BY Brendan Hay
If the test of a good musical is if you’re humming one of the songs on your way out, the test of a good horror movie is if you’re still frozen in your seat as the credits roll. And a good way to earn that is with a great final scare. Leaving an audience with one final jolt, one lingering terror, to keep them awake at night and remembering you for decades to come. (Though hopefully not a terribly problematic one like Sleepaway Camp.)
Here, in chronological order, are our picks for the final scares that most made us keep a
nightlight on. Hope you enjoy some of these this Halloween season, and while you’re at it, check out our episode devoted to the Best Horror Film Franchise. Oh, and since we’re talking endings, beware the scariest thing of all below: SPOILERS! In words AND gifs!
Final jump scares probably existed before this movie, but in modern film culture, Carrie is the OG. It set the standard for what a final scare IS. Based on the Stephen King novel, Brian DePalma’s film follows Sissy Spacek as Carrie White, a teenage outcast who is bullied by her school, but then learns she has telekinesis and exacts bloody revenge, climaxing at the best worst prom in film history. In the movie’s final moments, her prom’s one survivor, Sue (Amy Irving), visits Carrie’s grave…and a hand shoots up! Carrie appears to grab at her from beyond…but then it’s revealed to be Sue’s nightmare. Dream or not, it’s a final scare that works, plays fair, and set the bar for all horror movies that followed.
George Romero wasn’t one for happy endings, so naturally his unconventional vampire story is pretty bleak. This 1977 film follows the title character, a young man who believes himself to be a vampire but — lacking fangs — instead slices his victims with a razor blade to drink their blood until they die. More disturbing than his “feedings,” though, is how Romero gets you to feel some sympathy for Martin. The question of whether or not he is supernatural or merely a disturbed youth desperate for human connection is teased out and complicated throughout the film…until its final abrupt moments, when Martin’s ultra-religious grandfather brutally and suddenly stabs him with a stake. For a film that lives in uncertainty, this sudden violence is a jolt of finality that’s hard to shake.
8. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
A remake of the 1956 classic, Philip Kaufman’s film resets the story of aliens replacing us with personality-free pod people to a place bustling with personality: 1970s San Francisco. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and more star as friends investigating why the people they know are turning cold and distant. We know it’s the aliens long before they do, but what we don’t know is the scale of the aliens’ invasion or just how much body horror is involved. By the end, well, we don’t expect our horror movie heroes to always survive, but we rarely expect them to give up. But that’s what seems to happen here, as Cartwright horrifyingly discovers she’s the last human now that Sutherland stopped resisting and became a friend of the pod (people). This last shot and especially its sound effect have become iconic.
7. FRIDAY THE 13th
Okay, this is the same template as Carrie, but it gets points for sheer craziness. As you know, Sean S. Cunningham’s iconic film is about a slasher killing counselors at Camp Crystal Lake. The killer is revealed to be Mrs. Voorhees, the mother of a child who drowned at the lake decades ago when the counselors were having sex instead of watching him. Final Girl Alice kills revenge mom and takes a well-earned survivor’s nap in a canoe…only for the waterlogged corpse of her dead son, Jason Voorhees, to burst up out of the lake and pull her under! Of course, Alice then wakes up in a hospital, revealing she survived and that the lake was dredged…but Jason’s body wasn’t found! “He’s still out there.” The words that would launch a franchise, and complicate the public perception of hockey goalie masks forevermore.
6. THE THING
Not all final scares need to be jumps. Few are as unsettling as the final moments of The Thing, John Carpenter’s equally classic remake of The Thing from Another World. Mixing cosmic horror with the goriest effects possible in 1982, the film follows a research group in Antarctica who are hunted by a body hopping and warping alien. You’ll see a human chest do things you never thought possible. But by the end, only two men remain, Kurt Russell and Keith David, and neither is sure the other is actually a man at all. They might be the disguised alien, waiting to strike again. This unsettling ambiguity, coupled with the men’s choice to let themselves freeze to death rather than let the possible alien escape, will make you shiver for days to come.
5. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
Remember when folks thought this was real? Ah, 1999. But this indie horror hit by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez kicked off the found-footage sub-genre, following three documentarians investigating a mythical witch. Things go very wrong, and my personal choice to never go camping is reaffirmed like 20 times over. It builds to the film’s most striking image, as one half of the surviving duo, Mike, stands in a corner facing the wall, while the other half, Heather, is freaking out. Then something assaults her from off-screen, her camera drops, and the film ends. No closure, no explanation, just a horrifying set of images capturing the final moments of at least one character’s life. It’s still unnerving, even now that we know it’s definitely not real and has been parodied for the last 20 years.
4. FINAL DESTINATION 2
Let’s cleanse the palette. Instead of another genuinely frightening ending, here’s one that’s delightfully shocking and campy. Those adjectives apply to each of the Final Destination movies, but David R. Ellis’ 2003 second film might contain its peak final scare (though the cleverest ending goes to the fifth film). As always, death is annoyed that a group of people dodged death — this time surviving maybe the most harrowing multi-car pile-up in film — and picks them off afterwards one by one. A few of our survivors eventually think they’ve outwitted death and will be fine from here on out. But then they attend a family BBQ and, well, the grill blows up one survivor and drops his flaming arm onto the middle of the dining table. It’s a hilarious macabre final moment that you don’t see coming, which is kinda death’s style.
3. THE DESCENT
First off, allow us to film geek and say that we are only speaking about the UK ending. The
American ending is, sadly, a butchered cop-out. The UK one, though, messes with audience expectations set by decades of final scares in the mold of the Carrie and Friday the 13th ones above. Neil Marshall’s 2005 film finds five female friends going on a weekend spelunking trip, only to run into monstrous underground predators — as well as the horror of being in tight, dark spaces when you have serious drama amongst your friends. This movie still holds the record for the last film to make physically jump twice in a theater, and that’s before it reaches its final scare. At the end, one woman, Sarah, is left alive and it looks like she’s found a way back up to the surface. She exits, gets back to her car, and is about to drive away… when one of her dead friends is suddenly next to her, screaming! She startles awake; it was just a nightmare. But instead of revealing her to be at home or in the hospital, she’s still in the caves. Trapped. Injured. Probably going to die painfully and gruesomely. It completely upends our expectations and is yet another reminder that you should never go on adventures in the wilderness.
2. DRAG ME TO HELL
It’s great when a movie lives up to its title. Sam Raimi’s 2009 gem keeps threatening to for its entire run time and then truly delivers in its final moments. The movie follows Christine, a sweet, sympathetic young woman, who — in hopes of landing her own promotion — denies a bank loan extension to an old woman. This old woman then curses Christine to Hell, opening Raimi’s comedy-horror floodgates. Christine goes to increasingly desperate lengths to reverse the curse — sorry, cat lovers — and eventually, it looks like she’s pulled it off. But hey, has anyone actually been dragged to Hell yet? And there’s two and a half minutes left? Well guess what? Christine and her fiancee are at a train station when he reveals he still has the item that started her curse. Christine freaks out and falls onto the tracks just as a train is coming in. But arguably worse than being hit by said train, demonic hands burst up from below and pull a screaming, terrified Christine down to the netherworld as the train passes by. Her now traumatized-for-life fiancee watches, helpless, and then BAM! Title card. Hell was certainly dragged to.
This final scare is less a jolt than a crescendo. Ari Aster’s 2018 film starts as a creepy portrait of family grief, before picking up the pace and terror to become a super intense and disturbing descent into cults and possession. There are visuals in this movie I will never forget, and one of them is just how Toni Collette reacts after saying the worst possible thing to her child (the other two are f**king grotesque). This ever-evolving symphony of scares builds to a final scene where all of the pieces fall into place as Alex Wolff’s character, surrounded by the headless corpses of his mother (Collette) and grandmother plus several elderly nude coven members, learns a King of Hell is about to take over and live in his body. The camera lingers on his face as he processes this horrible fate and then…black. The end. No hope. No relief. When I walked out of the theater, I realized Hereditary left me so unsettled that I wasn’t going to sleep any time soon, so I walked back into the theater an saw Deadpool 2 as a cool down.
What are some of your favorite final scares? Are you going to jump out of a grave to get
vengeance on us for any movies we forgot? Post your comments below, but don’t be late when the Freddy-mobile comes to pick you up.