In some ways, making a horror film is easy, particularly for independent filmmakers working with next to no budget. Find a single location, dim the lights, creak some floorboards and spill plenty of red-dyed corn syrup everywhere. Making a good horror film, however, is a more difficult task, particularly when it comes to closing the movie. A happy ending can seem too cheesy, while a negative ending wherein everyone just dies could easily be seen as just pointless. The best horror films find original, creepy, and even thought-provoking conclusions that leave audiences checking over their shoulders long after they’ve left the theater.
But we’re not talking about those ones. We’re talking about the ones that made it halfway to greatness before faltering somewhere in the final act. These are seven horror movies that couldn’t stick the landing.
This 2012 creepfest starring Ethan Hawke was successful enough to spawn a widely-panned sequel, and the first certainly had more than its fair share of decent scares amidst all the jumpy sound effects — most of them derived from the decaying super-eight footage of gruesome old murders and the expert character design of the villainous Mr. Boogie. Unfortunately, those solid scares happen before the lousy third act, wherein a slew of not-at-all-scary ghost children run throughout the haunted home in slow motion before the film builds to its predictable, incredibly familiar climax.
2. The Babadook
This might be controversial with some viewers. The Babadook was an Australian import that received almost universal acclaim for its stylish, well-crafted scares and the performance of Essie David as a slowly-unraveling single mother raising a troubled child who sees monsters. Director Jennifer Kent has a keen eye for cinematography and sound design that propels the best moments of this bloodless flick into nightmare-inducing territory. Her script traffics heavily in metaphor, and the film’s unconventional conclusion works better in theory than it does in execution. I won’t say more, or pretend that I could have come up with anything better, but ultimately, The Babadook ends on an unsatisfying note despite all the good that came before.
Horror director Mike Flanagan’s sophomore film improved upon the promise of his low budget first feature Absentia, but it couldn’t quite reconcile its unconventional structure to create an ending that made the preceding hour-and-a-half worthwhile. Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites play a pair of grown-up siblings who confront a possessed mirror — it’s not as silly as it sounds — that drove their parents to madness and murder when they were children. The two stories are juxtaposed throughout, and the conclusions for both are obvious from the word go. Oculus is worth a watch simply for the grueling depiction of how the mirror corrupts and controls those who come under its influence, but Flanagan couldn’t give his story the ending it rightfully deserved.
Creep is a recent no-budget found-footage horror film featuring only two actors — director Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass. Brice plays a cameraman summoned to a rural home to film a dying man’s last days so his unborn son may someday watch the video. Of course, the dying man is slowly revealed to be something of a fraud, and the slow-burning film reaches its highest point about halfway through, before undercutting the tension with a jarring time-jump. The remainder of the film mostly strips Duplass’s titular creep of all ambiguity and interest and builds towards a climax that never really comes.
5. Dead End
Dead End focuses on a family road trip wherein the father (Ray Wise, of Twin Peaks-fame) decides to take a short cut that turns out to be anything but short. They drive further on the road for hours without seeing another car — save for the mysterious vehicle that appears only to whisk off any family member who dares to wander away. Despite some silliness and cliched characters (including a perverted too-cool teenage son), the film becomes a thrilling and grueling mystery, as audiences are encouraged to put themselves in the scenario and ask what might be going on. Unfortunately, the film can’t find a good answer for what’s going on. It does provide an answer, but it’s not a good one, more cliched than inspired.
6. Jeepers Creepers
Jeepers Creepers reveals too much too fast. That means that the first 45 minutes or so of this successful flick are particularly promising and thrilling, as stars Gina Phillips and Justin Long discover the rickety shack and underground murder den of a mysterious spirit on their drive through rural Florida. In the back end, the film dilutes the deliciously simple scares of its first half by adding on exposition and goofy characters. The inspired tension present in earlier scenes disappears, and the mysterious spirit becomes far less mysterious. Under the leadership of another director with a knack for atmospherics, Jeepers Creepers could have been more than just successful — it could’ve been great.
7. In the Mouth of Madness
I have mixed feelings about In the Mouth of Madness, the 1994 effort from horror maestro John Carpenter following an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) who uncovers a conspiracy surrounding the works of popular horror novelist Sutter Cane (an obvious homage to Stephen King). On the one hand, the story, which balloons from a murderous conspiracy centered in a New England town to an apocalyptic event, makes little sense. On the other hand, that’s what makes the film such a giddy exercise in surrealist horror. Carpenter can’t find any way to adequately explain all the otherworldly goings-on related to Sutter Cane’s novels and his apparent hometown, but who could when they involve sudden shifts from day to night, books that inspire madness and inter-dimensional portals? For me, it’s worth the lackluster ending to witness all the inexplicable Lovecraftian horror.
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