Recently I was expressing my disappointment in the ending of JOHN CARPENTER's THE WARD. My chagrin was inspired not only by the film's not so clever "surprise" revelation but also in the cheapy jump-scare that was to be THE WARD's final note. The more I gnawed the bone in my head the more I realized that I had every reason to find a weak closing from CARPENTER somewhat surprising; the guy has delivered some of the strongest film endings I can think of. In an effort to help me process my disgruntlement, let's say we take a look at a handful of my favorites. Please don't make me tell you there will be spoilers.
"The Shape" is shot several times and falls off a second story balcony. Laurie Strode is all, "It was the Bogeyman?" and Loomis is all, "Yep." His confirmation is made all the more convincing when he looks to see where the maniac has landed and notices only a blank space where there should rightly be a dead bogeyman. Yikes! But this is not even the good part! CARPENTER, because he is so brilliant, takes us on a little tour of everyplace we've been that night. It's as if he's going to show us where Myers is hiding but he doesn't. We see the homes that moments ago were filled with horror standing quietly. We check out the living room where Laurie battled for her life and it looks like an empty stage. We hear Myers breathing and it's as if he has become a part of everything. To me, it's not so much the mystique of Myers that rattles the nerves but the way CARPENTER injects him into the once mundane settings. He expertly desecrates the everyday with darkness and brings evil (as the tagline warns) home. At the end of HALLOWEEN, "The Shape" whether you can visibly see him or not is everywhere.
THE FOG (1980)
Oh good, that betrayed leper ghost Blake has gotten his precious gold back and now everything is settled. Hold a grudge much? Now the scenic town of Antonio Bay can get back to normal. Hmmm, those ghosts kept saying they wanted to kill six people but I guess not. Looks like five people and a gold cross will suffice. At the end of THE FOG Father Malone (HAL HOLBROOK), rather than thanking his lucky stars and skipping town, decides to hang around church wondering aloud about why his life was spared. Blake and company are only too happy to quell his curiosity by backing their haunted boat up and tying up loose ends by decapitating his head. I think I can sum up THE FOG's ending by labeling it the coolest thing that I have ever seen in my life. CARPENTER gives us a worrying heads up then diverts our attention one way and then slams us from another. We're not even granted a moment to focus on Blake as he pulls back for the final blow. As his sword connects with Malone it lops off our view too. The screen turns black, we hear the squishy cut and then as if the saber had sliced through a pop tent during a storm, CARPENTER's rainfall score begins to pour down all over the closing credits. The timing is clockwork-precise and it's one flipping fantastic curtain drop.
THE THING (1982)
MacReady (KURT RUSSELL)'s feelings toward the slippery amorphous space visitor in THE THING are made abundantly clear when he says, "Yea, fuck you too!" and chucks a lit stick of dynamite in its direction. The shape-shifting creature is not an easy critter to dispose of and since its escape will mean the global annihilation of mankind, blowing up the entirety of Outpost 31 and hoping for the best is not a bad way to go. As the camp burns, Mac discovers another survivor in Childs (KEITH DAVID). Neither man can completely trust that the other is not hosting the entity and so they share a quiet suspicion-filled stand off. Take special note of this ending because the likelihood that you ever encounter something like it again in a studio picture is minimal. Rather than hand the audience a cathartic pacifier jump scare to send them on their satiated way, CARPENTER insists that viewers be kept in a state of unknowing just like the characters on screen. Over the years fans have sought concrete confirmations of the stalemate's eventual outcome. Is the bottle that Mac hands Childs contaminated? How come you can't see Child's breath in the cold? There is no answer and the paranoia of not being able to identify friend or foe is exactly what this film is concerned with underneath the goop and lobster legs. There lies the true horror, none of us can ever fully know one another; does it get any colder than that?
PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
There's no question about whether the end of PRINCE OF DARKNESS left a mark, Kindertrauma has received enough traumafessions and "Name That Traumas!" about this movie's final moments to state, without a doubt, that it has. I can even tell you first hand that my little brother was treated to disturbing nightmares inspired by this film's close. There is something spectacularly eerie about it and it certainly brings new meaning to the phrase "ahead of its time." Last we saw Catherine Danforth (LISA BLOUNT) she was doing mankind a solid and jumping into a mirror/dimensional doorway in order to keep the devil at bay. Throughout the film characters have been receiving static filled shaky-cam dream transmissions from the future warning of cataclysmic events including, but not limited to, the rise of an anti-God. The dreams alter subtly each time they occur but they always show a dark figure emerging from a church and they always look like a fifth generation bootleg. The film ends with one last exposure to the dream and now we find that Catherine has replaced the demonoid figure in the future. We're in the "open to interpetation" zone here but one thing that's set in stone is the alarming power of the hard to pin down visual and the ominous voice and message that accompanies it. The transmission's repeated insistence that what we are seeing is real begins to have an effect and, at some point, it becomes somewhat hard to distinguish if the communication is trying to break through a dream within the film or the film itself. Seriously haunting.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
We know that John Trent's (SAM NEIL) investigation into the disappearance of horror novelist Sutter Cane did not end well because he fills us in on his experiences from a padded room in an insane asylum. I suppose that spending time in a fictional town that shouldn't exist fighting off ancient dimension-stomping beasties straight out of LOVECRAFT would leave anyone feeling twitchy. How do you top the horror of discovering that the line between fiction and reality is one big joke? How about learning the punchline is you. Trent's stint in the loony bin is cut short by the technicality of the world falling to ruin. He stumbles down debris-strewn streets that lead him to a movie theater. Now playing is IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS starring himself and directed by JOHN CARPENTER. He watches what we have watched. He laughs, he cries, he goes insane.
This might be a good place for me to end things myself. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS sums up nicely what the best JOHN CARPENTER films do. Whether he is placing the mask on our faces in HALLOWEEN; opening THE FOG with a POE quote asking, "Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"; leaving us with the same dilemma as Mac and Child's in THE THING; invading our nightmares with THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS; or simply suggesting, as he does with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, that reality is fast becoming fiction and vice versa, good CARPENTER tends to blur the line between onscreen and off and assimilate the viewer into the proceedings.
Perhaps the strongest thing about CARPENTER's most brilliant film endings is the implication that there is no ending. The deep vastness and over abundance of darkness in his premium work insures that every viewer receives a Tupperware container of angst to take home. Go ahead and try to lull yourself to sleep repeating, "It's only a movie, it's only a movie." The jig is up, CARPENTER knows that we know that it's not.