"The Mist" has always been my favorite Stephen King story. In it, a lakeside New England town is engulfed in a mysterious mist, which turns out to contain all manner of terrifying--and evidently alien--creatures. The protagonist is a man (in typical King style, he is an artsy type with working class roots) who is trapped in a supermarket with his son and a couple of dozen other people, as the monsters roam outside, occasionally picking off one or another of the minor players. Class conflicts play themselves out in the supermarket; a crazy religious nut gets everybody all riled up, and a small group of cool-headed folks manage to escape to the parking lot and the protagonist's car. They drive off into the mist, hoping to get out of it. At the end, the progaonist reveals that they are still on the run, still in the mist, and that he is writing the story down for anyone who may find it, in case they don't survive.
Rhian and I just finished watching Frank Darabont's movie version. It's very faithful (and features a very fun performance from Marcia Gay Harden, as the religious nut), right up until the end. I'm going to tell you how it ends, now, OK? Are you ready?
The car runs out of gas, so the protagonist takes a pistol and kills everyone else in the car, including his own son. You know, to spare them from the monsters. He wants to kill himself, too, but he's out of bullets. So he gets out of the car to wait to be eaten. Instead, the mist clears, the sun comes out, and rescuers arrive. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!! He murdered his only child for no reason!
It's a quarter past eleven, and we have to be fresh tomorrow for our big family Thanksgiving, and here I am, wide awake, trembling with rage at this awful, manipulative movie. Rhian's comment was typically incisive: there is something wrong with the state of American narrative. How could this have happened? How could anyone have thought this was a good ending?
Let me lay this out a second. The point of a horror movie, if I'm not mistaken, is not to force you to contemplate the greatest horrors imaginable, and make you miserable. The point, rather, is escapism. When people get killed in horror movies, they're fools. If people in horror movies are shrewd, kind, and hard-working, they survive. Because a horror movie is big dumb fun. It's not about death. It's about abandon. It is supposed to be entertaining.
And this one was, for almost its entire length. It was really entertaining! We even stayed awake all the way to the end. But it turns out it's all a ruse, all this emotional investment that it asks you to make in this band of brave ordinary citizens. It decides to make you empathize with a man who shoots his son in the head and is rescued moments later. Viewer, this movie says: fuck you. Because we hate you. You stupid fuckers, who are so fucking stupid that you can be seduced by a narrative--we hate you. We wish we could shoot you in the head, but then you wouldn't buy popcorn and Coke. Instead, we will work super hard to make you care about characters, and then take them away from you, in a marvelous and highly implausible little act of insane brutality.
Here's something that people should think about--something that comes up in my fiction workshops often. Trick endings are inherently idiotic. Even ones that don't enrage and disgust you. They are cowardly sleights of hand, for writers who lack the confidence to make their books and films be about human beings, and what it means to be one. The trick ending writer would rather burn the theater down than risk making a fool of himself on stage.
A story whose lesson is that life is pointless is not, in fact, a story. It's nihilist propaganda. Inherent in the very concept of narrative is the idea that life is, in fact, worth living. This does not mean that all narratives should have happy endings. It's that those endings, happy or not, should mean something. The ending of "The Mist," the movie, has no meaning. It's the product of some idiot at some script meeting saying, "Awww, all those movies end with the good guy gettin' rescued. Let's be different! Let's be hardcore! We're gonna take this one all the way!" In other words, it's the product of insecurity, of the writer's fear that his ideas are inadequate, that they must be gratuitously subverted, to prove how original he is, how he's not like all those other people, the people who write scripts people enjoy.
If you want a great movie with an very unhappy ending, check out Thomas McCarthy's wonderful The Visitor, a film about injustice, mourning, and human misery that makes you glad to be alive. It is a narrative that is proud to be a narrative, and doesn't feel the need to piss on your shoes as you leave.