Movies are supposed to have ‘up’ endings. The hero confronts evil and defeats it. We leave the theater empowered. We believe that somehow, by paying fifteen bucks and watching someone do all the work, we assisted in the victory. You can call that catharsis. I’ll call it delusional.
After all, sometimes evil does win. And no genre embraces that uncomfortable truth more readily than horror. Today, however, I don’t want to celebrate the times evil just won at the cineplex. I want to celebrate the times it triumphed (spoilers ahead).
THE OMEN (1976)
Having kids ruins your life. Especially when your kid turns out to be the Antichrist. Of course The Omen needs no introduction. From Richard Donner’s (Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) clinical direction, to David Seltzer’s concise writing, to Gregory Peck’s gravitas, The Omen exemplifies high class horror.
In the film’s finale, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) drags young Damien (Harvey Stephens) into a church to knife him in the name of God. But Robert has to be sure that he’s killing the son of Satan, not his own flesh and blood. So Robert checks Damien’s scalp for the Devil’s mark: triple sixes. Wouldn’t you know, he finds them. Now Robert’s got to kill a kid, in a church, to save the world. That’s heavy. But sure enough, the police arrive right in the nick of time and shoot Robert dead.
Cut to the funeral. Damien stares at his father’s casket. Then he turns and looks at us. And the little bastard smiles. If you look close, you can see the anticipation of destroying an entire world in those little black eyes. That’s not just heavy. That’s metal.ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
What’s most impressive about Rosemary’s Baby is its tone. Director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist) deftly weaves black comedy and body horror together so seamlessly you never see the stitching. That’s no easy feat.
But Polanksi’s real magic trick occurs at the end of the film. By this time we deduce that Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) scumbag hubby (played brilliantly by John Cassavetes), conspired with her elderly neighbors (also Satanists), to let the Devil impregnate Rosemary. Don’t worry, they drugged her first. But nine months later, Rosemary gives birth to the Antichrist. As she stares, horrified, at her monstrous child, a geriatric cultist asks “Aren’t you his mother?”. Call it maternal instinct or insanity, but Rosemary wanders over to the bassinet.
She rocks it slowly and smiles down at the creature, accepting it. The Satanists rejoice “God is dead. The year is one!” It’s a truly poignant moment for evil. But for us, it’s a death sentence.NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Maybe this isn’t one of the best times evil won. But it’s certainly a tragic defeat of righteousness. Ben (Duane Jones) is a reasonable man surrounded by unreasonable idiots. And they are all surrounded by zombies. His chances of survival were always slim. Be that as it may, George Romero (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) allows Ben to outlive the rest of the cast. So when Ben scampers to the window and sees the redneck cavalry killing the undead horde, we think “He made it!”
Then some yahoo spots Ben in the window and mistakes him for a zombie. We watch, horrified, as the jackass raises up and blasts Ben’s brains out. Romero might as well have hopped out of the screen and punched me in the stomach. If Ben had been eaten, fine. Killed himself? Understandable. But it’s the senselessness of Ben’s death that makes it so tragic.
Night of the Living Dead might be dated. And its characterization thin. But few films have ever had the guts to end on such a nihilistic note.INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
Nothing will ever be funnier than Matthew (Donald Sutherland) pointing and shrieking at the end of this film. Nothing. Okay maybe the dog with the human face comes close. But that’s still a distant second place.
Whether the original was an allegory for McCarthyism or the remake a commentary on Watergate, the heroes of both movies just seem so overmatched. They can’t sleep or the pod people will duplicate them (somehow). They can’t show emotion or the pod people will spot them. They can’t alert the townsfolk because they’re ALREADY pod people. The pod-plant-gelatinous-whatevers are just ten steps ahead at every turn.
Forget a climactic battle between mankind and these space-faring vegetables. Our exhausted protagonists only manage to stumble from one assimilated community to the next, slowly realizing just how complete the alien victory is. To say the pod people win out in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an understatement. Humanity never had a chance.IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
Are there better examples to pick? Sure. But I gotta throw you a few curve balls here to keep things interesting. The make-up effects are a little goofy (the old man mask on that bicyclist is just goddamn absurd). The story’s also a teeny-bit derivative (a horror writer’s stories suddenly start coming true!). That said, John Carpenter’s love letter to all things Lovecraft is just too delightfully dark to ignore.
We watch insurance investigator John Trent’s (Sam Neill) sanity unravel as he realizes he’s a character written by the very author he’s tasked with finding. A notion that lands John in a mental institution (which seems to happen to anyone telling the truth in horror films). Then the world ends. Vindicated, John wanders out of the crazy house into the now desolate world.
The movie ends with John watching himself in In the Mouth of Madness at the local cinema. A meta-moment that proves too much for ole John. He bursts out laughing as his mind snaps like a dry branch. And he keeps on laughing, hysterically, as In the Mouth of Madness’s heavy metal score roars to life. But it’s cosmic evil, not Sam Neill, that gets the last laugh here.THE WAILING (2016)
I was gonna go with the original Wicker Man. Not the unholy atrocity that is the Nick Cage remake. I believe, however, you’re owed a contemporary (and well-made) example of hardcore horror. And The Wailing’s as black-hearted as the genre gets.
Police officer Jong-Goo (Do-won Kwak) is a bumbling fool. A character flaw that doesn’t help his investigation into an outbreak of murder and disease that befalls his quiet village. The locals suspect that a reclusive Japanese man is responsible for the killings. A priest even goes so far as to accuse the hermit of being a ghost. A theory that turns out to be just untrue enough to spell doom for Jong-Goo.
Soon his own daughter falls sick. Then, while Jong-Goo’s away one night, the girl murders the rest of the household. Jong-Goo returns only to find butchered bodies and his now homicidal child. Guilt ridden, Jong-Goo lets his daughter slash him to ribbons.
As Jong-Goo dies, he utters a touching lie to his little girl “It’s okay… my baby. You know Daddy’s a policeman. I’ll take care of everything… Daddy will.”