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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.