Monday, October 19, 2015

Eleven Horror Stories with Happy Endings (Obviously, SPOILERS)

The other night, a friend of mine said I should've expected SOMA ending grimly because "it's Horror." It bugs me when people talk like that, because Horror doesn't have to end badly. It's actually dangerous to the genre if the endings are predictable. That's why the best Twilight Zone episodes challenge our expectations.

I've written before about not particularly liking either Happy or Sad endings. Sometimes an ending fits a particular story, and often Happiness is a surprisingly good fit for Horror. They're natural compliments to each other: go through the tumult of a scary story for the relief of an ending. It reminds me of Jack McDevitt once yelling at a WorldCon, "I'm not reading five hundred pages just to read the hero died at the end!"

Yet I love Horror, which feels more inclined every decade to end with everyone dead, or at best, doomed. So join me for a few scary movies that end well for the heroes. Maybe we'll learn something.

I'll even start with the most obvious entry so that if you've clicked here by accident, you'll only have the end of a hundred-year-old novel spoiled.

1. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897)
Not Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, which has a runtime more decadent than its costume design. But the formative vampire story for generations had the good guys triumph. It's an old-fashioned monster story: we find a monster, it scares us, and then we win. Life expectancy was lower in 1897, so endings went easier on us.

But seriously, read that ending. The evil sisters go down, Quincey and Harker shank Dracula, and Mina and Jonathan have a baby and live happily ever after. Stoker originally made their victory so overwhelming that Dracula's own castle died and fell apart.

Ultimately, Stoker decided killing the evil real estate was too much.

2. Alien (1979)
Even people who refuse to watch Alien know the thing gets blown out the airlock. Ripley survives to become one of lamentably few kickass heroines in 70's and 80's Science Fiction film - and survives with her pet cat. It's only in Aliens where this turns tragic, but if you want real tragedy, it's Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem

1979's Alien is a template for many Horror movies: make it as harrowing and lethal an experience as possible so that the survival is either a thrill or a relief. 1986's Aliens wound up doing the same thing in an Action movie framework.

And don't tell me it's unhappy because a bunch of people died. Half of New York is in a space whale's colon at the end of Avengers and the heroes go out for shawarma.

3. Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983)
Stephen King is a tricky writer. He's written his share of "rocks fall, everybody dies" endings, but a fair portion of his better novels end complicated. Take Pet Sematary: the father has to euthanize his son, so the boy is re-dead. But his wife appears to have risen sane, cooing at him in happiness. They are both rescued from the jaws of despair.

Is it a happy ending? That final scene is a relief, and the father seems more entranced by the return of his wife than anything. It feels like, by her not returning to life evil, they are out of the shadow of loss.

It's worth pointing out that the 1989 film version of Pet Sematary went the easier route: the wife revives, and stabs him to death. She's evil so the movie can have one-last-scare, like so many 80's Horror flicks.

It's also worth pointing out that King's ouvre containing happy, sad, and mixed endings had greatly helped his body of work. It's unlike Black Mirror, where by the second season you know every story will end badly. King's mixed bag makes you hope even when you shouldn't. I easily could've listed ten King stories with Happy endings, but I'm resisting just in case you haven't read them. His endings are best treated as Russian roulette.

4. John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)
1978 also introduced the prototypical Slasher movie, which itself introduced the prototypical Slasher Happy Ending: the Survivor Girl survives! What an idea.

A Nightmare on Elm Street would make its Nancy pluckier than Laurie Strode, where Friday the 13th made its girl go through more gore or go downright mad from survival. But Halloween pioneered this trend. It's a natural resolution to most Slasher Horror stories:

Act 1) Killer is on the loose
Act 2) We get increasingly concerned as the body count rises
Act 3) We're thrilled and relieved that our Survivor Girl makes it out alive

Even with Halloween ending on the suggestion that Michael Myers is still out there, Laurie is safe. She's with Dr. Loomis, and her house is empty. They're terrified and alive. Laurie even makes it through the sequel without technically being its protagonist.

At this point in the list I wanted to rattle off candidates: Jaws, Poltergeist, Silver Bullet, and more. But they all had one thing in common.

They're as old as I am. Most are from the 80's; they're the Horror movies I grew up on. While formative to me, it'd be a waste of the list to argue that Horror stories can end positively while ignoring what writers and movie makers are doing right now.

It also forces us to confront the trend in Horror. Modern Horror is perhaps second only to Grimdark in its fetish for bleak endings. And no, modern remakes of 80's Horror don't count.

Even Cabin in the Woods, an alleged Horror parody, ends by killing literally everyone alive. Contrast that with the 90's meta-Horror of Scream, which ended on more characters surviving than in any of the Slasher movies it name-dropped. We could be in a dark trend. My beloved Paranormal Activities just love ending badly (and I doubt the series is going to end on a sunny note in a couple weeks).

Sometimes, pushing against that trend can help a story. Consider some great movies and books released since 2000.

5. The Babadook (2014)
I hear some of you griping that many 80's movies killed much of their casts, and were only happy for a few characters. Well Babadook has two main players: the mother and son, Amelia and Samuel. And they both make it.

To be fair, Amelia and Samuel earn their happy ending. That movie is so unrelentingly unpleasant that I gave up watching it on my first watchthrough; I couldn't tolerate how put-upon Amelia was supposed to be.

But the ending is nearly humorous. The Babadook is defeated and, rather than slain like Dracula, domesticated. The family actually feed the thing so it won't die or rampage, leaving it a pathetic thing beneath a bed. Maybe if it behaves well enough, it can eventually come to one of Samuel's birthday parties.

6. The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan lit this movie as darkly as anything in the recent Haunting sub-genre craze, but his occupants have more warmth. The Conjuring is about two families that have to help each other survive. One is a couple of paranormal investigators with a single child, while the latter is a booming family. In most screenwriters' hands it would've been full of bickering and needless conflict, but over the film the number of characters who like each other actually increases. Witness the Asian camera man hitting on the oldest daughter.

I say all that to explain how bright the end of this 2013 Horror movie is. Nobody dies. Nobody is swallowed by the demon; the wife escapes its hold with help from both groups. The sun rises, and members of both families exchange relieved looks. They went through an inferno together and are happy that the other is safe.

In the throes of Horror's darkest period, the genre's highest grossing movie of the year ended like that. Sometimes, everybody surviving is what you want from Horror. Jack McDevitt be praised, it's helped me re-watch the movie eight times now.

7. Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls (2013)
Too few people have read Beukes's tale of a serial killer who can walk through doors in time. His house lets him visit his victims throughout their history, such that they vaguely remember his face from decades ago, when he comes for them. It's a hell of a book, and Leonardo DiCaprio allegedly wants to make it a movie or a TV show. It could be great.

Because you probably haven't read it, I won't spoil who among the killer's victims survives, or what happens. Just that it ends damned well. Do yourself a favor and read it in the remainder of your October.

8. John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In (2004, 2008, and then 2010)
You've heard of this one, right? John Ajvide Lindqvist's brilliant novel, adapted both into a sterling Swedish film, and then re-adapted into an American film as "Let Me In." All three versions are good stuff.

Like reading? Read it, the translation is fantastic.

Don't mind subtitles? The Swedish movie has the best child acting of the decade.

Dislike reading and subtitles? Then watch the American one. Some critics prefer it.

The novel's epilogue is one of my all-time favorites. After everything Eli and Oskar have been through, they leave town by train. A conductor looks in on them, witless to the murders they're related to, and thinking how quirky their lives must be. His innocent fondness culminates in one of my favorite final lines in literature, though you'll have to get the book to find out.

9. As Above, So Below (2014)
You weren't going to watch it anyway, so here we go. Beneath the catacombs of Paris, explorers find a surreal cave system that mirrors their greatest mistakes and regrets in the world above. It starts as an antique phone ringing hundreds of feet underground, and grows stranger and more they search for escape.

Three of our party make it out alive, and in doing so, accentuate a problem in a lot of found footage movies. So many (including ones I love going back to The Blair Witch Project) are track-like plots of the struggle to survive. Going through a runtime of struggle only to fail often leaves them disappointing and not as worth revisiting. When you see a few of As Above's cast actually breathe surface air again, it's almost as relieving as stepping out of a sweltering sewer into the goodnight yourself.

10. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle is a director that believes in dragging you over the coals so you'll appreciate the relief of an ending. It's a formula that works for him in Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and absolutely in 28 Days Later, a movie that's so successful that, even after a tepid sequel, the rumor of him making a third one excites me.

It's fun watching the deleted endings for 28 Days Later. There's a featurette using their storyboards for the original ending, which had to do with cleaning out infected people's veins to cure them. From that failed idea onward, the end of the movie was always about how they could best treat the characters who would survive. They knew their story structure.

In my opinion, the right people make it to the hilltop and wave signs for the jets overhead. But regardless, it's the nicest time any character has in that movie, barring possibly the grocery store scene.

11. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Finally, a Horror movie that ends well no matter what ending you were rooting for! A documentary crew gets the once-in-a-lifetime chance of following a serial killer as he prepares to become the next Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kruger. Both the would-be killer's excitement for his "craft" and how creeped out the crew becomes is delightful, and it wraps up better than Zombieland or Cabin in the Woods could dream.

The Survivor Girl survives the climax. She defeats the killer.

The killer somehow turns out to be alive in the end credits and escapes the morgue, so he gets to live to another day, too.

And if you were rooting for him? His goal was to be defeated by his Survivor Girl all along. He double-wins.

Everybody who lives gets to go home victorious. They just have to walk across some bodies to do it. Really, the only unhappy ending is that we probably won't see a sequel.

Now we've covered eleven stories (and technically named about twenty). Want to fight me over any? Have a movie you want to pitch for the list? Hit me up in the comments below. Just note that I've omitted 2015 books and movies from the list because I respect the Cone of Spoilers.

I love October.


  1. Gotta disagree about "Pet Semetary." It actually strikes me as one of the bleakest of King's endings. For a happier King ending, I think more of "It," with the evil defeated and Bill & Audra's healing bike ride in the epilogue.


  2. Some of those had some serious body counts.
    John Carpenter's The Thing comes to mind. Two alive at the end, but they both know they have to die to stop the Thing. That's bleak.

    1. Do you really think The Thing has a happy ending? I always considered that a mutually assured destruction scenario.

  3. All good or all bad are not for me. Even in my escapism I like a bit of realism. Life is chaotic, mixed, messy and complicated and I like the books I read to reflect that.

  4. At the end of Dracula, Quincey :( But like any stout American adventurer, he seems okay with it, because he got to kill a vampire, and that was hella-cool.


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