October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the most memorable downer horror movie endings is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Horror is home to a higher percentage of bleakly depressing endings than any other genre, but that’s only to be expected, isn’t it? Romance films make your heart flutter, action raises your pulse, and horror aims to terrify, disturb, and obliterate hope. That’s why we love it. Sure, there are plenty of horror movies that test their protagonists only to see them come out on top in the end. Those aren’t the movies we’re here to celebrate, though.
No, we’re here today to praise the horror movies that push both characters and viewers alike into an uncomfortable corner. The ones that secure our interest and emotion before teasing hope, survival, or redemption before grinding our hearts into the dirt. To be clear, we’re not talking cheap shot endings where the monster is defeated only to pop up in the final seconds and claim victory anyway. We are, however, talking about movies that thrill us, make us care, and then crush us right before the end credits roll.
Now please join me and the crew (Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell) as we put on a brave face and relive the bleakest downer horror movie endings!
10. Kill List (2011)
There’s no good way to say this: you just don’t come back from accidentally stabbing your wife and child to death in a cult ritual. Any movie kind of has to end at that point because there’s nowhere to go from there. Ben Wheatley’s scuzzy and sadistic thriller is about two hitmen who get more than they bargained for when a series of jobs leads them down a dark path. How dark? Familicide, apparently.
The end of Kill List is especially brutal and demoralizing because there’s absolutely no way to see it coming. Much of the film mixes the folk horror of pagan rituals with the clinical violence of mercenary killing; until the last moment, it’s impossible to tell what Wheatley has in store. Audiences’ stunned silence hits right as the credits roll, leaving us alone with our overwhelming sense of disgust and horror. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
9. Pet Sematary (1989)
Stephen King’s bibliography is heavy on horror, obviously, but he doesn’t always succeed (or even make an effort) at being legitimately frightening. He tells great stories, but he doesn’t always aim for scares. Pet Sematary is one of the exceptions as it delivers some truly unsettling scenes and emotionally affecting horrors, and Mary Lambert‘s adaptation follows suit for the screen.
Grief is the order of the day, and the film captures the agony and pain well starting with the accidental death of young Gage and continuing through his father’s heartbreaking need to kill the boy again — the child returns from the grave, starts racking up a body count including his own mother and is finally downed by his father, Louis. The man is in clear distress as he injects his zombie son with an extra lethal dose, and it’s here where madness finally sets in.
He then buries his murdered wife, the love of his life, in the cursed burial ground… and waits. She returns, shambling into their kitchen, and as the two of them embrace for a final heartbreaking kiss, she picks up a knife and slashes him to death. It’s one of the genre’s great downer endings and just one of the reasons why it’s a superior adaptation to the one from 2019. (Rob Hunter)
8. The Wicker Man (1973)
Being set ablaze and sacrificed to a bunch of pagan gods is bad enough, but do you have to tell the chump victim why? Let him just enjoy the agony without the humiliation of exposing his virginity. Sorry, Officer Howie, your foolish clinging to your flower is the death of you.
If only our hero were the lead of some teen slasher, right? Howie would have reigned supreme as the final girl in Halloween or Friday the 13th. Instead, he’s huffing and puffing his way through The Wicker Man, and his perpetually limp noodle will be the death of him. (Brad Gullickson)
7. The Mist (2007)
Typically when we use idioms like “I was on the edge of my seat,” we’re being purposefully hyperbolic to describe a feeling you can’t adequately put into words. But when I first watched The Mist in theatres, I was literally on the edge of my seat, enough to lean over the back of the chair in front of me (call off your hounds, the theatre was empty.)
As we hear Thomas Jane systemically shoot his family and allies, my jaw dropped. You don’t go to a horror movie expecting a happy ending, but you also don’t go to one anticipating nihilism of such an extreme degree. When he realizes he miscounted and he doesn’t have a final bullet for himself, the wind is knocked out of you. And then you see the mother who no one wanted to help from the beginning of the movie survive with her kids and you’re like, “Ok what in the actual fuck.”
Famously this ending is not in Stephen King’s original novella, the survivors instead driving into an unknown future in the haze surrounding the interdimensional creatures, but Frank Darabont’s pitch black ending knocks a hole in you that King himself was hesitant to do. The Mist might be a B-movie blast, but that doesn’t rob it of having one of the most impactful downer endings in horror cinema history. (Jacob Trussell)
6. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter‘s The Thing is one of the most beloved and iconic horror films of all time. This story about a research team in Antarctica that is invaded by a shape-shifting alien creature is a masterwork of special effects and paranoia. That ending, though, sure is bleak.
MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) are the last two survivors. They watched on as their fellow researchers all died horribly brutal deaths, most of them being ripped to shreds in some way, and then they destroyed their research base. Resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do, they sick back, pop open a bottle of scotch, and welcome the cold and bitter death that is sure to follow. (Chris Coffel)