It must stop! Somebody has to take a stand, and I guess that somebody has to be me. But surely I will not be alone. Surely I will have comrades aplenty in my march to justice. Surely the day of victory cannot be too far over the horizon. With courage and determination, we can stamp out the scourge. What scourge? Surely I don’t have to spell it out. Surely you know I am referring to the twist ending.
And one particular brand of twist ending, at that.
Consider this a spoiler warning. I am taking a number of films to task, and I will not be shy about giving away the endings, because these endings are trite, lazy, and worn smooth through overuse. But if you at all care about the “twists” (which you shouldn’t), stop reading now.
My rage was inspired by a viewing, the other night of the recent Reeker. For the bulk of its running time, the film was quite enjoyable. Its inevitable group of young people weren’t all the sharpest knives in the drawer, but there characters were deftly sketched in. The supernatural force was as threatening as it was mysterious. The death scene in the outhouse was memorable. And the mystery about what the hell was going on was intriguing. And then the solution arrived. The Twist.
All together now: They Were Dead All Along.
That’s right. Just about everything that occurs once the strange events begin is completely irrelevant (except for the moments that turn up again in the OMG Flashback). Never happened. Just the last flickerings of consciousness. Well, that was certainly worth waiting an hour and half to learn. Not.
So let’s consider a brief, but far from exclusive list, of other films that pull this stunt: Carnival of Souls, Jacob’s Ladder, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Dead End. You’ll note that none of these are terrible films, by any means. Some are legitimate classics. But that ending can be a problem.
Carnival of Souls gets away with it in 1962 for a number of reasons. In the first place, the twist at that point is still new. Sure, Ambrose Bierce had already used it in fiction, but it hadn’t been done to death in film yet. Furthermore, none of what takes place in the film is invalidated by the revelation that the lead is dead. She really is interacting with everyone she encounters. That’s part of the problem, and why the dead are coming for her.
The same cannot be said for Jacob’s Ladder. Until its ending, Adrian Lyne’s film is as scary as it is intriguing, but the final revelation means nothing we have seen actually took place. The movie becomes utterly pointless, despite its pretensions to some sort of theological drama. This is a case where the ending ruins everything that came before.
The Sixth Sense is the most high-profile film here, and the one that far too many people think had an original idea in its head. I remember catching the film on its opening week, unaware that there was a twist, and after watching the opening scene, I turned to my friend, a dark intuition rising in me, and muttered that this had better not be Jacob’s Ladder all over again. Imagine my dismay. That said, the film has grown on my on subsequent viewings, because at least the ending casts new light on the previous events, rather than negating them. Even so, Shyamalan was resorting to an old trick, and his subsequent films have shown an increasingly pathetic reliance on twist endings. For my money, the one he uses in Unbreakable is the only one that feels truly fresh.
The Others is so wonderfully constructed a gothic that, again, I find forgiveness in my soul for a twist that is telegraphed from quite a distance. And I appreciate the fact that the revelation is not the end of the film, and that the true chill comes in the final moments with the ghosts whispering that the house is theirs. No moving on here. So okay. I really like the film. But still. Would I have preferred a solution to the mystery that wasn’t something I had seen many times before? Yes.
And ditto for Dead End, which brings us back to Reeker territory, where one feels that the entire exercise, good and creepy as it may have been, is rather pointless. But there is an even bigger problem with the They Were Dead All Along ending (and with its close cousin, the It Was All Fake twist, which was used up in the 1920s by the likes of Seven Footprints to Satan, but was still revived, though nobody asked it to be, for April Fool’s Day and The Game) is that it’s a lazy, hackneyed trick. It smacks of desperation, of writers who thought up a terrific mystery, but could think of no solution for it, and so brought in this chestnut instead. It is a solution that is no solution, a cheapjack slice through a narrative Gordian Knot that provides little of the satisfaction that should come with the resolution of a mystery.
Enough is enough.