Few challenges are more daunting for a movie than the ending. You can spin the most marvelous tale imaginable, but if you don’t stick the dismount, it can all be for naught. The last word, the last line, the final image before the credits roll… the audience walks out with them in their heads, and if they don’t like what they see, the entire affair suffers for it. Just ask The Devil Inside, which has rapidly earned a reputation for delivering the worst ending in recent years. But is it the worst ending of all time? We’ve come up with ten other contenders to the throne: ten films that chunked the finale so badly that we’re hard-pressed to remember whatever happened before it. We’ve tried to keep it spoiler-light, but a few reveals may have crept in here and there.
We’re not talking about the original French film here, which could give Planet of the Apes a run for its money for stunning closers. But it only works if you accept its sad, tragic tone, and understand that good people sometimes suffer at the hands of bad ones. The Hollywood remake tries to have its cake and eat it too: first recreating the elaborate plot to shock our heroine to death, and then revealing how it doesn’t work. The latter completely emasculates the power of the former, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what the hell just happened.
You can introduce aliens into a movie that doesn’t advertise itself as science fiction, but you’d better be damn careful about it. (The same holds true for AIs or robots; Eagle Eye, we’re looking at you.) The Forgotten isn’t careful. It just needed an explanation – any explanation – for its missing-child plot that would allow them to finish things up appropriately. It would have used “a wizard did it” if it thought it could get away with it. The “aliens” explanation is just as bad, but the studio suits somehow convinced themselves they could hustle it past us. Sweet Lord, were they wrong.
Much has been made of the decline of Robert De Niro; the greatest actor of his generation now consigned (by choice apparently) to second banana roles in dreary studio comedies. Hide and Seek pairs him with the precocious Dakota Fanning in a would-be thriller about a little girl’s homicidal imaginary friend. As it turns out, said friend isn’t imaginary. Her father (De Niro) is crazy and his nice guy half apparently spends his time cowering in the study while the lethal half is off drowning cats and whatnot. You know you’re in trouble when the screenwriters bring out the split-personality trope; then again, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton made it work. What’s Bobby’s excuse?
Irony: the first adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel to actually use the title also makes the biggest changes to the text for no discernable purpose. The early sequences are pure brilliance, as last-man-on-Earth Will Smith navigates the haunted canyons of New York. The film then loses its way bit by bit, as early elegance gives way to awkward pandering before delivering a “crowd pleasing” finale that completely undoes the whole. Freaking. Point. Matheson’s ending is tough, but also beautiful; previous adaptations embraced it as the purpose of the exercise. If I Am Legend had problems with it, it could at least have had the decency to pick a different name.
Right-wing propaganda paints Hollywood as a loony bin of misguided liberals, fueled by entitlement and out of touch with the common man. The Life of David Gale hands them gift-wrapped ammunition, unbuttons its shirt, and invites them to open fire. It posits itself as a high-minded meditation on a serious topic (the death penalty), featuring a slew of Oscar winners engaged in a full-bore awards grovel. The filmmakers establish a fairly even-handed tone, until the twist ending – in which Kevin Spacey’s activist fakes a murder in order to be convicted and sentenced to death. Not only is that the worst plan in the history of everything, but it paints the anti-death penalty movement as so deranged and irrational that they probably deserve to be executed. Way to tackle the tough issues guys.
The Holy Grail is the only film on this list which survived its ending to become a justified classic. And don’t get me wrong: it deserves every ounce of its hallowed status in the pop culture pantheon. But the ending leaves me cold every time, a would-be prank on the audience that supposedly ties in to a rather weak running joke throughout the body of the film. It lends the impression that the boys didn’t have the first idea how to wrap it all up, and just fell back on something the day of the shoot. It shows.
By all accounts, Jim Carrey’s self-regard is as big as all outdoors. He puts it on full display in The Number 23, a would-be conspiracy movie intended to further cement his dramatic credentials. It falls apart from the beginning, as the star flails about in his own fecal matter while trying to figure out why a mysterious book parallels his own life. As it turns out, he wrote the book himself in a mental hospital… which he conveniently forgets for most of the film’s running time. Because if we knew that from the beginning, we would have asked for our money back instead of putting up with this nonsense.
Relax, we’re not talking about the 1968 original, whose ending may be the single greatest in movie history. This is the Tim Burton remake, which was faced with the enviable task of trying to top the first film. To do so, they went back to the original novel by Pierre Boulle… which would have been fine if Burton possessed the storytelling skills to pull it off. He doesn’t. While the shot of General Thade’s visage on the Lincoln Memorial packs a visual punch, it makes no damn sense. Burton couldn’t set up the gag properly in the narrative, and even if he could, we have to suffer through far too much just to be told, “bet you didn’t see that one coming!”
We could fill this entire list with M. Night Shyamalan movies. The director became so obsessed with Rod Sterling-style twist endings that he championed them as the sole purpose of his work. And when they screwed up, it made you want to hunt the man for sport. The Village starts out with a fascinating question – why are these people talking like a bad Nathaniel Hawthorne novel? – and attempts to gussy it up with spooky monsters in the woods. That actually works fairly well, until the time comes to blow our minds with an out-of-left-field wrinkle. Gasps of surprise transform into hoots of laughter, even before the massive Lincoln-Tunnel-sized logic holes dawn on the audience. The Old Tyme dialogue merely feels unusual for most of the film. After the big revelation? You can never listen to it without snickering again.
I understand that Steven Spielberg is essentially an optimistic person. Life has been good to the man, after all, and he may find it difficult to believe that anything truly awful can happen to anyone. But after painting a chilling picture of an alien invasion – after a slow meditation on what the extinction of the human race might look like – he sabotages it all with a Pollyanna closer that restores seemingly dead characters to life and assures us that not even genocide can stop certain picturesque neighborhoods from looking their best. H.G. Wells made pertinent points without such precocious coddling. Spielberg should have trusted the author enough to follow suit.