That last bit is what horror directors are screwing up, and yes I’m stating my opinion as if it’s fact. Fight me.
There’s a reason that roller coasters don’t end with a guy in a clown wig shouting racist jokes. It would kill the buzz that comes from returning to normalcy after a trial, and that feeling is just as important as the ride itself. Yes, in real life, there often is a metaphorical racist clown at the end of a difficult journey, but that’s not why I go on roller coasters or watch horror movies. If I wanted to be reminded that sometimes the good guys lose and things turn out for the worst, I’d stay in reality thank you very much.
This didn’t add anything to the movie. In fact, it detracts from the final action scene as the audience spends the entire time wondering when the ‘reveal’ will happen. There was no clever ‘gotcha!’ because, we the audience, again, are not idiots. I’m not sure what the emotional payoff was supposed to be, but all we’re left with is a ‘Well fuck, we all saw that coming a mile away. Bummer.’
In the final minutes of Life, our heroes make their daring escape from the International Space Station. One character makes a fitting sacrifice to take the evil alien with him into the depths of space in an escape pod, while the other escapes to the surface of Earth. The plan seems to have worked! We watch the pods go their separate ways, one into blackness, the other crashing into the ocean. Except, what’s this? The camera is taking a really long time to reveal who’s in the safe pod. Surprise, it’s the guy who made a willing sacrifice to save all of humankind, and he’s brought the alien down with him! And here’s a shot of the other one, screaming in terror as she goes to die alone in the void.
This was less treating the audience like idiots and more like bullying. The filmmakers gave us a really nice ice cream cone, then immediately took it away to watch us pout. Again, not a profound emotion. We’re just left with a feeling of ‘Well that’s a bummer. I really would have liked that ice cream’.
Bummer. The audience feels a downer ending coming up.
Except it’s not a cop that steps out of the car. It’s our hero’s friend, the comic relief, there to rescue him! The director takes our expectation of a downer ending, and turns it on its head to give the audience an even more satisfying emotional high, because here’s the thing: That’s what we wanted all along.
Audiences aren’t stupid. We see the downer ending coming. Once we know it’s on its way, we’ll spend the entire time up until the end credits waiting for the filmmakers to prove us wrong. If your story doesn’t capitalize on that, you’ll just have a bunch of wasted potential emotional energy.
Horror movies do what standard adventure movies do, only better. In action adventure movies, our heroes face overwhelming odds and trials, fight monsters, save the day, and come out on the other side having learned something about themselves or the world. Horror movies do the same thing, except our hero isn’t a space wizard or gun toting archaeologist. They’re usually a lot like us except in space, or in the woods. On top of that, the monsters they face are far darker and more disturbing than a dragon or transforming robot. To fight those monsters, they’re never granted a magic ring or superpowers, they have to make do with what they’ve got.
And then they survive.
That’s what people really want out of a horror movie. Proof that even untrained, ill equipped, and against the worst horrors we could imagine, humankind can still come out alive on the other side. To trade the emotional high that comes with affirming that for a ‘gotcha’ moment that will always land with a disappointed shrug, just seems like a waste to me.
Or maybe you just wanna watch a bunch of teenagers take a machete to the face, in which case, to each their own.
See you next time,