If there is one rule most films liked to adhere to is giving viewers a happy ending. After a long, arduous journey, the hero is rewarded and so are audiences, with a warm fuzzy feeling of the “they lived happily ever after” persuasion. Although this practice was religiously followed in the early days of cinema, studios and writers alike slowly realized that art imitates life and life is no fairytale.
Realism gradually seeped in the film industry and even created strong cinematic movements all around the world. Somewhere along the line, films started to become darker and give us a more depressing view of the world. The happy ending was no longer a given at the conclusion of the third act.
Through this maturing process, cinema became more cynical than ever and new elements such as the antihero and film noir rose to popularity. Movie endings started to reflect that change as it was shown that the feel good factor was not the only way to win over viewers. Over the years, there have been films that took this premise to a whole new level, with endings that seemed intent to not only dishearten audiences, but shock them, by exhibiting how bleak the world can be.
Here are 10 films who excelled at this. Spoilers ahead.
10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Based of Jack Finney’s novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers explores a secret alien invasion from a species that departed their dying planet and are looking to resettle on Earth by replacing the human race. Although Philip Kaufman’s remake is in many ways inferior to its 1956 predecessor, it has offered us one of the most chilling movie endings in recent memory.
In San Francisco, weird phenomena start to occur, when people start claiming their loved ones are not themselves anymore. More and more people seem apathetic to this and completely devoted of emotion and the film’s four protagonists set out to investigate the situation. As the plan of the alien invasion becomes apparent to them, they try to flee, only to discover that the whole world is afflicted by this phenomenon.
Nancy and Matthew are now the only humans remaining and they decide to imitate alien behavior to blend in as the only means of survival in this new world order. In the final scene, Nancy approaches Matthew and talks to him. His response is a chilling shriek. Nancy’s horror in the realization that she is now the only human alive is topped only by the notion of her impending doom when other aliens are notified of her existence.
Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is the story of Dae-Su, a man held in a private prison for 15 years, without having contact with another human being or any explanation offered to him about his situation. Once released, he embarks on a quest to find his long lost daughter and discover who his captors were. During this he meets Mi-do, a young woman he falls in love with and who seems capable to give his life a meaning other than revenge.
The film’s big reveal brings Dae-Su face to face with the horrible truth; as an act of vengeance for a past incident, an old schoolmate of his imprisoned Dae-Su and arranged for him to fall in love with Mi-do, who is none other than his own daughter.
In an attempt to save Mi-do’s life, Dae-Su, a man who lost 15 years of his life and was tricked into committing incest is forced to humiliate himself in front of the person who caused all of his misfortunes and even cut his own tongue as a sign of penance.
Although he tries to make himself forget through the use of hypnosis, the painful look on his face during the final sequence shows that some scars can never be healed.
8. Wages of Fear
Leave it to the French to show you how tough life can be. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece follows a group of foreign workers in South America as they are trying to traverse the rough terrain with trucks full of dynamite, to accommodate the needs of an oil company.
The director paints a gritty picture of the decrepit village and its people, showing the hardships of manual labor. The inhabitants are essentially prisoners in this abysmal place. Corruption and deceit lurk between even the most mundane interactions, into what can only be described as a cesspool of anguish.
Every character in Wages of Fear is a testament to human misery, from the locals and their respective subplots to the four main protagonists. All of them start with a dream, but as one by one perish in agony in the hopes of ultimate salvation, the audience sinks deeper into a state of despair.
After a long journey, the sole survivor manages to accomplish the mission and triumphantly begins his way back home. Waltz starts playing, the village is celebrating and we finally feel like this terrifying story will have at least one silver lining. That is until we see Mario’s truck tumbling down a cliff and set ablaze, effectively ending any notion of atonement.
Clouzot’s vision is one of never-ending misery and a perfect metaphor for the effect of capitalism on the working class.
The 90s were a fruitful period for the crime genre and in the midst of this a still fresh David Fincher would come to create his first great film with Se7en. With a quite formulaic plot, Se7en follows two detectives that are newly partnered up, as they try to solve a series of murders tied to Dante’s seven deadly sins.
Although the depiction of the murders is gore, bordering on horrifying, the first two acts roll on as expected, hypnotizing the audience into thinking that they have seen different versions of this story many times before. It is not until the final act kicks in that Se7en goes on to create cinematic history.
With two sins left to go, everyone’s expectations are subverted when John Doe turns himself in, claiming he has completed his work. This very disconcerting sign was not enough to prepare viewers for what was about to follow.
As detectives Mills and Somerset drive out in the desert along with John Doe, tension is building and along with it comes a mist of uneasiness. A box is delivered to the trio and Somerset’s expression as he looks inside is enough to send chills down everyone’s spine. John Doe’s hideous spree ended by brutally murdering detective Mills’ wife and unborn child.
As if this terrifying image was not morbid enough, John Doe will claim his final sin in the form of Mills’ revenge. The detective kills Doe in point blank range, with the psychopath claiming another soul and completing this perverse septet with his own death. The twisted ending manages to break the mold of crime films while simultaneously shedding light to the darkest corners of the human psyche.
6. American History X
We will never know what Tony Kaye’s preferred cut of American History X would have looked like, but it’s difficult to imagine this story told in a better way. Kaye’s public feud with the studio and his famous request of having his name taken off the credit list, have rendered the British director’s debut as one of the most controversial films in years. Nevertheless, this takes nothing away from the awe-inducing masterpiece that is American history X.
Derek Vinyard is a former neo-nazi recently released from prison, wherein his perception and ideas of the world vastly changed. He rejoins his family, only to find out that they are heading down the same path he was and the film explores his efforts to reach out to the people around him and make them see the error of their ways.
The film doesn’t hold back in depicting the brutality of extreme ideologies, with revolting imagery coming in the form of flashbacks ranging from ignorant assault to savage murder and sadistic rape causing our skin to crawl.
Derek is no longer interested in himself, but tries to reach out to his younger brother Danny and through him achieve his personal redemption. It is a long journey battling years of indoctrination but Derek finally seems to get through to his brother.
It is not until the final scene when the small ray of light audiences were beginning to see fades out. Danny dies at the hands of an African-American student and with him so does Derek’s hope for atonement. American History X leaves us on the gloomy note that the circle of violence can never be broken no matter how hard you try.