For real, actually. If you have not seen Psycho, The Wicker Man, Planet of the Apes, The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense, The Village, Citizen Kane or The Empire Strikes Back, stop reading, because I’m about the spoil all of them (which is entirely against the point of this article. Ironic, no?).
Several years ago, I had a pleasure I never thought I would have. I sat in a room and watched one of my favorite films, Psycho, with a group of people who had never seen the film. Not only that, they did not know the ending. They knew, at most, the shower sequence, but some were unaware of the context of that excellent piece of filmmaking. It was an incredible moment when the killer was revealed; a moment of shock and terror, and for me, exhileration. For when I first saw Psycho, I already knew the end. And as shocking as the film can be, I nonetheless had felt somewhat cheated that I was already aware of the conclusion. I was pleased that I had not gone and spoiled it for all of my fellow viewers by assuming that they knew how it ended.
Some films are so ingrained in our culture that we automatically assume that everyone in the Western world knows the twist. Darth Vader is Luke’s father. That girl in The Crying Game is a dude. The planet of the apes is Earth. Norman Bates is his own mother. Bruce Willis is dead. Soylent Green is people. Rosebud is a sled. And so on and so on. But every once in awhile, you run into someone who does not know that ending, the twist, the conclusion.
I had that experience with The Wicker Man – the original 1973 British film, not the ‘Nic Cage gets drowned in bees’ one. I knew next to nothing about it when I rented it my last year at St. Andrews. I only knew that it was supposed to be a great British horror film. So when I was presented with a very nice story about a nice island where everyone seems all paganish and happy, I felt slightly surprised. Surely this is not the movie that everyone talked about as arguably the greatest British horror pictures ever made? Sure, there’s a sense of danger and foreboding, but it seems to all come from the nasty cop who really needs to loosen up, not those lovely natives. And then … the last ten minutes happened. It shocked me more than A Clockwork Orange, which I expected to be dark and weird. Because the fact was that I liked these people. Hell, I wanted to be a part of that community! And then they burnt the Wicker Man.
What was nice about the experience with Psycho and with The Wicker Man was the sense of seeing something totally fresh, almost the way it was seen in 1960 or 1973. The brilliance of both those films really does not lie in the twists. In fact, I have found Psycho more enjoyable every time I watch it. Still, there’s pleasure in the twist ending, particularly when it seems to respect the feelings of the audience. What I despise about most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films is that the film seems to think it’s smarter than the audience and so the twist, when it comes, does not produce an ‘aha!’ moment or nervous laughter, or shock, but annoyance. Ten minutes into The Village, I thought I had it figured out, but the conclusion was so stupid that I believed it could not possibly end that way. Then it did and I felt like I had been fooled, that something had been put over on me. Far from being pleased or shocked, I was angry. No one wants to leave a movie with the sense that the director was having you on for the majority of the film.
So I think it’s time to take a step back and not let our assumptions about certain cultural moments (like Star Wars) spoil it for others. I mean, wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch The Empire Strikes Back for the first time and not know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father? To get to have that experience that the first viewers had? To come out of the cinema laughing, or babbling on about how you knew it all the time (when, of course, you didn’t?) There’s so much joy to be had from not having it all spoiled.