One of the most common plot devices of modern media is the act of the "cliffhanger", an abrupt ending to a story that usually leaves multiple issues left unresolved, and keeps the viewer in suspense to find out what happens next. The term "cliffhanger" is believed to have originated in the 1873 serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes
in which it ends with one of the protagonists literally hanging off the side of a cliff. Between the 1920s-30s, the use of the cliffhanger ending became a staple of movie theater serials before becoming a staple of television in the 1980s, beginning with the notable "Who Shot J. R." episodes of Dallas
. I've personally always loved the act of a cliffhanger despite its often anger-inspiring reactions, so I've compiled a chronological list of some of my personal favorite cliffhangers, which obviously contains many spoilers, so be warned. Here we go...Halloween (1978)
The first of my picks wasn't even intended to be a cliffhanger to begin with but nonetheless left audiences hungering for more. In the film's climax, Michael Myers is in pursuit of Laurie Strode and has confronted her in the home of her of her latest babysitting venture. As he begins to strangle her on the second floor, Dr. Loomis runs in and begins to repeatedly shoot him, which forces him off the balcony and into the backyard where he appears motionless. After a minute, Dr. Loomis walks over to the balcony to look down on Michael only to find he's not dead, and has left the premises to continue his murderous rampage. It's unfortunate the follow-up Halloween II
(1981) was nowhere near as good as the original, but at least resolved the story, until of course the additional sequels down the road.The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
C'mon, where would a list of notable cliffhangers be without arguably the most popular one ever conceived? In this "fifth" chapter of George Lucas' legendary SciFi serials, the Galactic Empire has driven a powerful blow to the Rebellion, not only has Darth Vader severed Luke's hand off and revealed to him he is in fact his father, but they have also captured and incapacited Han Solo in frozen carbonite and handed him over to Boba Fett, who'll be delivering him to Jabba the Hutt. It was definately a bold and groundbreaking decision by the filmmakers to leave audiences in suspense for three years, earning its place as the most acclaimed installment in the Star Wars
series.Elfquest* #15 (1983)
In the first of two comic book entries on my list, the Wolfriders have learned the location of their ancestors' vessel, The Palace of the High Ones and are en route through the frozen mountains to reach it when suddenly they're attacked by troll warriors, which leads to the death of the character One-Eye, as well as the mortal wounding of Cutter. They are ultimately rescued by another group of elves known as the Go-Backs, however Cutter's fate is left in the open, as he begins to bleed to death. Readers would wind up waiting three months for the conclusion, as the independent series was published in that fashion at the time. Luckily by the time I read it, I had access to the follow-up story at the same time. I've heard a rumor that the upcoming Elfquest
movie will end at that point in the story, blatantly leaving the door open for a sequel, and I think that'll prove to be quite interesting to see on the big screen.Back to the Future (1985)
In the film's conclusion, Marty has returned to 1985 and has been reunited with his girlfriend Jennifer, but as they kiss they're suddenly interrupted by Doc's return from the year 2015, and informs them they must accompany him back to the future for "Something's got to be done about your kids!" It's then revealed the DeLorean now flies, as it accelerates directly towards the sceen. Originally this was also not intended to be a cliffhanger as revealed by the producers, but nothing more than a big joke. However, strong box office business piqued Universal's interest for a sequel, and a "To Be Continued..." message was ultimately stamped in the initial VHS release to help market another cliffhanger sequel four years later.Star Trek - The Next Generation: "The Best of Both Worlds" (1990)
A year after their first encounter, the Enterprise
has once again engaged the Borg, an advanced race of humanoid cyborgs which thrives through the acquisition of technology and assimilation of other living beings. In the show's climax, the Borg invade the Enterprise
and kidnap Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and eventually assimilate him into their collective. The Borg then begin to set a course for Earth and as the Enterprise
pursues they're left with the decision to either continue pursuit and try to rescue Picard, or attempt to destroy the ship before it reaches Earth.
I still remember watching this episode when it first aired, as well as my mom's screaming reaction, "NO!" Its brilliance was that in days long before spoiler sites, no one would've expected a cliffhanger conclusion to the third season as it hadn't been done before on the show. They even purposely didn't include the words "Part 1" into the opening title to further throw viewers off. One of the best and most popular cliffhangers in the history of television, as proven by a recent reference in the 100th episode of Family Guy
.Elfquest* : Kings of the Broken Wheel #7 (1990)
In another excellent and heartstring-yanking issue of the Elfquest
series, Rayek has taken The Palace of the High Ones into the future, with Cutter's entire family on board. Cutter and the other Wolfriders are then left with the conclusion that the only thing to do is just wait as long as their lives allow for the Palace to return. Year after year, Cutter adds another notch to a nearby tree, and the pain of loss begins to take a toll on him, especially after being struck by two stray arrows of a human hunter. One of the arrowheads remains permanently imbedded under his ribcage, and by the climax he's exhausted both emotionally and physically, as some 500 years have already passed and there's still no sign of the Palace. The issue ends with several panels of the notched tree continuing to age, until the final panel where only a jagged stump remains, and all the other nearby trees are gone. What makes this cliffhanger even more brutal is the fact that issue #8 only reveals when the Palace has reappeared, and the fates of Cutter and the Wolfriders are not revealed until the end of issue #9. Not to mention the fact that at the time the series continued to be published on a tri-monthly basis so it was a long six-month wait for readers, and again I'm glad I didn't read it while it was being published and had immediate access to the conclusion.X-Men: "Till Death Do Us Part, Part 1" (1993)
In this thoroughly entertaining second season premiere of the contemporary classic animated series, Scott and Jean have gotten married just as Mr. Sinister has resurrected Morph who is now evil and seeks revenge on the X-Men for his abandonment. What makes this the best cliffhanger of the series is the sheer number of b-plots that are all left unresolved simultaneously. Jubilee is taken captive by the Friends of Humanity, Beast is trapped in an intense Danger Room session and Storm is shot down by the police, just to name a few. I remember rewatching it several times in the week while highly anticipating part 2 to air the following Saturday.Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Becoming Part 2" (1998)
In this second season finale, the now soulless and evil Angel has opened a vortex in the demon God Acathla and unless stopped will consume the entire world into Hell. In the final minutes of the episode Buffy engages in a sword fight with Angel, unaware that at the same Willow is in the process of restoring Angel's soul and humanity. Willow succeeds, however the problem is that the only way to stop Acathla and close up the vortex, is with Angel's blood. After a tender moment between the two, she shoves the sword through Angel's chest, sending him to Hell and closing the vortex. Distraught over the events as well as expelled from school, Buffy boards a bus and leaves Sunnydale. When I saw this episode the first time, I had no access to the followup episode, as I had missed it during the first run and it wasn't syndicated yet, man that was brutal.Spawn: "Prophecy" (1999)
In this third season finale, Spawn has taken the form of his former wife's husband and impregnated her, which as a prophecy states, the offspring will play a pivotal role in armageddon and determine the outcome. We also learn that the child's safety will be threatened by bounty hunters after its birth, and Spawn decides he's had enough of all the pain he's caused. He confronts Cogliostro to learn what must be done to get his humanity back. What's most painful about this cliffhanger is the show was canceled by HBO shortly afterwards and we never got to find out what happened next. A problem that has unfortunately faced many television shows in the past. Nip/Tuck: "Joan Rivers" (2004)
The final entry in my list is far from being retro, but I've deemed it noteworthy enougn to include nonetheless. All throughout the show's second season, a mysterious masked assailant known as "The Carver" has been deforming people's faces, and plastic surgeons Sean McNamara and Christian Troy have been treating the victims pro-bono. The Carver becomes infuriated and confronts Sean with a warning that if Sean performs one more surgery there will be dire consequences. Sean decides to ignore the warning and treats another victim, then waits prepared with a gun for The Carver to arrive. The only problem is The Carver does the unexpected, confronts and drugs Christian in his bedroom instead, then pulls out his knife and slashes at Christian right as the screen blacks out. This was a killer cliffhanger that left me and millions more waiting nearly a year for the third season to start. It's a shame the show hasn't had nearly as good writing since then.
But that about wraps things up, if I've missed any of your personal favorite cliffhangers, feel free to share them in the comments section, thanks for reading.
* For more info on Elfquest, check out my previous article (http://www.retrojunk.com/details_articles/2068/)