Bleak Endings

Woke up this morning feeling like death warmed up. The dreary weather (a mix of heavy rain/sleet/snow) outside really doesn’t help, nor does the news that that the inspirational Ralph McQuarrie died aged 82.

To cap it all, I read the bitter-sweet children’s tale called The Big Ugly Monster and The Little Stone Rabbit by Christopher Wormell. On face value it looks like an ordinary children’s book complete with fantastic illustrations. In actual fact it is anything but. It is a challenging book, a beautiful book, one which transcends all of the usual fluffy/fun cliches of almost all childrens books. To put it frankly, I was thoroughly moved by the end – brilliantly handled.  Many people appeared to miss the actual point of this book because they were expecting something else.

I like to be challenged with the odd “unhappy” ending. In fact when I feel somewhat downtrodden like today – I even find myself turning towards more bleak material.

In terms of films, we generally always expect the hero to save the day, get the girl, everything to be “alright”. However the films which stay with me are not the ones that do this (probably why The Empire Strikes Back is by far my favourite Star Wars movie). I won’t necessarily watch these “bleak” movies as often but I tend to hold them in quite high regard because they stick out against the majority of traditional fare.

This evening I am thinking of watching Kill List which I haven’t seen yet but have been recommended. This had me thinking about what my “favourite” downbeat/bleak films are. Please note this is a personal list, made up quickly in the spur of the moment and completely subjective. Please feel free to talk back and suggest others.  There are many I should have seen but haven’t. There are many I wanted to include but didn’t. And this is off the top of my head right now! I will try and avoid big spoilers. So in no particular order:

Se7en

A modern-day classic. It shook up grim thrillers at the time and many still emulate its bleak atmosphere/style years after its original release. There was nothing quite like it at the time and despite the deeply unsettling tone the brilliant thing about this film is what it “doesn’t show”. Annoyingly someone told me the ending to me before I got to see it in the cinema (grrr!). Yet despite this, it still retained its power. I can only imagine the impact this would have had if I had not known about “that scene” beforehand.

1984

There is always something depressing about films which depict future society gone mad. There are many notable examples eg. A clockwork orange, Brazil (original version), Soylent Green. Yet this one remains the iconic one for me. Even today we talk of “Room 101” and “Big Brother”. Scary stuff thinking that George Orwell is perhaps not so far from the mark!

Sleepaway camp

Not so much bleak as shocking. This is an obscure choice by me – falling into “guilty pleasure” territory. There are probably hundreds of horror movies that could be added within the horror genre. With the slasher sub-genre, it’s all about the atmosphere (eg. Black Christmas/Halloween/Carrie/Elm Street/Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc) and shocks – usually around the ending. This is no exception, yet the deaths are more inventive than mere “slashings”. I’ve added it for those who haven’t heard of it – and if you haven’t – please avoid finding out anything about it beforehand. It is for the most part excruciatingly sub-standard 80’s horror fare with terrible acting, poor production values and special effects. It’s an endurance test, but stick with it! Something feels wrong about this one (perhaps the over-acting actress at the start, the way it uses an actual “younger” cast rather than a bunch of 30 year olds pretending to be 18 or the way the director voyeuristically seems to hang the camera a bit too long on the younger male members of the cast). Anyway, it’s all about the ending. Rather original for its time!

Day of the locust

An under-rated gem from John Schlesinger who did this in between the better received Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man (both of which are hardly “fluffy” either). This features Donald Sutherland (who did some phenomenal work in the 70’s) as the original Homer Simpson. About as far removed from the cartoon incarnation as you can get. First rate production values (in particular standout work from Conrad L.Hall), it was perhaps too slow and ponderous for many. But the pace is deliberate to set-up the frankly depressing ending, which shows much like Lord of The Flies the worst humanity has to offer.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Whether or not you like George Lazenby as Bond, there is no denying this one is a bit different as a Bond film. It was arguably the last truly great Bond film, which sticks closer to the novel than the later installments. There never has been, nor never will be a Bond movie like this again! The closest we will ever get is another Casino Royale, where the downbeat part of the ending is partly offset with a more triumphant moment. But with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the film ends on a true downer. If only more Bond films took more risks such as this.

The Vanishing

Obviously I am talking about the original French version, not the horrible Hollywoodised remake (somewhat shockingly made by the same director). A woman is abducted from a gas station which leads her husband on a manhunt for what happened. To say too much more for those who haven’t seen it would be unfair, but it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Get Carter

Again ignore the horrible Hollywood remake. Seventies was really great for bleak cinema! And it really doesn’t get much bleaker than this, this film proved it really was grim up north. Everything is “matter of fact” and un-glamoured – including the violence. Michael Caine is icy cool as Jack Carter and has never been more nasty. It really was really quite a brave departure for him. Just remember kids, revenge is a futile pursuit. Similar ground was covered by I’ll sleep when I’m dead also directed by Mike Hodges, but this is a significantly stronger piece of work. Honorary mention should also go to The Long Good Friday, which is what I consider the other classic British Gangster movie.

Irreversible

This film has a profound affect on people who watched it. The experience can not be described as “enjoyable”. Distressing – yes. Challenging as this is, it’s a powerhouse of cinematic storytelling. Much like the title, after seeing this – you can’t really go back.

Requiem For A Dream

Much like the above, it is not “enjoyable” fare by any means, but there is no denying its power. Chances are you won’t exactly want to run out and replay it immediately afterwards. It’s one of those you need to watch, but might not necessarily ever need to see again (also like Irreversible).

Funny Games

Either version is powerful, the remake some ten years later is more or less a shot for shot remake. The original is my favourite however. Both were directed by Michael Haneke. The worst part about this is the banality of the antagonists and the fact that Haneke never lets us off lightly even when it looks like we might get some small reprieve. He is in effect totally playing against the audience desire for retribution.

The Wicker Man

Again (sounding like a broken record), avoid the Hollywood remake. Somewhat bizarre this one. It is a strange hodge-podge of genres (part pagan horror, thriller, drama, musical). But there is no denying the impact of that final scene. Edward Woodward at his absolute finest!

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I find most war films ultimately depressing (notable examples being films such as Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot). But films dealing with the holocaust are rarely going to be a ride in the park. There is some very worthy examples such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist. For me, this one is also up there also. Devastating stuff, sensitively handled.

Right, time for Kill List!

3 responses to “Bleak Endings

  1. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is an awesome film, I think it really gets the horror of the holocaust over. I think telling the story through the innocence of the children made it one of the most powerful films about the subject. Even with its bleak ending it has had an everlasting impact on me. I may not watch it over and over again but, it will always have a place on my DVD shelf

  2. Yes, I’m in total agreement with you Sean.

  3. Absolutely with you on Funny Games Andy. Personally, despite them being so similar, I think the original works better because Pitt is more obviously menacing whereas in the original they became far more terrifying for not being intrinsically frightening.

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