Five Great Final Shots in Horror Films

It’s all about the final image, the one that, if truly effective, will stay with you long after the credits have finished. Here I pick some of my all-time favourite closing shots from the horror genre… okay, one of them’s closer to a SF film, but there’s loads of gore in it, so sod it.

Obviously, there be spoilers ahead…

Psycho II (1983) (Directed by Richard Franklin, Dir.of Photography: Dean Cundey)

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Richard Franklin and Tom Holland’s risky sequel to the one of the most iconic horror films of all time surprised a lot of people by actually being pretty excellent, and for some of us 80’s kids, the odds are that if pressed to put on a Psycho film on a spooky Friday night, it may very well be this one and not Hitchcock’s original. Or is that just me? Anyway, the consistently unpredictable story comes to a shocking climax as we discover that rehabilitated Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) really is innocent of all the grisly crimes second time around, and that it’s actually Mrs. Spool (Claudia Bryer), the friendly, elderly owner of the local cafe who a) not only is the real killer but b) was Norman’s real mother all the time! Norman takes this news as well as he can – he offers Mrs. Spool a sandwich and bashes her head in with a swift strike of a spade. He then carries her up to the upstairs bedroom, speaking with her voice and talking to himself through her. Outside, the ‘no’ in the ‘no vacancy’ neon switches off. The Bates Motel is open for business, and in a visual masterstroke, the final shot sees Norman stand outside the Motel against a deeply unsettling, foreboding cloudy sky, his dead mother posed behind the window in perfect silhouette. The weird thing is that Norman looks strangely artificial, almost as though he’s returned to the youthful version of himself from the first film, while closer inspection reveals that you can kind of see through him! He looks like a ghost… it’s such a vivid image, one that was unsurprisingly used for the main promotional artwork, while Jerry Goldsmith’s scary score adds a hell of a lot. This closing shot scared the wits out of me when I was younger – the horrible twist being that Norman was actually the good guy second time round, but by the time of this final shot, I’m not so sure anymore. The image cuts to black, good old 80’s red-on-black credits rise up and for many a spooked night, I could still see that final shot when I was trying to get to sleep…

The Fury (1978) (Directed by Brian de Palma, Dir. of Photography: Richard H. Kline)

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I’ll be honest – The Fury is not one of Brian de Palma’s finest films. The script is a load of psychokinetic cobblers, and all too-often the suspense is bogged down with talky exposition. However, the set-pieces are pretty spectacular, such as the opening murder attempt, a shocking fairground calamity and a nail-biting slow-motion sprint. However, the best is saved for last. De Palma had already delivered one of the most extraordinary endings in cinema history with Carrie‘s last-second shock, and he’d continue to leave us shaken and shocked with his conclusions to Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. However, as final shots go, nothing beats the absolutely mental ending to The Fury. Highly volatile telekinetic Gillian (Amy Irving) is at her lowest ebb. Her friends are dead, including poor Peter (Kirk Douglas), whose son Robin’s psychic talents had been exploited by the utterly despicable bastard Childress (John Cassavetes, who made it clear he only did this film for the dollars). Robin is also dead, and Childress seems to have Gillian right where he wants her, but she twigs out that he’s the enemy, and in the final scene she unloads all of her psychic power onto him – and then some. First of all he seems to be suffering from a slight bit of discomfort, but the pain starts to get worse and worse. And worse and worse. It’s all building up to something, but what? Man, you thought Scanners was heavy duty with its exploding head? Well never forget that The Fury, three years earlier, gave us an EXPLODING BODY! Seriously, I don’t think anyone was expecting that, and like  The Omen‘s brilliantly edited decapitation shock, De Palma replays the scene over and over from different angles so that anyone who had instantly covered and then uncovered their eyes hoping the gore had come and gone were shocked to discover it was still being played out! It all culminates in a remarkable final image where Childress’ severed head spins towards the floor in glorious slow-motion, John Williams’ urgent but ultimately triumphant score adding grandeur, and there’s that satisfaction of watching the head bounce off the carpet just before the cut to black.

An American Werewolf in London (1981) (Directed by John Landis, Dir. of Photography: Robert Paynter)

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A true one-off, An American Werewolf in London is so successful at blending horror and comedy (no other film has matched it) that you wonder if the whole thing was just a fluke, that John Landis just got lucky, because how come no one else has managed to pull this kind of thing off? The scary is stuff is seriously scary. The funny stuff is seriously funny. And yet the final shot and immediate impact of the credits that follow are an amazing juxtaposition of tragedy and farce. Let me emphasise – the final shot in itself is only half the story. You need what comes straight after for it to really work. Essentially, poor David is not in a good place. Either he kills himself before the next full moon, or he turns into a werewolf and most likely kills a lot of people. He tries to kill himself. He can’t do it. The moon comes, and he transforms. A fair few people die. The action leads to an alleyway not far from Piccadilly Circus. The armed police have David-as-wolf cornered, but in one last desperate attempt to save him, his girlfriend Alex offers to try and talk him back into himself. It’s a beautiful moment, and for a brief moment, the real David is somewhere in there, behind those wolf eyes. But the animal takes over once more, goes in for the kill and he’s shot down. What’s left? David’s human form, dead. Alex is in tears, the police are stunned. The final shot is the stark image of David’s dead, bullet-riddled body, soundtracked by Alex’s whimpers. It’s about as unhappy an ending as the genre has ever given us. And then we cut to black as the ‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom’ rowdiness of The Marcels’ cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and it’s like a slap in the face. How can the film be so blithe after that ending? It’s so cruel, but it’s so perfect. I can’t imagine what cinema audiences must have felt with that cut. Stunned? Baffled?

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (Directed by Tobe Hooper, Dir. of Photography: Daniel Pearl)

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The only appropriate ending to a film like this is hysteria. Remember, this film got banned by the BBFC because of the sheer intensity of it all. The final half hour is an unrelenting descent into horror as poor Sally (Marilyn Burns) is pushed to the breaking limit of sanity as she suffers drawn-out psychological torture and the threat of imminent death from her captors. When she finally escapes on the back of a random guy’s truck, she’s wild with exhilaration, but possibly at the cost of her sanity – damaged by her ordeal (plus none of her friends made it this far) and likely to be in need of intense therapy for years to come. As for Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), he’s just as crazy, but with livid frustration. The last shot is utterly deranged and one of the most vivid and memorable of any film, ever – Leatherface is flailing about on the deserted road with abandon acting out the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum, waving his still-on chainsaw all over the place, with its horrible, piercing sound acting as a substitute for the mute madman’s screams. All of this takes place against a burning, lens-flared sunrise. The sound of the chainsaw is then cut short by a sudden, silent edit to black. The effect is shocking and disconcerting. Even today, that quick cut is like the filmmakers giving you permission at last to breathe. Funny how so many horror films end with a cut to black instead of a fade-out. Only one example in my five has a fade-out. See below.

The Omen (1976) (Directed by Richard Donner, Dir. of Photography: Gilbert Taylor)

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The bad guys win. Simple as that. It’s weird to think that, at the time, The Omen was never intended to be the first part of a trilogy, and if you approach the first film with that in mind, the ending’s wicked final touch is ultimately much more satisfying and disturbing. Little AntiChrist Damien has survived to the end of Richard Donner’s classic horror while everyone else who wanted to stop him is dead. Except for Leo McKern of course, but the sequel would get rid of him in its first scene. The weird thing is that little Damien isn’t directly responsible for any of the deaths in this first film. Who is? His daddy, most likely, as well as nasty Billie Whitelaw. There’s also the theory put forward by screenwriter David Seltzer that there is no absolutely no supernatural element in the film and that what we’ve just seen is merely a string of horrendous accidents and coincidences (bit difficult to accept, that). It wasn’t until the sequel that Damien started to get personally involved in the action. Here, Damien is almost innocent, unaware of his destiny. That is, until the final shot. His adoptive parents are dead, and we’re at their funeral. What’s to become of Damien? Oh wait a minute, who’s this couple with their backs to us? It’s the President of the United States. And the First Lady. Then the camera pans down and zooms to reveal the back of a child. It’s Damien. That’s right, he’s hanging out with the most powerful man in the world, which means the world is doomed. But the masterstroke is having Damien turn to face us, the viewer, and that’s when it comes. The smirk. The little devil. He knows. He knows. In a brilliant example of directing actors, Donner used reverse psychology on Harvey Stephens, warning him that if he broke character and smiled during this shot, he would never speak to him again or something along those lines. Cue the can’t-help-it grin. Cue Jerry Goldsmith (him again)’s amazing score. We fade out to a quote from the Book of Revelations about the Number of the Beast, but the true final image, the one we all remember is of that little blighter – a deliciously evil and utterly chilling ending.

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The Real Ghostbusters Episode 33: Don’t Forget the Motor City (1986)

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Of all the twenty episodes available on VHS in the UK back in the eighties, ‘Don’t Forget the Motor City’ was arguably the one I cared least about. It’s a pretty insubtantial outing, though not without its occasional pleasures. Take the first scene, which is pretty hilarious, it must be said.

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Peter’s out on the road in the big city, claiming without modesty that he was ‘born to ride the highway in his new car, a wild guy with some wild wheels’. The thing is, his car looks boring (despite the ‘Dr. V’ number plate) and Peter himself has never, ever looked so uncool. He has his sleeves rolled up, he’s wearing a half cap/half beret monstrosity, he’s even, I suppose ‘beatboxing’ to some unheard song (probably Tahiti, eek) … yet he has the nerve to roll his eyes over towards who I’m assuming he’s regarding as a square in the car next to him. He then tries to play it cool with the blonde in another car, and she actually seems impressed, until Peter’s horn starts to go off (hee hee) and causes a total racket – what’s this, eh? A new car with a dodgy horn that won’t stop blaring? Plus it won’t start? Peter’s flabbergasted that a brand new car that he spent ‘thousands of MILLIONS of dollars’ on is already a write-off. Back at HQ, in a fit of rage, he sees fit to call the car a vivisectionist, which is definitely the oddest insult I’ve ever heard hurled towards a vehicle.

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Saying that, it’s not a car for much longer. The thing practically implodes before our very eyes. Peter is extremely angry – not just at his car, not just at his lot (he wanted that car ‘more than anything in the world’, but as Ray points out, he said the same thing the night before when the last of the ice cream was eaten) but at the ‘happy, contented, smug’ lot who are going about their business, laughing at Peter from their cars. Peter has a nervous breakdown and intends to go out and beat others up with a desk lamp – Ray tries to stop him, but to no avail. The others tackle him and bring him back to HQ to relax and do the right thing – Peter intends to call the president of Generous Motors and give him an earful down the line, but coincidentally the President calls him first, pleading with the guys to come to his place and sort out all the haunted cars that have just come off the production line. This could have made for a seriously suspenseful episode, given that there are loads and loads of cars set to explode all over the city, but instead we get some silliness with gremlins instead. The guys are asked to go to Detroit to Generous Motors HQ, and there’s something particularly melancholic about Peter’s excitement about going to the Motor City, given how badly downhill the place has gone. They even hope to meet Aretha Franklin there, but she’s only ever referred to by her ‘Queen of Soul’ title.

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Arriving at the HQ in Detroit, Egon asks the cabbie if he knows where the Queen of Soul lives, to which the car drives off. Obviously this is one of those annoying questions that gets asked an awful lot round these parts. I never pegged Egon as a soul fan – we know he loves classical and opera from an earlier episode, and there’s no reason why he can’t mix and match his genres, but I just can’t see him cranking up Motown Chartbusters over the weekend. They investigate the factory, which, aside from the busy reception area, is a place that seems to be running by itself, which makes it particularly spooky. The guys and Mr. Abernathy (the president of GM) witness a car being self-assembled, but it explodes after the finishing touches have been made. Egon, after asking if it’s the employees causing the damage (fair point – even though it’s always the ghosts responsible in this series, it doesn’t hurt to assume otherwise) PKEs the place – there’s no reading as such, but there’s definitely a supernatural presence, and it’s in the cafeteria, starting a food fight. This may seem lightweight for a Ghostbusters scene, but one look at the flying drinks cans and I’m instantly reminded of a shocking scene in the Stephen King movie Maximum Overdrive, a film I watched late night on Channel 4 when I was young. In that film everything electric/electronic turns evil, and sometimes the chaos is funny (a cashpoint telling some poor sap played by King himself what to do with himself) and sometimes horrific (kids getting steamrollered), but there’s one scene which combines the two. I’m talking about the scene where the baseball coach is trying to get a can of drink from a vending machine. He puts the money in and all of a sudden a can shoots out and hits the bloke right in the nuts. Needless to say I cracked up at this bit, and then another can shoots out at hits him right in the forehead, killing him instantly. All of a sudden I wasn’t laughing. Maximum Overdrive is not a good movie as I recall, but that bit was so well done it put the fear in me and then some.

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So back to this episode, and even though there’s the distinctly unthreatening presence of flying sandwiches, I’m always wary of the cans during this bit. Ray’s impressed with the airborne menu, Egon’s not impressed with the carnage (‘I take this very personally’) and Peter is appalled by the stale sandwiches he tries to dodge. Interestingly, Peter’s the one who seems to be taking all of this chaos the most seriously, with Egon being the one joking around. Learning from their victory in ‘Killerwatt’, the guys work out that they need to unplug the vending machine to stop the chaos, and using a table to shield themselves, they do so! Simples! Still, something’s not right – Egon does a bit of PKE sleuthing, and yep, hiding there in the corner of the cafeteria are lots and lots of gremlins.

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The factory opened during WWII (a boomtime for gremlins, apparently) for aircraft manufacture, but a particular section of the plant was shut off… until today. And by today, I mean 1986. Inside the sealed off section were gremlins, and now they’re hungry for anything mechanical. Turns out they can’t leave anything mechanical alone. Don’t remember seeing anything like that in Gremlins. Those little blighters couldn’t leave anything at all alone. Mr. Abernathy suggests they move the gremlins to another factory, but the guys are disgusted by his lack of morals. Gremlins however, aren’t ghosts, so their equipment’s not going to work so well.

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A weird and foolishly dangerous plan involves putting Winston on a conveyor belt, presumably towards his death – seriously, he’s directly in the path of where the cars are put together! He tries to make the best of things by stretching out and relaxing, and even gets proper comfy when the seats are arranged and he gets to have a proper sit down– but then the gremlins bind him with the seatbelt. Winston tries to threaten the gremlins with the threat of imminent busting, but the ‘jerks’ are having none of it. What the hell exactly was the guys’ plan here? Winston arrives at the other end of the conveyor belt where the guys hope to meet him, but they find him sealed inside what looks like a demon car, a demon car which becomes demon-shaped.

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The guys have to be careful (that would be a first for this episode) not kill Winston inside the car, so their plan is to drain the demon of petrol (which involves Ray siphoning the stuff the sneaky way – yuck), and it works, but Winston’s NOT HAPPY. He tries to blast them, but instead of proton beams, his particle thrower shoots out…. confetti? How did the gremlins pull that one off? Even working within the logic of this episode, this makes no sense.

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Anyway, Egon and Ray put together a hideously ugly new car which remarkably changes from pea-soup green to blue in the space of a single shot. Ray thinks the car is beautiful. Egon is personally very excited about it. The reason to be excited is that it is ‘indestructible’, which really winds the nearby gremlins up to no end. The car is put out on display, spotlit and sparkling. We discover that Ray has a tuxedo the same colour as the car, which is the reason he’s such a lonely man, Peter surmises. This same gag is repeated by the gremlins a minute or so later, which I thought was overkill. The gremlins surround the car, armed with weapons of destruction, but before they get a chance to lay waste to it, Egon presses a button and it changes into another car entirely. They try and destroy that car, but it changes again! The next phase of the plan involves something inside a huge box, but the thing won’t open – it looks as though the gremlins have sabotaged whatever it was the guys were planning, or something (the logic in this episode is really flimsy) so Peter climbs up above the box, experiences vertigo and does some mad bungee jump to life the box up, revealing a huge dome, which he manages to swing towards and kick over the distracted gremlins. Fair enough. No wait a minute, not fair enough! This isn’t good writing!

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With the gremlins forever occupied by the constantly changing car (and underneath the dome, they’re essentially trapped), now is the time to consider just exactly how Ray and Egon managed to create a car that manages to regenerate itself until the end of time. Like I said earlier, this makes no sense even within the logic of the Ghostbusters universe. There’s not even some kind of corny explanation as to how this was achieved. The writers don’t even bother. And that’s the end of the episode, except for a coda back at HQ where it turns out the guys did get to meet the Queen of Soul, probably in-between sessions for ‘I Knew You Were Waiting for Me’ with George Michael, which was a big hit the following year. The song the guys sing to Janine (appallingly, it must be said) is of course, ‘Respect’, something I don’t have much of towards this episode, definitely the worst of the one I’ve reviewed to date.

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