Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #4: The Sting in the Tail/Tale

In his landmark book of genre film analysis, James Bond in the Cinema (1981), the great John Brosnan often wrote about "the sting in the tail," that moment near the end of a James Bond film, when the surviving villain gets the jump on 007, and there's one last thrill before end credits roll.  Think of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd spoiling a perfectly nice cruise at the end of Diamonds Are Forever (1970), for instance, or Nick Nack doing same in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

In the horror lexicon, the sting in the tail/tale is that devilish scorpion strike at the very end of the movie, the turn or twist of the tale towards the unexpected in the final, valedictory moment.  In the horror genre, the sting in the tail/tale is designed to forge a final, spiky crescendo, one that audiences will remember as they file out of the auditorium.  Sometimes the sting in the tail/tale causes a laugh; sometimes a shriek.

The sting in the tail/tale comes in many shapes and sizes.  Often the final "sting" is a development you don't expect, something that ratchets up the terror and changes the very nature of the narrative, even setting up the grounds for a sequel.  

The sting in the tail/tale at the end of AVP (2004) is the birth of the Pred-Alien, for example.  The sting in the tail/tale at the end of Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), is the shocking death of Nancy Thompson's Mom, as Nancy is helplessly driven away in The Freddy Mobile.  

In other cases, the sting in the tail/tale is a moment of high drama and terror ultimately revealed to be a dream sequence (through the auspices of the "Stay Awake" shot.)  

Films including Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Prince of Darkness (1987) all resolve with stings in the tail/tale that get the blood pumping, but are revealed to be phantasms of the mind, not reality.  

A great play on this aspect of the convention occurs in Phantasm II.  Mike (James LeGros) insists to a terrified Liz (Paula Irvine) that the terror around them is all a dream.  Then the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) appears and punctures that particular balloon.  "No...it's not!" He croaks.  Fade to Black...

Sometimes, a sting in the tail/tale reveals that a "beloved" character didn't really die (Fright Night [1985]), and sometimes, the sting resolves a lingering question in the narrative.  The great, final sting of John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) is a direct answer to Father Malone's (Hal Holbrook) interrogative about why the vengeful Blake didn't seek revenge upon him.  

Off with his head!  

One of the great sting-in-the-tail/tale endings of film history is seen in another Carpenter film, Halloween (1978). To me, this is one of the most elegant and beautiful stings in film history.  After we see that Michael Myers is still alive, Carpenter cuts to a montage of empty rooms and dark houses...places where Michael Myers already has been during the course of the film.  We don't see him, but the montage is accompanied by the sounds of his heavy breathing.   

This sort of "where's Michael" final sting is so much more effective and inventive than a last jump wherein Michael re-appears, and gets shot in the head.  Instead, Carpenter sort of "universalizes" the terror of Michael.  He could be anywhere now, the montage suggests.

Even in the back seat of your car...

Another sting in the tail/tale ending I admire tremendously arises in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1983).  Here, Ash defeats the Deadites and limps out of his cabin in the woods, only to be pursued -- one last time -- by a horrible, unseen force.  

The orchestration of this P.O.V. attack is remarkable, and audacious. We race (on the camera, apparently...) through the woods, through the very cabin interior, over a fallen door, right into Ash's screaming, protesting face.    

This ending is not only terrifying, it's a reminder of the film's bravura "pummeling-the-audience" aesthetic.

Most often in horror films, the sting-in-the-tail/tale ending is as simple as a killer you believed was dead, popping up for one, final scare before being put down (Scream [1996], The Resident [2011]).

The sting-in-the-tail/tale, in various forms, has appeared in films including (but not limited to...): Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Friday the 13th Part II (1983), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Fright Night (1985), Critters (1986), Psycho 3 (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), Hide and Go Shriek (1988), Phantasm 2 (1988), Leviathan (1989), Scream (1996), and AVP (2004). 


  1. SteveW5:29 PM

    My favorite "sting" of all time is the end of De Palma's "The Fury"--not just the final explosion, but the way the director sets it up, slowly, deliciously, as Cassavetes woos Amy Irving over to the dark side, even wiping away her tears and taking her into his arms. There's something wonderfully obscene about Cassavetes' villainy--and when she starts kissing him everything goes to a new level of weirdness. The buildup of tension is almost unbearable and beautifully orchestrated.

  2. Okay, three from the Carpenter

    3. In the Mouth of Madness: this one is actually something of a protracted sting, as Sam Neill wonders from the streets of an in-progress apocalypse into an empty movie theater that’s playing...In the Mouth of Madness; and, at the sight of himself and the preceding nightmare onscreen, starts laughing with insanity, which then becomes a sob.

    2. The Ward: I know, I know; most thought this movie was weak. Not I. And believe it or not, as familiar as it was in practice, Amber Heard crashing through the mirror at Amber Heard left me effectively disturbed.

    1. Big Trouble in Little China: "Just remember what ol' Jack Burton does when the earth quakes and the poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol' storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.' " – pan to back of rig – cue monster – fade to black – cue The Coupe De Villes.

  3. Excellent examples here, of the Sting-in-the-tail/tale from SteveW and Cannon.

    SteveW: I love the final scene of The Fury. Man, that is some kind of diabolical, unexpected conclusion. Brilliant.

    and Cannon: Good to remember more Carpenter "stings" here. I described above how beautiful I find the sting in Halloween, but you do a great job of reminding us of three other good ones. And you know what, I loved The Ward! I thought it was pretty great. And I need to review BTiLC here on the blog...



  4. Anonymous4:05 PM

    Why Phantasm II instead of Phantasm (I)? Even better with the back-of-the-door mirror trick.

  5. Hi Anonymous:

    I picked Phantasm II's "sting in the tail" because it is noteworthy for being funny, that's all. I also love the Phantasm sting.