Horror movies set out to affect us. They wish to get under our skin and strive to stay with the viewer long after they have ended. Any horror movie worth its salt seeks to do this with an arresting final image to burn into the psyche of the viewer. A well placed image to end a film elevates it to almost another level, by making the movie something more by not only scaring the viewer but haunting them too.
In this list I have compiled what I consider to be 10 of the best final images in horror. Be warned, they’re definitely all spoilers.
10: She’s got a little something extra – Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Plot: Angela Baker (Felissa Rose), a traumatized and very shy young girl, is sent to summer camp with her cousin. Shortly after her arrival, anyone with sinister or less than honorable intentions gets their comeuppance.
Final Scene: This slice of early 80’s slasher goodness has a devout cult following for a number of reasons. One of the predominant reasons is it’s completely left-field, WTF ending, which goes as follows. Camp Arawak has been plagued by a spate of killings. Amongst the surviving campers are Angela, Paul, Ronnie & Susie. After Angela & Paul disappear to the lake for some alone time, Ronnie & Susie go looking for them to find…Angela cradling Paul’s severed head. Angela’s been the killer the entire time! But wait, there’s more. Standing up, brandishing a knife and letting out a sound that will haunt your dreams, Angela appear to have something….extra.
Final Image: A naked, blood-soaked and animalistic Angela, the sound she makes, the rather obvious penis – that’s how how you make an arresting final image for a horror movie. This is certainly one that sticks in the viewers head and leaves their jaw on the floor. Perhaps one of the best twist endings of the 80’s slashers.
9: Keep Doubting – Martyrs (2008)
Plot: Martyrs follows two young women, Anna and Lucie, who embark on a quest for revenge against the latter’s childhood captors. Falling into insanity, Lucie commits suicide and leaves Anna in the hands of the shadowy Mademoiselle and her secret society. It turns out Anna is the latest in a line of young women being put through extreme torture to push them to experience the afterlife.
Final Scene: Anna has been beaten and flayed to within an inch of her life. Entering a transcendental state, Anna whispers something into the ear of Mademoiselle. Later, Mademoiselle who is apparently going to reveal her findings to the society, is asked by her assistant if Anna clearly told her was awaits humans after death. Mademoiselle counters her assistant, asking if they could imagine what awaits in the beyond – to which they answer no. Mademoiselle simply replies “Keep doubting” and shoots herself in the head. The camera cuts to Anna’s face, still transcendentally fixed and an eerie chorus can be heard. The ending to this film is creepy, ethereal and will stay with the viewer long after the credits roll.
Final Image: Take your pick, you get a twofer with Martyrs. “Keep doubting” & that final haunting close-up on Anna. The ending to Martyrs is one that is designed to get you talking, to take your own meaning away from it. You’re left wondering what possibly could Anna have told Mademoiselle to cause her to take her own life? It’s a perfectly executed ending to a brutal and unforgettable film.
8: It was all a dream…or was it? – The Descent (2005)
Plot: This slice of claustrophobic horror from director Neil Marshall may put you off spelunking for life. After the death of her husband and daughter in a tragic accident, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) heads off on a cave diving expedition with her friends in an effort to overcome a tragedy. The expedition goes horribly wrong when the group encounter humanoid creatures with taste for human flesh.
Final scene: Waking up in a cavern, Sarah makes a daring escape to freedom, finding her car and speeding away from the horror. Pulling over to the side of the road and breaking down in tears, she sees a hallucination of dead friend Juno sitting next to her who screams – only to wake up in the cavern once more. Sarah hallucinates one final time that the failing light of her torch is her deceased daughter’s birthday cake as she sits across from her. The camera pans out to reveal the creatures closing in as the film ends.
Final Image: Some of you might be scratching your heads right now. In the original cut of the movie that Neal Marshall intended for release, the cut released in the U.K, this is the film’s ending. The ending was changed for U.S audiences when the original ending was considered too dark. The U.S ending closed on a jump scare, whereas with the U.K cut we’re given a much more bleak prospect; Sarah descending into madness as the horrors of this place close in around her.
7: Game Over! – Saw (2004)
Plot: Photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regain consciousness while chained to pipes at either end of a filthy bathroom. As the two men realize they’ve been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed “Jigsaw” and must complete his perverse puzzle to live, flashbacks relate the fates of his previous victims.
Final Scene: Saw really gave visceral, cerebral horror a much-needed boost in its first outing, also leaving us with a truly iconic final moment. Adam & Lawrence are willing to do anything to ensure their survival as Jigsaw’s game closes in on them. Lawrence saws off his own foot and shoots Adam dead to apparently secure his life. That is until the corpse lying in the centre of the room rises up to reveal John Kramer, Lawrence’s patient as the real Jigsaw killer, shocking Lawrence with an electric current through the collar he’s wearing. Kramer shuts off the lights in the room before bellowing “GAME OVER!” and sealing Lawrence in the room to die.
Final Image: Saw was such a shot in the arm for the genre in the early 21st century. Saw utilized an unrelenting brutality that hadn’t been seen in a mainstream horror release for sometime. The ending gives that viewer the impression that Gordon has that faint possibility of winning Jigsaw’s game, only to pull the rug away in such a deft and memorable style, setting a precedent that runs through the whole franchise.
6: “Why don’t we just wait here a little while..” – The Thing (1982)
Plot: In remote Antarctica, a group of American research scientists are disturbed at their base camp by a helicopter shooting at a sled dog. When they take in the dog, it brutally attacks both human beings and canines in the camp and they discover that the beast can assume the shape of its victims. The resourceful MacReady (Kurt Russell) leads the camp crew in a desperate, gory battle against the vicious creature before it picks them all off, one by one.
Final Scene: The Thing has one of the most iconic and ambiguous endings in modern horror. Only MacReady & Childs survive the destruction of the research station that has apparently destroyed The Thing. The one problem left for the two survivors is exposure to the elements before rescue and the lingering doubt that one of them may still be The Thing. Acknowledging the futility of their situation, the fact they’ll probably die before being rescued, the pair share a bottle of scotch and decide to “Wait here for a little while… see what happens?” before the iconic synth score kicks in.
Final Image: The ambiguity of this ending has been a topic of discussion amongst horror fans for decades. Did they survive? Was one of them The Thing? We’ll never know. Nope, instead we leave our heroes enjoying a scotch, embracing the futility of their situation and leaving their fate up in the air. As perfectly executed and eminently memorable an ending to a horror movie as you could hope to find.
5: Sunset on Summerilse – The Wicker Man (1973)
Plot: Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent to a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl who the townsfolk claim never existed. Stranger still is the pagan festival and the rites that take place there.
Final Scene: Howie, in a failed attempt to insert himself secretly into the Summerisle festival to find the missing Rowan Morrison and save her from ritual sacrifice, instead finds himself in her place. Dragged screaming, praying futilely to his god, Howie is sealed in the wicker structure and burnt alive as the people of Summerisle sing and dance around it as the Wicker Man’s head falls away to reveal the setting sun.
Final Image: The last shot in The Wicker Man is possibly one of the most perfectly executed final shots in horror history. It was a moment that occurred purely by chance and could not be replicated, the head of the structure falling away at the exact moment revealing the setting sun to create an utterly perfect and stark final image.
4: Chainsaw Dance – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Plot: Two siblings and three of their friends en route to visit their grandfather’s grave in Texas end up falling victim to a family of cannibalistic psychopaths.
Final Scene: There’s a running theme in our final images as we get closer to the top spot, the word iconic. With only Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) remaining, her brother and friends all brutally murdered and Sally herself captured by the cannibalistic Sawyer family, she seizes her moment to escape during a family meal from hell. Fleeing, blood-soaked and screaming blue-murder with Leatherface (Gunner Hanson) in hot pursuit, Sally makes it to the highway flagging down a pick-up truck. Leatherface is injured in his attempts to get to Sally thank to the drivers intervention with a handy pipe wrench and the pair make their escape. An angry Leatherface dances spirals with his saw buzzing, framed against the rising sun as Sally, escaping in the pick-up, hysterically breaks down.
Final Image: Yup, we’re back to that word again, iconic. With all the horror that has occurred during the length of the film, we are left with what could be considered quite an absurd, almost comedic final image – but an image that sums the character of Leatherface up perfectly. In his chainsaw dance we see his anger, frustration, an almost orgasmic release as he swings his saw round in the middle of the deserted highway, ruing the one that got away.
3: Stand in the Corner – The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Plot: Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.
Final Scene: Heather (Heather Donahue) & Mike (Michael C Williams) are alone in the Black Hills Forrest, their travelling companion Josh (Joshua Leonard) has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. On their last night the pair are drawn by Josh’s screams to an abandoned house, it’s walls daubed with the handprints of children. The two separate to find Josh, Heather going upstairs and Mike saying he hear Josh rushes ahead to the basement. When Heather reaches the basement she finds Mike facing into the corner of the room and it attacked from behind by an unseen assailant, dropping her still recording camera.
Final Image: Ok, we firmly enter creepsville as we move into the Top 3, moments that send a chill right down the spine without fail. The insinuation of the Blair Witch’s influence in that final scene never fails to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Who dispatches Mike & Heather? Is it Rustin Parr’s spirit? The Blair Witch herself? We’ll never know.
2: Photo finish – The Shining (1980)
Plot: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.
Final Scene: A now completely insane Jack (Jack Nicholson) chases his son Danny (Daniel Lloyd) into the frozen hedge maze outside The Overlook. Danny succeeds in losing his father in the maze and makes his escape with his mother, Jack succumbs to exposure and dies. We pan through the now deserted halls of The Overlook as Al Bowlly’s Midnight, The Stars & You plays, the camera stopping on a photograph of a New Years Party at The Overlook in 1921. At the front of the beaming party guests stands Jack Torrance.
Final Image: Chilling is the only word that describes the final image left with us in The Shining. The assertion that Torrance had always been the caretaker comes to pass, he is assimilated by The Overlook, another soul claimed by it and another spirit to haunts its walls. That image with that Al Bowlly song creates one of the most recognizable and memorable Final images in horror history.
1: “She wouldn’t even harm a fly” – Psycho (1960)
Plot: A secretary embezzles forty thousand dollars from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother.
Final Scene: Arrested for multiple murders, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) sits in a holding cell. We hear his internal monologue – only it’s not Norman any more. Norman isn’t home, Mother has taken over. Norman/Mother, noticing a fly land on Norman’s hand, refuses to swat it away so the authorities can see that Norman/Mother “Wouldn’t even harm a fly”. Norman slowly looks into camera and smiles, his face overlaid with that of his dead mother.
Final Image: In my opinion, the daddy of all final images in horror, designed to stay with the viewer. Norman/Mother trying to rationalize a way out of their predicament and coming to a conclusion that only a mad person could see as being plausible in maintaining their innocence. Classic, measured and insanely eerie. It bagged the top spot for a reason.