(This article was originally published in October 2009)
This ain’t the end, fool!
That’s what many films seem to scream at us just when we think we’re finished. One of the best ways to really deliver that final sucker punch to the audience is for a movie to lead us to believe the story is done, only to knock us around with a final bit of storytelling meant to shock, appall, or just plain freak us out.
(The fool’s ending, it should be explained, is slightly different than the twist ending, although they can be the same thing. A twist ending takes what we thought we knew and turns it on its head, while a fool’s ending fools us into thinking the story is done, only to reel us in for one last bit of story.)
Is it cheap and manipulative? Sometimes. But when done right, it can turn an already great movie into one for the ages.
…and be forewarned, SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW…
…who can forget the last few seconds of the seminal horror film, Carrie, when the lone survivor of the prom massacre comes to visit Carrie’s grave to set down flowers. Suddenly, a hand bursts up from the ground, grabbing onto her wrist, and causing quite a few moviegoers to soil their pants.
Recently, a film adaptation was made of Stephen King’s story The Mist, about a group of people forced to take refuge in a supermarket when they are surrounded by an ominous mist, filled with monstrous creatures. It’s an over-the-top study of how close mankind is to complete anarchy and societal breakdown, and gets a little bogged down in its obvious message, but the movie really grabs you in its last few minutes when a tiny handful of survivors are driving through the mist, believing monsters could be nearby at any moment.
The protagonist, David, realizes that suicide is a much better option than the torturous death delivered by the mist’s monsters. They have a gun with four bullets. The problem? There are five of them in the car. So David does the noble thing and mercy-kills all of them, including his own son, as the sound of monsters gets nearer. The bitch of it is it wasn’t monsters at all, but a tank, part of the army contingent that destroyed the monsters. Ouch.
In Friday the 13th, one of the earliest slasher films, a woman named Mrs. Voorhies is killing camp counselors for letting her son Jason drown in the lake. Mrs. Voorhies is vanquished at the end by a plucky young female counselor, who then, exhausted, floats in the lake. We believe it’s the end. All is good until Jason jumps out of the lake and grabs her, thus scarring an entire generation of film-goers for life.
In the classic sci-fi film Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston has a hell of a time dealing with a planet dominated by damn, dirty apes, and just wants to get back home. This is a piece of cinema history, and the ending has been spoiled for anyone who’s ever read a book, seen the Simpsons, or watched Spaceballs as a child, but here you go anyway…
In X-men: The Last Stand, battles have been fought and many characters have died, including Professor X, Cyclops, and Jean Grey. Early in the film, in what we believe is a throwaway scene, Professor X is asking a class a philosophical question about a man who’s in a coma and is completely brain-dead: is it ethical or unethical to transfer the mind of a dying father into the body of the comatose man?
The payoff occurs after the credits roll, when we see that comatose man being tended to by Dr. Moira McTaggert. Suddenly, he creaks out the word “Moira?” in what is unmistakably Professor X’s voice.
In George Romero’s original zombie flick Night of the Living Dead, a young man named Ben has tried in vain to keep a small group of survivors alive in a zombie apocalypse, but eventually only he is left alive. He hides out in the cellar and waits out the zombie horde, which is eventually killed off by a posse of living humans.
Thank God, right? Nope. Ben climbs the stairs and peeks out at the posse, only to be mistaken for one of the zombies and is shot in cold blood.
But the mother of all fool’s endings is also, as it happens, the mother of all twist endings. It should come as no surprise that I’m referring to The Sixth Sense.
In the movie that made its director, M. Night Shyamalan, a star, The Sixth Sense tells the story of a young boy who sees dead people, all the time, sleepwalking through our world, unaware of their mortal status. Bruce Willis plays a man who helps the boy make peace with these dead folks, and guide them to the realization that they themselves are dead. This also helps the boy bond with his distant mother. The story wraps up nicely.
But it’s not the end! Willis’ character, who was dealing with a distant woman of his own, namely his wife, realizes the cause of her ignoring him in the last few minutes of the film — he’s been dead the whole time!!
The fool’s ending is a great device because it allows the storyteller one last moment to knock the audience on the side of the head, and often a fool’s ending is what makes a story memorable. The challenge for storytellers these days is an audience who’s “seen it all” — we’ve been there for The Sixth Sense and all the rest, which means writers will have to stay on top of their game to truly get the drop on us. I, for one, look forward to what they come up with.