It is not always easy for movies with unsettling endings to become box office successes, but many end up with giant cult followings. The form is seen mostly in horror movies, where the twist ending is almost expected, but there are also great examples in basic thrillers and mystery movies.
Making a movie with an effective unsettling ending is not an easy thing to do, because viewers have to accept this left-field or disturbing ending for characters they have followed for up to two or more hours. However, while hard to pull off, when done right, they remain something that a viewer will never forget. From shocking deaths to unexpected fates, some films excel in delivering an unsettling ending.
David Fincher has never shied away from delivering unsettling endings to his movies, and some of his best work ensures that the heroes are not always on stable ground when the final credits roll. Before he pulled off shocking endings in movies like Fight Club and The Game, he left audiences shell-shocked with Se7en.
Brad Pitt starred as David Mills, a young police detective hunting a serial killer who murdered based on the seven deadly sins. The ending was very unsettling because John Doe’s final victim was himself and he pulled this off by killing someone David loved above all others, leading him to become ‘wrath’ in the final sin on the list. Se7en’s ending, with David put into handcuffs for gunning down the murderer, left audiences wondering what they just watched.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky has never been a filmmaker who audiences could trust to stories that make for easy viewing. He set the tone for this with his 2000 movie Requiem for a Dream. The film is one that could be shown to teenagers across the world to convince them not to do drugs.
Requiem is a powerful film about addiction with a lead cast of four characters – three friends and the mother of one of them – all struggling with afflications. One might expect them to learn a valuable lesson over the course of the film, but by the end, every one of them had their lives destroyed by their addictions. The ending is deeply disturbing for viewers and one that will stay with them long after the credits role.
The Mist (2007)
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Frank Darabont remains known as one of the greatest adapters of Stephen King stories. His debut feature was The Shawshank Redemption, followed by The Green Mile and finally, The Mist. While the first two were stories overflowing with hope, Darabont created one of the most unsettling endings in movie history with The Mist.
In Stephen King’s The Mist, the Master of Horror left the ending open-ended, letting the readers decide if the father-son duo of David and Billy survived. In the movie, Darabont showed what he believed happened. David made a drastic decision to ensure the monsters wouldn’t hurt his son and then saw – seconds too late – the military arrive to save them.
Mystic River (2003)
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2003 gave viewers one of Clint Eastwood’s most underrated films, an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Mystic River. The movie had an impressive cast, with Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins playing Jimmy, Sean, and Dave – three childhood friends who grew up to become very different people.
Now a gangster, Jimmy’s daughter ends up murdered, and he believes that Dave did it. Dave himself was kidnapped as a child and abused, leaving him traumatized. While Sean, a police detective, sets out to find out the truth, Jimmy takes matters into his own hands. Viewers watch as the men make pivotal decisions, not realizing until too late that they were wrong. A slow burn, the film leads to a visceral and unsettling ending that will shock new viewers to the core.
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When film historians start looking at the best movies of all time, Chinatown often comes up. Robert Evans took a basic mystery and turned it into a twisting and turning puzzle that ended with one of the most unsettling endings in movie history.
Jack Nicholson played Jake Gittes, a detective hired to follow a woman’s husband. This led to a criminal case involving corruption in the Los Angeles water and power industry. While that initially might sound boring, it led to a murder and an unsettling discovery that the police then brushed under the rug. Viewers left this movie with only one message – the bad guys do win sometimes.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
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Adrian Lyne directed one of the best psychological horror movies of the ’90s that ended up twisting viewers’ minds in every direction before climaxing with an unsettling ending that forced everyone to question what they saw before in. In Jacob’s Ladder, Tim Robbins stars as Jacob, a Vietnam vet working as a postal clerk after the war.
Soon, Jacob starts to see strange monsters around him and realizes many of them are trying to capture him. By the end of the movie, Jacob has the unsettling realization that things are not as they seem, and by that time, it’s too late to save him.
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Jordan Peele directed the horror movie Us in 2019. In this movie, a family of doppelgangers starts to terrorize a family who is on vacation at an exclusive cabin in the woods. However, this is just a setup to a more horrifying tale of an underground society of doppelgangers who want to come out into the open.
The movie had important messages, but there was one twist at the end that left viewers looking back at everything that happened up to that point and trying to see where it all went wrong. When the family’s daughter realized what happened, the horror in her eyes left the audience unsettled as the end credits rolled.
The Vanishing (1988)
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In 1993, American moviegoers saw the horror-thriller The Vanishing, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as a man whose wife disappeared at a truck stop, leading him to spend years of his life trying to find her. When he finally learned what happened, he realized he was in the crosshairs of a killer and ends up in a fight for his life.
However, this was a remake of a Dutch movie with a much more unsettling ending. While the American version saw the hero in a fight for survival against the killer, in the original, he had a chance to see what happened to his wife, and that marked his end, with no chance for survival.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
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Roman Polanski is not afraid to dish out unsettling endings, and while Chinatown’s unsettling nature was mostly the work of the script, Polanski was more hands-on with his delivery in Rosemary’s Baby. In this movie, Mia Farrow starred as Rosemary, a pregnant woman who begins to fear her neighbors have diabolical plans for her.
She had every right to be afraid, as the unsettling ending showed that she was possibly pregnant with a demonic child, impregnated by the Devil. The sight of Rosemary heading to the crib and seeing the child is sure to haunt the viewer’s dreams.
Before taking on Stephen King’s It, Andy Muschietti directed the horror movie Mama. This movie featured two little girls found in the wilderness, one almost feral. When a couple takes them in to raise as their own, a ghostly presence begins to haunt the house and it wants the girls.
The movie doesn’t take the easy way out and has an unsettling ending that sees the ghost get what she wants, and this comes with the death of a child. It is horrifying and leaves a lasting impression on viewers, proving that there isn’t always a happily ever after.
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