The ending of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is satisfying, well executed, and it does not last a single second longer than it needs to. Peele brings his story to its appropriate conclusion and then promptly cuts to credits, not wasting the audience’s time with a useless epilogue or with one last scare. These closing minutes are refreshing, and they highlight how disappointing endings in horror typically are. So what is it about horror films in particular that too frequently end with a whimper and a shrug, and what makes a truly great final scene?
In recent years, one of the most frustrating types of horror endings is what can be referred to as “the screamer.” After a stretch of silence, the villain of the piece lunges at the camera, sometimes breaking the fourth wall to do so. This is a relatively new phenomenon ushered in by the found-footage boom, but it’s a natural evolution of the decades-old principle of ending on one last scare. The idea is to startle the audience with a jump or a twist directly before the credits so that they are given a rush of adrenaline and they return to the theater lobby visibly shaken like the passengers of Splash Mountain returning to Magic Kingdom completely drenched.
It makes sense, but unfortunately, there are so many examples of films falling apart as a direct result of their director trying to fit in an ending scare where one does not belong, and too often does the last scene cheapen the work as a whole.
The most prominent example of this in recent memory is Paranormal Activity. When Oren Peli’s film premiered at Screamfest in 2007, the ending was perfect: after killing Micah off camera, Katie returns to her bedroom and sits on the floor, rocking back and forth. The footage cuts ahead to show Katie remaining in this exact spot for nearly 24 hours, ignoring concerned phone calls and never once sleeping or eating. When police arrive, she walks towards them with a knife and is shot and killed. The picture fades out, and the movie closes on photos of Katie and Micah as a tribute to the deceased couple.
In addition to being creative and scary, this ending is a natural extension of the relatively subdued movie that came before. But it’s also more restrained than we typically expect from a wide release, and sending audiences out on this note would be a huge risk. So the ending was scrapped in favor of a more conventional but less effective one in which Katie crawls towards the camera, her face morphs, and she lunges at the viewer as the picture cuts to black. The audience screams, laughs, and leaves the theater on a high as they might leave a haunted house.
But that high quickly wears off. This ending is cliché, it looks silly, and it is so thoroughly at odds with the rest of the film, which until that point played out like something we could reasonably imagine being recorded on a person’s home video camera without any Hollywood effects. Suddenly, the movie has all of the subtly of a screamer video found on eBaum’s World in 2003. Katie jumping at us may provide a brief thrill, but it’s not what the story needed, and it ultimately leaves us wanting more.
Six years after the release of Paranormal Activity, another film was nearly ruined for almost the exact same reason, although this time there was no alternate scene. Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended follows a group of high school kids on a Skype conference taking place on the one year anniversary of the death of their friend Laura, who committed suicide after being cyberbullied. In the last act, it is revealed that (spoiler alert!) the lead character, Blaire, is the one responsible for Laura’s death.
As soon as that information drops, we can feel the movie building towards an interesting and unique ending. After Laura has killed all of Blaire’s friends, she uploads to Facebook proof that Blaire was the one who drove her to suicide. Now, Blaire’s reputation has been destroyed, and she has been cursed to suffer the same fate she inflicted upon Laura, a fate which may be worse than death. It’s the ideal kind of ironic twist: one that we do not see coming but that in retrospect is clearly the way the movie always had to end.
Yet at the last moment, Gabriadze goes for the boring Hollywood ending we originally expected. Instead of leaving Blaire alive to suffer the consequences of her actions, Laura just kills her, meaning Blaire only has to experience her reputation being ruined for about 60 seconds. Some punishment, huh? Maybe this is how Gabriadze always imagined the ending playing it, but it sure seems like the whole reason this major plot point happens is because the movie had to end on a big jump, and the only way to do so would be to have Laura kill Blaire. Once again, the need to shoehorn in one last scare has hurt a movie rather than helped it.
Horror films falling apart with the last scene is hardly a new problem, though; that’s the case even with some all-time classics. Just take a look back at the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance. It’s a masterpiece of horror storytelling that revolutionized the genre, made an indelible impact on pop culture, and influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. But three decades later, the ending remains muddled and doesn’t quite pack the punch that it should.
At the end of the film, after defeating Freddy Krueger by refusing to give in to her fear, Nancy steps out her front door and into a completely new day. It’s implied that everything we just saw was a dream, as a car pulls up full of Nancy’s friends who were killed during the course of the movie. But then, suddenly, Freddy takes control of the car, the vehicle drives into the distance while the kids scream, and, finally, Nancy’s mother is grabbed by Freddy and pulled through the front door.
Director Wes Craven famously wanted the film to have an unambiguously happy ending. Nancy would wake up, go off to school with her very-much-alive friends, and that would be the end of it. But producer Robert Shaye thought there should be a twist that reveals Freddy Krueger is still alive. In the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Shaye explains that he felt that Craven’s version of the final scene “didn’t send the audience out with any great excitement.”
The behind-the-scenes conflict is evident in the film, which doesn’t fully commit to either Shaye’s or Craven’s idea. There’s a twist, but the logistics of what’s actually happening, and what parts of the movie were real and what parts were not, are unclear. Craven disliked the ending of his own movie so much that he seems to retcon it in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, in which Nancy is still alive as if the first movie had concluded with Craven’s happy ending.
In addition to being confusing, the ending unintentionally ruins the catharsis that came with seeing Nancy defeat Freddy by not giving into fear. There’s real power to that idea, but not when Freddy returns from the dead mere moments later. As Heather Langenkamp wisely observes in Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, “It’s a confusing scene because with the ending that we now have, it doesn’t quite make sense. If I turn my back and that’s supposed to be a successful resolution, then the fact that Freddy comes back means I failed.”
The first Friday the 13th movie ends on a similar surprise twist that became the springboard for the rest of the franchise but that also inadvertently undermines the effect of the last act. The reveal that Jason Voorhees is still alive is not something we even think about as being a twist anymore, considering Jason soon became the driving force of the series, but if we were to place ourselves back in 1980 and imagine seeing Friday the 13th as a standalone horror film, would that ending not feel like a total copout?
Just as a way to scare the audience, the filmmakers have an undead Jason Voorhees, the son of the film’s killer, jump out of Crystal Lake out of absolutely nowhere. It appears that this was a dream, but Alice’s enigmatic last words are clearly meant to imply that Jason is legitimately alive. That takes away quite a bit from Pamela Voorhees’ story as laid out in the movie’s final 20 minutes. After all, the genius of the previous twist was that the mysterious killer wasn’t some lumbering madman or horrifying monster; it was a sweet-looking old lady who was driven mad when her child died in a relatively unremarkable summer camp accident. We can sympathize with her and her pain, but with the twist, the movie is no longer about a mother’s grief; it’s suddenly about an insane zombie child that rose from the dead in a crazy haunted lake. The Jason reveal adds very little to the actual movie other than leaving room for a sequel (which, of course, we’re now glad it did).
Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, this is also a last-minute twist thrown in solely for shock value that raises far more questions than it answers. Did Jason Voorhees never drown in the lake in the first place? Did he die but then somehow come back to life? Does Pamela Voorhees know that Jason survived? If not, why hasn’t Jason revealed himself to her? What has he been doing all of these years since the accident? Was that scene on the lake a dream? Was it a vision? The sequels really don’t clear any of this up.
This is not to say that it is not possible to send the audience out on a thrill in a way that is effective and jives with the rest of the movie. Just look at Sleepaway Camp, a movie which would likely have been forgotten if it were not for the infamous closing scene. The twist, that Angela is really a boy who was raised as a girl by an eccentric aunt, comes so comically far out of left field, and the scene in which this information is conveyed is like something out of a particularly strange dream. At the same time, this only illuminates what came before, shedding light upon Angela’s behavior and making the film more, not less, interesting.
Another exceptional horror ending is that of The Blair Witch Project, an example of a closing scene that makes, not breaks, the movie. After the slow build that is the first 75 minutes, we get an absolute explosion of terror in the abandoned house, yet we don’t see any monsters crawling on the walls or witches hiding in the darkness. Instead, the climactic moment simply involves a character standing still and staring at a wall, which is in line with the subtle nature of the rest of the film. It’s chilling, surprising, and it fits.
Recently, the ending of It Follows is also quite memorable. Jay and Paul walk down the street hand in hand, accompanied by no music, as someone lurks behind them. Is it the entity? Or is it just an innocuous stranger? That is the question Jay and Paul will be haunted by for the rest of their lives, and the film beautifully conveys that dread while being totally okay reveling in utter silence.
And, lastly, there’s Get Out, a movie which makes no attempt to scare us at the end, letting us instead pump our fist in the air and smile. Jordan Peele is perfectly comfortable not sending us out on a big scare or a twist, and the movie is better for it.
Ultimately, there are few hard and fast rules for constructing a great final scene. It can be over-the-top like Sleepaway Camp, eerie like The Blair Witch Project, enigmatic like It Follows, or cathartic like Get Out. But in all cases, it must, in retrospect, feel like it was always a part of the road trip the director was taking us on. Too often in horror is the ending a poorly-thought-through sharp turn that rattles us but does not serve the story, and that’s what films like Paranormal Activity, Unfriended, and even A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, get wrong.