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A cliffhanger is a plot device to maintain the audience’s attention on a moment of tension, the main character is in extreme danger or has found out a shocking secret. The mission, sort of speak, of the cliffhanger is to keep the audience wondering about the destiny of the character and what will happen next. Will he or she be able to survive? Will they be able to find a solution to the situation?
That’s why it’s called a “cliffhanger”, because you can leave a character hanging literally from a cliff and we don’t know what’s going to happen. This device is used in most of the entertainment products we see and there are some that have made history.
Let’s review the first part of the most shocking cliffhangers in film history.
The Silence of the Lambs – The tuck
Based on the novel by Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs is an Oscar-winning film which tells the story of a young FBI trainee who has been assigned to interview Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer and cannibal who was also a former psychiatrist, in order to find “Buffalo Bill”, another killer who skins his female victims to make a “woman suit”.
Yes, it’s as unsettling as it sounds and to put a cherry on top, there’s a particular scene which portrays the disturbing mind of this man while he’s dressing up as woman and a victim is trapped in the bottom of a dry well.
Buffalo Bill is shown dancing “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazarus, with a blond wig, wearing makeup and thin robes when suddenly he moves back from the camera and we can see his naked body with his penis tucked between his legs. This scene gives out in extreme detail the horrifying mindset of the character.
As a fun fact (well maybe not that fun), Buffalo Bill’s character was based in several serial killers: Ted Bundy, Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik.
Misery – The realignment of James Caan
From the master of horror, Stephen King’s Misery is the display of a woman obsession towards her favorite author. Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) is a writer of a series of romantic novels who was traveling back home when he got caught in the middle of a snow storm and his car crashed. When he woke up later on, he found himself bound to a bed. Kathy Bates portrayed the role of Annie Wilkes, a nurse who is the number one fan of Paul’s novels.
Soon we find out the true intentions of Annie, she wanted to keep his favorite author captive so he could write more romantic novels instead of his new project. Paul tries to escape several times but he is caught by this mental nurse and as punishment, she decides to break both of his ankles with a sledgehammer. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for best Actress for her unsettling performance.
Requiem for a Dream – Marion
The film by Darren Aronofsky could be considered one of the most disturbing and depressing movies in cinema. The story revolves around the life of a couple of characters making their own lives a living hell. Everything has been perverted by drugs in such ways they can’t find true happiness.
At the end of the movie, we can see the destiny of each character and none is in the slightest cheerful. In the case of Marion, she was so desperate for drugs, she began to give sexual favors in return. The scene with the young Jennifer Connelly make the audience uncomfortable by making a show of desperation with another woman who hit rock bottom. She has intercourse with the other woman in front of men throwing money and screaming.
What made this scene so shocking was not only that Marion agreed to perform such things to get drugs, but how graphic the whole sequence was. It left nothing to the imagination and the struggle in the face of the character was truly evident.
127 Hours – 127th hour
This film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston a mountaineer who had an accident in a canyon in southeastern Utah. His arm got trapped between a big rock and the canyon wall and spent days trying to take it out. In the movie we can see the excruciating journey of this man from the moment he got stuck to the terrifying idea of cutting his arm off to survive. And that’s what he had to do.
This scene was so shocking that several people fainted during the projections. The effects are so real, you really think that James Franco is actually cutting his arm off. The combination of the makeup and the sound design make this sequence a true torture for those with a sensitive stomach.
There are many cinematic references that have shocked us throughout history. The magic of cinema is to experience intense and dangerous situations and come out without a single scratch. We might shiver or get dizzy because of the intensity of the scenes but at the end we’re safe and sound.
Which other cliffhangers do you know?