An average movie can be saved by a great ending. The perfect twist or the perfect capper – even if it is just a great closing line – can have you reveling as you leave the theater.
Or it can go the other way. Otherwise likable movies get stuck with something terrible at the end, a brick wall at the end of a long cinematic tunnel. Or a terrible movie just gets worse. This is a list of those movies.
It should be said that this list has some rules. It isn’t enough for the movie just to have an ending that people didn’t like. An ending might be a downer or weird or unexpected, but that’s not what this list is about. For instance, a lot of people feel the space-child ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey is worthy candidate for “bad ending” status. But it might also be a work of genius. So movies like I Am Legend, Signs and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are nowhere to be found on this list. Those endings may or may not be unlikable (just about everything in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is unlikable), but they’re still part of the movie as it was made. If you’re making a movie about a glass alien skull, it’s not a bad ending to have there be aliens at the end. Instead, the movies on this list are the ones where the conclusion of the movie basically ruined the experience. Either the filmmakers completely punted on figuring out a conclusion, or maybe they tried one twist too many, or maybe they reverted to a tired old cliche.
It should be said that as this is a list of movie endings, it’s also pretty much a list of SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.
13. Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Depending on your mood, Devil’s Advocate is either a terrible movie or a great movie. It has Keanu Reeves doing a Southern accent (sometimes). It has Al Pacino at full volume. It has a young Charlize Theron naked. So far, so good. But then it also has one of the all-time too-twisty endings. The story follows small-time lawyer (Reeves) who gets a shot at a big-time New York law firm led by a charismatic senior partner (Pacino), who also happens to be the devil. The ending involves Pacino trying to convince Reeves to commit incest in order to bring about the end of the world, followed by a suicide and time travel, capped by yet another last-second twist that involves direct audience address. It’s all just one step past over the top.
12. Devil Inside (2012)
Devil Inside drew a lot of critical ire when it was released in 2012. The found-footage horror movie made headlines for its low budget (reportedly under $1 million) and its box office (eventually more than $100 million) success. But as pure cinema, most reviewers were harsh, especially on the ending, which was so famously bad that people started posting YouTube videos of audience reactions to it. It wasn’t so much what happens at the end that caused the uproar. Weirdly enough, it was the ending title cards. Despite the movie being obvious fiction, it ends with a title card “The facts surrounding the Rossi case remain unresolved.” Fine. The Coen Brothers’ Fargo starts with the false claim that the movie is a true story. Then the last card comes up: “For more information about the ongoing investigation visit www.TheRossiFiles.com.” Despite being trained by multiple Marvel movies to expect a mini-ad for an upcoming installment in the series, this bit of aggressive commercialism was too much for audiences. Maybe it was that the movie itself was otherwise bad, but they weren’t ready to stomach the idea of an online sequel.
11. Psycho (1960)
Psycho is one of the all-time great movies. It is made by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the all-time great directors. It also has one of cinema history’s most famous bad endings to a great movie.
The ending is so weird and pointless that most people don’t really remember it. In the movie, Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates, a mama’s boy who operates a run-down hotel where a young woman is brutally killed. The investigation seems to point to Bates’ mother, but then, in the final twist, it turns out that the mom has been long dead and Bates has been dressing like her to carry out murders. That’s not the bad part. After that reveal, there is a long, extended, unnecessary explanation of Bates’ psychological state. Maybe in 1960, audiences were confused by why someone would murder someone cloaked in a wig and an old lady’s dress. But nowadays, we’re just happy to call him “crazy” and move on. Not that Hitchcock needs any advice from any of us, but on this one, it might help: keep the twist, lose the explanation.
10. Superman (1978)
For the most part, Superman is a well-respected movie. It is the original epic that made superhero stories true blockbuster material, and therefore is the godfather of most of our current summer fare. It was a hit for director Richard Donner, made a star of Christopher Reeve and eventually spawned three sequels (not to mention the movies in the current reboot cycle).
All that doesn’t make the ending any better. In it, Superman is unable to save Lois Lane from an earthquake. He therefore flies around the Earth the wrong way to turn back time. You don’t need a physicist to tell you that this is hokum – messing with the Earth’s orbit would likely just destroy the balance of nature and endanger life on Earth. It’s also an unnecessary complication. As we’ve learned over the past 15 years or so: just have the superheroes punch a bunch of guys at the end and destroy buildings. Leveling a city is about as complicated as the ending needs to be.
9. April Fool’s Day (1986)
A twist ending in a horror movie is fine, even expected. Given the standards of the genre, there’s even the instinct to give the makers a lot of latitude in terms of believably. After all, maniacs are always defying death and sequel after sequel is fueled by ever-more-implausible storylines. But April Fool’s Day is the worst of the lot. In it, we as the audience witness a series of brutal murders. Then, at the end, it is revealed that the murders never really happened, that it was all an elaborate game involving special effects and fake blood. The horror movie we were watching might as well have been a school production of Macbeth. What’s the point?
8. Swimming Pool (2003)
Swimming Pool has the ultimate “it was all a dream” ending, the absolute definition of a lazy conclusion. In it, a writer, played by Charlotte Rampling, borrows a summer house to work on her next novel. However, her solitude is disturbed by a teenage girl who claims to be the daughter of the house’s owner and moves in. The conclusion of the movie leaves it open whether the events are real or just part of the writer’s fantasy. Swimming Pool was a modest hit at the box office (comparatively speaking, of course, for a partially subtitled, art-house thriller), but most of the press surrounding it had to do with the movie’s blatant sexuality. Audiences were brought in for the sex scenes and didn’t seem much bothered by the nonsense ending.
7. Secret Window (2004)
Though it is barely remembered now, Secret Window had a lot going for it when it was released in 2004. It was based on a novella by Stephen King and starred Johnny Depp. The main plot follows a writer, Mort Rainey (Depp), who is stalked by a man who claims that Rainey stole one of his stories. In the end, it turns out that Rainey and the stalker are the same person. This might have been a passable twist, except for the fact that it’s basically the same twist from the end of Fight Club, an infinitely better movie released just 5 years before. This isn’t really the fault of the movie – the original story was published in 1990, six years before the novel of Fight Club came out. This distinction didn’t mean anything to audiences, however, and Secret Window died a quiet death at the box office.
6. Color Of Night (1994)
Basic Instinct‘s success in the early 1990s spawned a series of imitators. The key elements: lots of sex/nudity by relatively high Hollywood talent, and a twisty, turny plot. Color Of Night pushed both requirements to extremes. It became famous for the nude scenes with Bruce Willis (though few bothered to check it out until it hit video). Meanwhile, the plot went to absurd lengths to keep the audiences guessing. In it, psychiatrist Willis finds out that the mysterious woman with whom he has been having a torrid affair is really the shy, stuttering male teenage drug addict from his therapy group. Also, her brother has been the deadly killer who has been stalking him. The ending was surprising all right, but only because it made little sense and seemed to have very little to do with the rest of the plot.
5. Perfect Stranger (2007)
There’s plenty wrong with Perfect Stranger besides its over-twisty ending. The thriller is an over-politicized mess, attempting to touch every key cultural touchstone of its time: how scary the internet is; the anti-gay lawmaker who’s really secretly gay; the corporate executive with who has an affair with his employee. The last part serves as the setup for the story.
The boss is played by Bruce Willis and the employee ends up dead. Her friend, played by Halle Berry, goes to track the killer down. But in the end, it turns out Berry’s character is the killer. What? Right. It’s a non-twist twist that’s only a surprise because it’s so illogical, no one would bother guessing it. There’s even a little extra double-twist at the very end that seems meant to suggest that the cycle of killing will just keep going on. To cover one crime, Berry’s character has basically become a serial killer and we’re led to believe it might need to happen again.
4. High Tension (2003)
The French horror movie High Tension has gained a reputation as having one of the worst conclusions of the last 15 years. At the time of its release, in 2003, the film had made headlines for its high levels of violence, which originally earned the film an NC-17 rating. Since then however, the focus has been on the ending. The movie follows best friends Alex and Marie, as they fight a deranged killer focused on murdering women. In the end, it’s revealed that the killer is really Marie, who has a split personality (or something). For almost a decade and a half, the horror-blog world has been lambasting the film, not just for recycling the same plot device as numerous other movies (think Fight Club and Secret Window again), but also for the sheer improbability that Marie could carry out the murders in the brutal way they are shown on screen.
3. Savages (2012)
The ridiculous conclusion to Savages wastes a set of good performances. The main characters are played by Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who do a capable job as a trio that gets in over its head with the Mexican cartels. But Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek really bring the fireworks and director Oliver Stone does his usual job keeping things visually interesting.
The movie leads up to a climatic shoot out that shows all three heroes killed. After the long sequence comes to a close, we’re told, no, actually, everything worked out OK. A large chunk of the most important part of the movie never happened. Versions of 1985’s Clue can be watched that way too – a series of “this is how it might have happened” endings strung together. That’s acceptable in a 90-minute comedy. For a two-hour-plus high-stakes thriller, it’s just a waste of the audience’s collective time.
2. Vanilla Sky (2001)
By all rights, Vanilla Sky should have been a good movie. It represented a reteaming of the talent that drove 1996’s blockbuster Jerry Maguire: Tom Cruise as star and Cameron Crowe as director. It was based on a respected Spanish movie, Open Your Eyes, and had a strong supporting cast with Penélope Cruz (who appeared in the original film), Cameron Diaz and Jason Lee. However, the movie’s science fiction plot gets overly tangled and by the end, most of the action turns out to be a flashback of a dream, or maybe a dream of a flashback. Or something like that, we’re still not sure. It would take another watching to describe it correctly, but the payoff isn’t worth it. Suffice it to say, that, at more than two hours of running time, the conclusion comes as a significant let down, especially considering the talent that went into its production.
1. Planet Of The Apes (2001)
The original Planet of the Apes, released in 1968 and starring Charlton Heston, has one of the film’s all-time most famous endings. That ending was amazing, and we can say nothing but good things about it. That’s not the movie that makes this list. The movie on this list is the ill-advised 2001 remake, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter. Whatever else might be wrong with the movie, the ending is absolutely atrocious. In it, Wahlberg’s human astronaut character escapes the planet of the apes and makes it back to Earth, only to find that the Earth is now ruled by apes. This is punctuated by a Lincoln Memorial that resembles the one here on our planet, but it has an ape instead of Honest Abe. It may be possible to explain how or why this would happen (but probably not). But we can do little behind try to actually explain this one.