10 Movies from the 1990s with Extremely Dark Endings

Little credit is given to the growth of genre cinema during the ’90s. People always talk about the ’70s and ’80s as harboring the pioneers of cinema that tried to do something different with narrative structures and rules that had made some genres friendlier than others. However, it’s never too late to start observing the ’90s as well, as the decade in which mainstream cinema allowed for twists, genre-bending, and darkness to flood the traditional tropes, and result in different films that audiences were not used to. This meant audiences didn’t exactly leave theaters with a grin on their faces.

One of the remarkable changes that some movies were able to tackle better than others, was finding a way to end the film on a note that wasn’t as happy as people expected. Not necessarily an unhappy ending, but a very dark resolution that would sometimes confirm fear could be real, and suspicions could follow the darker idea you had in your mind for most of the film. Suddenly, characters in peril could ultimately suffer, or turn into a sinister version of themselves.

Let’s take a look at some ’90s films with the darkest endings of the decade.

Dark City (1998)

Dark City Alex Proyas
New Line Cinema

The ending to Alex Proyas’ Dark City is dark, but also very bittersweet. It’s hopeful up to a point, but once you really start thinking about it, nothing good can come from the decision made by its lead character John Murdoch, as rebelling as it is. Hopefully, if a reboot is made, it will stay within the sinister tone of the original.

In the film, Murdoch and Frank Bumstead are trying to get out of the city, where the entities known as The Strangers keep them hostage by resetting the geography and also everyone’s minds. Both men arrive at the city limit, and upon breaking a poster, they realize their city is actually a habitat. Drifting in outer space. Bumstead dies while fighting with one of the Strangers, and Murdoch falls in the hands of the leaders. Luckily, Dr. Schreber decides to rebel as well, and instead of resetting Murdoch’s memory, he enhances his psychic abilities. Murdoch defeats the bad guys and creates a beach with his mind, and turns the habitat towards the Sun, where he sits alongside the newly rebooted Anna. Now, what will happen after? Will they live in a state of sunlight forever? No one knows.

Arlington Road (1999)

Arlington Road jeff bridges
Screen Gems / PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Arlington Road is one of those films that, when discussing it with other people, you should never believe anyone who says, “I knew what was going to happen”. They don’t. Mark Pellington’s very relevant crime film is so well written in the third act, its twist arrives at the snap of a finger and leaves you with your mouth dropped as you seek consolation.

The film tells the story of a history professor who specializes in terrorism and who’s sure his new neighbors are not what they say they are. In the film’s very dark ending, Faraday chases those who hold his son hostage and whom he recognizes may be part of a bombing plot. With the police by his side, he finds a white van that he’s sure contains explosives. It’s totally empty, and as it turns out, he’s been framed. Faraday finds a ticking time bomb in the trunk of his own car, and a second after it detonates, taking tons of lives. Of course, Faraday is accused of murder as the real culprits move to another neighborhood to frame another family.

Related: The Saddest Moments From ‘90s Movies

Se7en (1995)

se7en brad pitt shoots
New Line Cinema

In David Fincher’s Se7en, the third act is put together following its own narrative arc. The serial killer named John Doe has been caught, and he reveals that for finding the last two bodies, they will have to follow his instructions. Capital sins left? Wrath and envy.

Detectives Mills and Somerset hold John Doe in the middle of nowhere when a courier delivers a box. Doe keeps distracting the cops and doesn’t reveal much until the box is near. But then he spills out the details: Doe has envied Mills’ life with his pregnant wife, Tracy, and killed her. Mills is struck by the fact that his wife was pregnant with his baby, and Doe has killed them both. Doe just waits to be executed, as Mills represents the sin of wrath. When the gun goes off, Somerset just closes his eyes in anguish as the bad guy has won.

Happiness (1998)

Happiness dylan baker

Comedy drama Happiness, by Todd Solondz, is one of those films that is almost unbearable to watch. There’s no graphic content, and narratively, it’s pretty friendly to audiences. It’s the subjects at hand that make it an unsettling, intimate glance at rotten Americana, made by one very original director.

And its ending can be seen as the result of the emotionally burdening buildup the whole film consists of. It revolves around a family with social disruption, sexual repression, and dark facts that are best discovered by the viewer. After the Mapplewoods have been scarred forever by the confirmed allegations of Father Billy’s pedophilia and sexual assault, nothing really happens. No justice is served to the man who admitted to his own son Billy that he wouldn’t molest him. He would just masturbate while thinking of him. The ending of Happiness closes its own arc by showing Billy having an orgasm for the first time after masturbating, and letting his family know afterward. As you may have implied, Happiness isn’t an easy film to watch.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Jacob's Ladder tim robbins strapped
Tri-Star Pictures

In Adrian Lyne’s underrated psychological horror masterpiece, Jacob is a Vietnam vet who is suffering from hallucinogenic visions brought upon his inability to cope with PTSD. The entire film consists of Jacob’s mind being torn to pieces by monsters and memories that don’t exist, but that only a mind as broken as his, could have created.

But you would think Jacob’s Ladder would provide peace to Jacob, and it sort of does. Just in a very gloomy fashion that doesn’t feel hopeful or fulfilling. It simply feels tragic. After understanding his breakdowns are part of the effects of an experimental drug being administered to him, Jacob sees his son on the staircase and goes up the stairs holding hands with him. Then the scene cuts to a war medical tent where Jacob lies dead with a subtle smile on his face, and the doctors treating him pronounce him dead.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair witch Project
Artisan Entertainment / Summit Entertainment

Even if it exposes absolutely nothing like people expected it to, the ending of The Blair Witch Project couldn’t have been better. It just couldn’t. It’s what makes the film so theoretical in regard to what the threat could be.

After Josh disappears and some of his remains are found by a hysterical Heather, she and Mike head out to search for him. They can both hear him wailing in the dark. They arrive at an abandoned house where they can see thousands of fingerprints on the walls, and the eerie remnants of a possible human presence. When upstairs, Mike appears to identify where Josh’s voice is coming from and runs down the stairs to the cellar, while Heather desperately pleads him not to leave her alone. When she finally arrives, she sees Mike standing and facing the wall, just like Rustin Parr’s young victims were forced to. A second after, something hits Heather and the camera falls, leaving the audience with nothing but the spooky sound of a film reel.

American History X (1998)

Edward Norton American History X
New Line Cinema

The crime drama black sheep of the ’90s, American History X, is a gloomy experience in cinema, featuring Edward Norton in one of his finest performances, if not the best. It tells the story of Derek Vinyard a young white man with a neo-Nazi upbringing who gets rehabilitated in prison and then tries to prevent his little brother from doing the same. And as hopeful as that premise sounds, the ending ends on a realistic and dark note that will not leave you unscarred.

Derek and Danny bond after Derek leaves prison. They actually fight the figures that they praised in the past. The brothers fully reject their violent values and recognize it was all because of how their father raised them. When Danny completes the paper about his brother’s change, it turns into the last day of his life. In school, a Black student confronts him and ends up killing Danny, making Derek realize it may have been his fault for letting Danny be raised in such a hostile environment. A heartbreaking scene that reflects the burden the film represents.

Related: 20 Thrillers With Perfect Endings

Thinner (1996)

Thinner sick billy halleck
Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros.

Thinner is one of Stephen King’s obscure adaptations. Not many people are fond of it, and most make jokes about its practical effects. However, it has one of the signature endings in the catalog of King’s adaptations.

Billy Halleck is a living corpse. After getting cursed by the Roma, Tadzu Lempke, for causing a car accident, Billy has lost weight to the point that his body is closing in on vanishing. Tadzu explains that the only way to save himself by getting rid of the curse is to eat a strawberry pie mixed with Billy’s blood. He could eat it himself, and just get it over with, committing suicide. But Billy decides otherwise. He will give it to his wife, who’s cheating on him.

The next morning, her corpse lies next to him, after she gobbled up the pie Billy gave her the night before. However, his daughter is in the kitchen eating some of the pie as well. Billy is struck with the fact that he has caused his daughter’s death as well. But then, someone arrives at the Hallecks’ home. Billy’s doctor, Mike, confesses to being in love with Billy’s wife. With a smile on his face, Billy offers Mike a piece of the pie.

Funny Games (1997)

Funny Games 1997 by Michael Haneke
Concorde-Castle / Rock/Turner

Michael Haneke’s brutal home invasion film, Funny Games, is a horrific depiction of a broken psyche, an exercise in tension that’s notoriously hard to forget and impossible to describe. Haneke was able to make the film again in 2007, and inexplicably, the effect is very much the same.

In the film, two young men arrive at a family’s home and terrorize them to the point of minimizing their humanity. Haneke manipulates the film to be in favor of evil and nihilism, giving the villains the power to rewind the film when survivors show a possibility of being able to make it alive. The third act is usually an experience in which audiences are completely silent about what Haneke has allowed the bad guys to do. When they kill the husband and father, and send the wife and mother to her drowning death, the killers just chat about… science fiction. That’s before going to another house, and starting pandemonium once again with another family.

A Simple Plan (1998)

A Simple Plan 1998 Sam Raimi
Paramount Pictures / PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

In Sam Raimi’s most grounded film to date, A Simple Plan, a surefire opportunity turns into a dark outcome for the Mitchell siblings, as well as Lou Chambers. Hank Mitchell is played by Bill Paxton, Jacob is Billy Bob Thornton in one of his career’s best performances, and Lou is character actor darling, Brent Briscoe.

The three men have found an abandoned plane with a lot of money, seemingly abandoned. They take it, and they come up with a plan to spend it without raising any suspicions. The thing is, of course, the money is being sought by sketchy people. The third act consists of the Mitchells trying to convince an FBI agent that the plane they found didn’t have anything valuable. This is after they were forced to deal with Lou’s desperate attempt to spend the money. But the agent is not exactly who he says he is. Jacob and Hank have already participated in Lou’s death, and have no choice but to go all the way in getting rid of Vernon, the criminal who’s posing as the agent. Hank manages to kill him.

But then, Jacob doesn’t want to follow Hank’s follow-up plan. He’s tired and doesn’t want to live with what they’ve done. The money’s not worth it. He has always lived under the shadow of a mental health condition, and his brother has always taken care of things. He asks Hank to kill him and end it all. At first, Hank refuses, but Jacob tells him he will shoot himself if Hank doesn’t do it, botching the concocted story Jacob is sure will save Hank of any suspicions. Hank ultimately kills his brother Jacob, and stays with all the money. Unfortunately, all the bills were marked, and he cannot use them in any way. He decides to burn the whole loot, confirming the audience that nothing about the simple plan that caused his brother’s death was necessary.