It’s hard to think of a recent film with horror elements that has a happy ending. At worst, everyone dies. At best, everyone dies except the protagonist—who’s so damaged he or she might as well be dead. Maybe the unhappiest ending of all is the non-ending, as in Martha Marcy May Marlene, the most irritating of many quasi horror pictures evincing a philosophical aversion to closure. It’s true that most of the seminal horror films of the last half-century end badly. But not all of them! Nowadays, happy endings just feel wrong, as if we’re too anxious or guilty about too many things to believe that we can overcome.
Consider Ottway (Liam Neeson), the hero of the grueling survival thriller The Grey. Early on, he sucks on a rifle and comes close to blowing his head off. And this is the fellow we’re supposed to root for to survive, when his plane goes down in Alaska and the seven men who emerge from amid the mangled bodies are set upon by a pack of wolves. Ottway is grieving over a separation from his wife, who appears in dreams and visions, and it’s difficult not to have morbid thoughts of Neeson’s late spouse, Natasha Richardson. As the dour Ottway leads the men across the snow toward a line of trees, wolves pick them off, one by one, tearing at jugulars and viscera and disappearing into mist or darkness. The skillful, cheerless director, Joe Carnahan, isn’t a sadist, but he’s cruel. There’s a bravura sequence from the vantage of a man as he plunges into a canyon, hitting tree branches all the way down, his little daughter appearing in a vision before the wolves descend. Neeson’s gravity elevates the action, and there’s a fine, prickly performance by an actor new to me, Frank Grillo, as the asshole of the group. (“This is Fuck City—population five and dwindling!”) But The Grey, despite moments of sublimity, is as predictable as a funeral. When Ottway angrily calls out to God, the nonanswer is sadly redundant.
Three other releases are, if anything, less reassuring. Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a poky but blood-freezing throwback to the gothic horror films of the seventies, when ingénues moved tremulously down dark corridors without holding digital video cameras. True, the heroine, Claire (Sara Paxton), has a souped-up microphone that detects phantasmal cries and whispers, but that’s audio—it seems pleasantly old-fashioned. It’s the last weekend of business for the Yankee Pedlar Inn, where once upon a time a bride took her life and the innkeepers hid her festering corpse in the basement. Despite the warnings of an alcoholic spiritualist (Kelly McGillis, also back from the dead), Claire heads more or less straight for the scene of the desecration. Paxton, de-glammed, is so wonderfully gawky and funny, we’d follow her anywhere—and do, alas.
Ben Wheatley’s eerie and then ferocious Kill List is all hairpin turns, opening like a standard B noir featuring two grumbly hit men. But the revelation that the protagonist (Neil Maskell) is a wildly unstable Iraq War vet who’s used to killing without knowing why clues you into the schizoid moral universe. Kill List swerves into the most sordid vigilante territory before tumbling down a hole into the realm of … Huh? Did someone put on a reel from The Wicker Man? The final twist is both baffling and repulsive, but as an evocation of the triumph of evil, it’s peerless.
The week’s least downbeat film is David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, a poetic plague saga in which humans’ senses shut down one by one: a spell of despondency is followed by loss of smell, ravenousness by loss of taste, rage by loss of hearing, etc. But calamity bonds Ewan McGregor as a caddish chef unable to love and the impossibly gorgeous Eva Green as an epidemiologist unable to find love. Instead of the pointy-headed alert to the perils of globalism and bad pork that was Contagion, we get an ode to love, which blooms when all else—and I mean all else—falls away. You’ve got to make room in your heart for a film in which the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper but a cuddle.