The article contains spoilers for the endings of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Last of Us, The Thing (1982), First Reformed, The Graduate, and Birdman.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would be a great horror movie without its final scene. But it’s the abrupt cut-to-black ending that cements its status as a genre all-timer.
For the first half of its 83 minute runtime, the film’s structure feels odd, slightly off. After a brief first encounter with a violent hitchhiker and a quick stop at a gas station/BBQ shack, the gang makes it to the creepy house around which the rest of the action will take place. It’s a pretty classic horror set-up. But unexpectedly, all but one of the kids gets picked off with 30 minutes left to go. The traditional slasher structure, as we know it today, has the killer slowly kill off their victims over the film’s full length, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre rushes through them like Leatherface and the filmmakers both have poor impulse control.
All of that quick-paced carnage is designed to set up the breathless rush of the last half hour, a prolonged chase which finds proto-Final Girl Sally Hardesty going from the fire to the frying pan (which also happens to be sizzling up some human remains). The chase flags for a bit when Hardesty is captured by the cannibalistic Sawyer family, but she manages to escape. She continues running up until the film’s final scene when, just in time, she flags down a pickup truck, hops in the back, and narrowly escapes Leatherface with a second to spare. Covered in blood, she bursts into unhinged laughter. As the car drives away, Leatherface is stumbling around, chainsaw still running. We cut to credits.
I love this kind of ending. Most movies would climax at the point that Texas Chain Saw Massacre ends, then transition into five-to-10 minutes of denouement, bringing the audience down from the adrenaline high, tying up loose ends, and working to give Sally Hardesty some sense of closure. And, to be clear, denouement is the right note for many stories to hit as they end. A movie like Top Gun: Maverick, which is action-packed but also focused on the complicated relationship between its hero and his deceased partner’s son, needs a come-down at the end to wrap up the emotional arcs after the action ends. But, some movies, like TCSM, can end with maniacal laughter and the sound of a chainsaw revving. The uncertain, but frantic, conclusion works for it.
I also just love ambiguous endings in general. The Last of Us, which ends with Ellie making the decision to accept Joel’s lie about the Fireflies despite knowing, deep down, that it isn’t true, is one of my favorite games. The Thing, which ends with MacReady and Child’s sitting in the rubble of their Antarctic base, sharing a whiskey, unsure if they can trust each other, is one of my favorite sci-fi horror movies. The Graduate’s ending, which has Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson running away from her wedding together, only to settle into the realization of what they’ve done when they’re alone together on the bus, is a canonical great for a reason.
Birdman kicked off my fascination with ambiguous endings. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “superhero” movie ends with a moment that can’t possibly be literal as Emma Stone’s character, Sam, returns to her father Riggan’s hospital room to see that he’s missing and the window is open. She looks down to see if he jumped to his death, then looks up to the sky. Whatever she sees causes her to break out into a wide-eyed smile. As the credits start rolling, we hear her laugh.
I was unenthusiastic about Birdman the first time I saw it. But, because a friend and I hadn’t been able to find it available for rental anywhere near us at the time, we had ended up buying a physical copy. So, like it or not, I owned a copy of Birdman, and I ended up watching it four more times over the next few weeks. The ending, which was a thorn in my mind the first time I saw it, became a fish hook burrowing deep. It wasn’t an ending that could be explained in purely literal terms and required an analysis of the movie’s themes to even be able to formulate an opinion on. A lot of critics I respect don’t like Inarritu’s work, but that’s immaterial to the effect his film had on me. It pushed 21-year-old me to begin to take the art I experienced more seriously. And it could do that because its ending didn’t offer an easy explanation.
As a lover of ambiguous endings, abrupt endings are my favorite kind. First Reformed is one of my all-time favorite movies in large part because its ending is a punch in the gut. When you can’t tell if an ending is intended to be taken literally, or if it’s the fantasia of a dying man after he drank household chemicals, you know you’re cooking with gas. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the best abrupt endings because it offers no real catharsis. Sally escapes, but her life won’t ever be the same. She lost all of her friends to murderous cannibals. She may have survived, but what does that survival look like? To offer us denouement would be to try to make us feel some sense of closure but Sally is nowhere near closure. All of this happened in the space of 12 hours. Her life was upended before she even knew what was happening.
Life is often filled with senseless pain and suffering. Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s answer in the face of it is unhinged laughter. What better, more sensible response is there?
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