So it was such a disappointment to see the ending come apart. Not just in small ways, but an epic failure of biblical proportions. What went wrong? First of all, the shift in tone. What had been a stylish, creeping, alluring film turned into a splatterpunk ending, the gore feeling out of place. It just didn’t match most of what came before. I know, I know—the dancing scene, the bending, breaking, and crushing of the dance next door. But there was so much TO that scene—style, emotion, dance, music, sensuality. On top of the gore, the special effects and CGI at the end were terrible. I don’t think the look they were going for was Fraggle Rock horror. Muppets aren’t scary. It was laughable. What had been a truly special journey into madness, old spirits (or witches), and gaslighting descended into B-movie violence and unintended humor. Not good.
Description: “After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.”—IMDB
This was one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. It was stylistically filmed, the actors were once again amazing (Toni Colette, especially), and it was very original. It kept me on my toes the whole way through, lots of surprises, including the various beheadings, bursting into flame, ants, reflections, and other unsettling moments. Tense throughout, the gore was sprinkled in here and there—which worked. Not shock just to shock, but building up to intense moments, where the visuals and weirdness matched the tone.
So what happened at the end?
It wasn’t nearly as bad as Suspiria, but it wasn’t as strong as I think it could have been, either. First, there were the lingering shots of naked cult members, and their decapitated torsos. Whenever the camera lingers on something as gory as that for too long, there is a chance that it will overstimulate the audience, who will either look away, or find it distressing, or even humorous. It’s a delicate balance. Add to that the huge information dump about Paimon, and it’s a less than satisfying ending. Yes, there were clues about what was coming, but until that information was spoon fed to us, we never could have figured it out. And that was a mistake, I think. Not a critical error, the film will still be celebrated, but a bit clunky and heavy-handed.
Description: “A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.”—IMDB
That description doesn’t even HINT at what’s coming. I should have known, having seen Requiem for a Dream, that director Darren Aronofsky was going to challenge me. And he did. While the ending for Requiem was intense, not allowing us a place to breathe or relax, Mother! does the same thing, for much longer (fifteen minutes versus five). The film was a brilliant allegory, told in colorful, surreal, almost reverent tones at time, slowly cranking up the tension. And for the bulk of the film, I was mesmerized. Where it went off the rails was the fever dream, the baby eating, the span of time that went on and on and on. In hindsight, I do understand better what Aronofsky was going for, but if people are walking out, if they don’t finish the film, then what have you really accomplished? I know he wants us to see the depravity of man, to suffer along with them, but at what cost? Risky. I do think what comes AFTER those scenes, the rebirth, the loop, is effective. But the journey—very difficult. There’s problematic, there’s polarizing, and then there’s a total disconnect.
The Witch (2015)
Description: “A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.”—IMDB
I think that this film was one of the main movies that helped usher in the new wave of horror in cinema. Another beautifully shot movie, the atmosphere and setting is amazing. Excellent acting by everyone, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. The danger in the woods, the puritanical times, the religious fervor—it’s done so well. Bit by bit, we see the family destroyed—the baby stolen (and eaten), the son possessed and killed, the twins gone mad, the mother as well, the father gored by Black Philip—so tense. In the end it is the Devil (as the goat) and the witches in the woods that lure Thomasin to a life of sin. The line has been quoted to death by now, but it’s still so very powerful—“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the Devil asks? And her answer is yes. Having lost everything else, her family betraying and abandoning her long before Satan takes over, she embraces this darkness, and joins the coven. The entire breathless conversation between them in the shed, the disrobing and long walk into the woods, the nude witches genuflecting around the fire, and then ascending into the sky, closer to the moon—it’s gripping. For some, this film might not even be seen as horror, based on the old school way of looking at the genre, but that assertation would be wrong. There are many shades of tragedy, many styles of horror—different flavors, and intensities.
All of these films are polarizing, that’s for sure. And the range of horror that is coming out these days is very exciting. But for a film to stay with us, to stand the tests of time, to be watched over and over again, and savored? It has to end with a bang, a whisper, an unsettling revelation, as well as a powerful epiphany and denouement, something that lingers, and pulses, living on.
Much agreement. Here’s what I posted after I saw The Witch: “The ingredients of real horror are so simple: self-righteous pride, inflexible theology, unyielding wilderness, the petty tensions that bedevil all families. Add the loss of a child, and the devil’s work is basically done for him. Intense and horrifying with a visual authenticity that shreds formula.” I might add, concerning the great ending, that I was never so uneasily glad to see a girl escape her family.
Right on. I agree 100%, David. Well said.
Excellent choices. Though Hereditary worked better for me than you, I grant the info dump at the end tended to leave a lot of people lost and confused.
Though Tilda in the old man makeup distracted the heck out of me, Suspiria had me until the unearned ending.
Mother – sorry, Mother! – was well crafted in many ways, but muffed the metaphor by becoming a mixed metaphor, building off obvious Christian symbolism with Hindu and pagan Earth-mother elements in a way that blended as well as hot fudge on a hamburger.
The Witch’s only issue in my eyes was the frequently garbled dialogue, which is easy enough to fix on home video. I am still surprised by those who question whether there was an actual witch or not.
I need to go watch Hereditary again, too. Maybe it wasn’t that bad, the dump. Yeah, Suspiria, mostly the bad CGI effects, but also felt way off for tone and story. Mother, man, it definitely disturbed me, which is probably what he wanted. I liked the first 2/3rds LOL. Witch dialogue I had to turn on subtitles on subsequent views, seen it 4 times I think. That helps a lot.