There were all kinds of headlines recently about NASA scientists discovering a “parallel universe” where time “runs backwards.” Those articles were a little bit misleading, but they got us thinking about the parallel universes in the world of movies. Not necessarily films like Sliding Doors, where the notion of parallel realities is embedded in the text, but the history of motion pictures that were distributed in very different versions than was originally intended by their creators.
If there are parallel universes out there, just think: There could be a dimension where National Lampoon’s Vacation ends with Chevy Chase shooting Walt Disney, or one where the orphan from Orphan got away with it all. There might be three or four realities for all the different endings of 1408. Imagine the endless possibilities!
That’s kind of what we’re doing here, with this list of the greatest alternate endings in movie history. To qualify, an ending had to be shot and then cut out; ideas that were considered at the script stage and abandoned before the cameras rolled didn’t qualify. You also won’t find notable endings that were cut because they were bad, like the infamous original finale of Clerks that saw Dante murdered by a burglar. The 25 endings that follow are as good or better than the endings that made the final cuts — and they were often replaced because of fiscal concerns, rather than creative ones.
We promise that fiscal concerns had no bearing on our picks, starting with...
The Marvel vampire character Morbius will get his own film starring Jared Leto next year spinning out of Sony’s Spider-Man universe. But Morbius almost made his big-screen debut more than 20 years ago — several years before Sam Raimi’s very first Spider-Man picture. 1998’s Blade nearly ended with a brief Morbius cameo that would have laid the groundwork for a sequel. Blade is already considered one of the foundational texts of modern superhero cinema; just imagine how groundbreaking it would seem if it had introduced Marvel cliffhanger endings and last-second cameos a full decade before Iron Man and Samuel L. Jackson.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
If the original ending of this journey through the afterlife struck you as a bit too easy and happy — with Robin Williams’ Chris doing what is supposedly impossible and rescuing Annabella Sciorra’s Annie from Hell and the couple choosing to be reincarnated — you may prefer this version, in which Annie must be reincarnated because she committed suicide and is not permitted into heaven yet. In this sequence, Chris willingly chooses to go with her and suffer through a life where she dies young and he survives 40 more years mourning her. Chris seems weirdly cool about that last part (“I’ll have time to read!” Williams quips), but it’s still closer to the original novel by Richard Matheson.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
National Lampoon’s Vacation originally ended with a scene like the one in the John Hughes story it was based on, which opens with the immortal line “If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever!” Those events played out onscreen in Vacation’s rough cut, but director Harold Ramis ultimately decided the movie was a little “soft” with that ending, and reworked it. In this clip from a Ramis appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, he describes the original ending in detail. It sounds incredible. If I could see the original footage for ourselves, it would probably be even higher on this list.
Orphan ended in theaters with Vera Farmiga’s Kate stopping the title character’s reign of terror permanently, killing her and sending her body to the bottom of a frozen pond. An alternate version would have been seen little Esther survive to perhaps torture another family, as she quickly resumes her false identity just before police arrive at the crime scene. It’s a dark final twist, but isn’t that what you want in a horror movie?
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
This coda for what was originally sold as the final X-Men movie would have brought Hugh Jackman’s Logan full circle, as he returns to the bar from the first film where he was discovered by Rogue. It’s not an earth-shattering variation from the actual final scene, but it suits the Wolverine character, who was always a loner anyway.
Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
Die Hard With a Vengeance is now 25 years old, and it mostly holds up well. The only part that really doesn’t work is the ending — and sure enough it was a reshoot of a much darker finale. Originally, Simon (Jeremy Irons) actually gets away with his heist and John McClane (Bruce Willis) takes the fall for his crimes. Some time later, McClane has finally tracked Simon down, and forces him to play a game of chicken using a live bazooka. McClane wins, Simon blows himself up, the end. This ending, though undeniably grim, matches the often grim tone of Die Hard With a Vengeance, where McClane is depicted as an alcoholic screwup who’s destroyed his marriage and most of his professional relationships — and it lets him beat Simon at one of his own sadistic games. The resolution in the finished film is a lot cleaner and less morally complicated; immediately after the heist, McClane discovers a clue and follows Simon to his hideout, where he gets the jump on him and then finds a pay phone where he can call his estranged wife. When you watch the two endings back to back, it looks like Fox showed John McTiernan the “mega-happy ending” from Wayne’s World and told him to do that, but for Die Hard.
The vast majority of alternate endings come from dramas and horror movies that executives believed needed to be toned down in some way. A rare example from the world of comedy is Pineapple Express, which almost wound down with the violent, bloody deaths of its two stoner heroes Dale (Seth Rogen) and Saul (James Franco). Mainstream audiences generally want happy endings no matter the material, but it’s especially true of comedies, so it’s no wonder that Pineapple Express concludes instead with the heroes walking away from their ordeal only a little worse for wear. And truth be told, this staging of Dale and Saul’s deaths probably didn’t work that well anyway. Still, mowing down its stars would have been a very subversive way for this action spoof to take a demented final bow.
This list is basically a catalog of the times studios did whatever they could to temper an appropriately bleak ending for something a little rosier. In Ronin, United Artists demanded that John Frankenheimer discard the ending he wanted, which would have seen Natascha McElhone’s character kidnapped and presumably killed by members of the IRA. Instead, McElhone’s character is never seen again after Robert De Niro’s Sam implores her to leave the scene of the violent final shootout. The “compromise” ending is fine, although the one Frankenheimer wanted better suited Ronin’s unsparing portrait of international espionage.
There are so many different endings to 1408 it’s not entirely clear which is the definitive “original” and which are the “alternates.” In theaters, viewers saw John Cusack’s Mike escape his haunted hotel room. In this version, Mike dies destroying room 1408, and his personal effects wind up with Samuel L. Jackson’s hotel manager, who then begins experiencing hallucinations after he listens to Mike’s tape recorder. Then Mike’s ghost is seen wandering the remains of 1408. Call me misanthropic, but I always like these darker endings on horror films. It always strikes me as weird when their characters are put through the ringer and then in the final scene they’re just ... fine.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would have looked a lot different with its original ending, which featured the shocking return of Peter’s dad, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), who supposedly died when Peter was very young and left him in the care of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. In this scene, Richard shows up to console his son after the death of Gwen Stacy. Some fans would have probably freaked out if the scene had been left in because it violates basically the entire history of Spider-Man comics. (Also, if Richard was alive for Peter’s entire life and never visited him or told him he wasn’t dead, that technically makes him the worst father in the world?) Still, this ending would have at least justified all that marketing for The Amazing Spider-Man series that claimed it was going to tell a whole new version of Peter Parker’s origin without delivering on that promise.
As first storyboarded, The Lion King’s final battle between Simba and Scar would have ended with Scar victorious — only to see him consumed by the fire raging around Pride Rock. Although it might have been a bit too intense for younger viewers, this version has the poetry of a Pyrrhic victory and would have hammered home the film’s connections to Hamlet when Scar tells Simba “Good night, sweet prince.”
For sure, it makes absolutely no sense from a physics perspective that Superman can fly backwards around the Earth and change the past. And if Superman II had recycled that trick from the first Superman — which was the original plan before some major rewrites — audiences would have probably gotten mighty pissed about paying for the same ending twice. Me? I just like the idea that any time Superman screws something up, he basically throws a tantrum and then flies backwards around the planet and so he can try again. He’s like me when I’d pound the Nintendo reset button if I missed a tough jump in Ninja Gaiden. It’s very relatable.
Does Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) escape the cave or not? It depends on where you watch The Descent. In America, she does, and when she drives off in her van she hallucinates and imagines her dead friend is sitting next to her. In the international cut, at that exact moment Sarah wakes up back in the cave, with the entire escape revealed as a dream. As usual, American audiences were given a slightly more upbeat ending. As usual, the darker alternative makes more thematic sense within the film — and concludes The Descent with the same unflinching horror that defines the rest of the story.
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
It’s only appropriate that a movie about altering reality through time travel should have a bunch of different outcomes. The best of The Butterfly Effect’s endings — or at least its ballsiest, which goes a long way these days — is the one where Ashton Kutcher’s Evan decides that the only way to repair the harm his time traveling has inflicted on others is by traveling back into his mother’s womb and strangling himself with his umbilical cord while he was a fetus. Oof! There are dark alternate endings and then there’s committing fetal suicide by umbilical strangulation dark.
Terminator 2 has one of the more famous alternate endings in history, with Linda Hamilton buried under a metric ton of prosthetic makeup, playing old Sarah Connor in a happy future where the Judgment Day War never takes place. Hamilton’s makeup is unconvincing, and the ultra-cheerful tone does not match the vibe of the movie, or its message that the future remains unwritten. The best alternate ending in the Terminator franchise is actually from the original movie, where several corporate goons from Cyberdyne discover the remains of the original T-800 and salvage the technology, putting humanity a step closer to creating artificial intelligence. Although Cameron took the scene out of the film, he used the concept as the premise of T2.
Boy, Richard Matheson does not have much luck in the ending department. I already talked about What Dreams May Come; in the theatrical ending of I Am Legend, based on another Matheson novel, Will Smith’s Robert Neville dies heroically sacrificing himself to protect his engineered cure for the virus that has destroyed society. That’s ... a long ways off from Matheson’s original intentions. The director’s cut goes in a very different direction, with Smith recognizing that the “Darkseekers” he’s spent the whole movie fighting still possess some core humanity, and that in some ways he has become the��true monster in this scenario. Neville returns the kidnapped Darkseeker he was experimenting on to the rest of the group, and they leave without further violence. Then Neville and the other human survivors head north looking for signs of civilization. It’s still not what Matheson had in mind, but it at least gets at the notion that a new society born from a cataclysm might view the last man on Earth with the same sort of suspicion and fear as he would them.
Even if you like the original ending of 28 Days Later, with Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), and Hannah (Megan Burns) escaping London and awaiting rescue in Northern England, you have to admit there’s a kind of tragic perfection in the ending they almost chose, where the movie would open with Jim waking up alone in a hospital and end with him dying alone in a hospital after Selena and Hannah fail to save his life. It’s a haunting last image (although the epilogue with just Selena and Hannah awaiting rescue at the cottage does take some of the sting out of it).
When The Shining opened in theaters, it contained an extra scene not present in any print of the movie since 1980. It took place between the shot of Jack Nicholson frozen in the hedge maze and the final slow tracking shot into Nicholson’s Jack Torrance somehow in the Overlook Hotel picture from 1921; in it, Danny (Danny Lloyd) and Wendy (Shelley Duvall) recover from their injuries in the hospital, where they’re visited by Overlook manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), who says they found no evidence of supernatural activity at the hotel but then hands Danny the yellow ball that Jack played with throughout the film. Shortly after The Shining began its theatrical run, Kubrick ordered the scene removed from the dozens of prints in circulation and reportedly had them all destroyed. To date, no copies of the lost Shining ending have resurfaced online, but based on the evidence that exists, it sounds intriguing. If nothing else, it would have given the Room 237 theorists even more clues to obsess over.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity went through a bunch of endings on its way from the festival circuit to wide release. The film originally culminated with a longer Night 21, with the possessed Katie (Featherston) spending hours on end in some kind of trance after killing her boyfriend Micah (Sloat) before the police arrive and shoot her when she ignores their requests to drop her knife. The theatrical ending was a bit more overtly supernatural, with Micah’s body somehow flying through the air and knocking over the camera recording everyting before Katie smiles and lunges at the lens with weird demonic eyes. Personally, I prefer the third version, which keeps the line between overt paranormal activity and a mental breakdown a bit fuzzier, with Micah’s murder happening entirely offscreen, followed by Katie returning to view and then killing herself. It’s definitely the most depressing of the three, but hey; the movie ain’t called Extremely Uplifting Activity.
James Dearden’s screenplay originally ended with the obsessive Alex (Glenn Close) committing suicide and framing her ex Dan (Michael Douglas) so it looked like he murdered her. In this ending, the police take Dan away for questioning while his wife Beth (Anne Archer) finds evidence that exonerates him — followed by a flashback to Alex’s final moments. It made total sense for Alex’s character, but it was a gruesome way to fade to black. After test audiences hated that sequence, a new one was conceived; instead of Alex getting the last word and nearly getting away with framing Dan for murder, she lashes out at Dan and Beth, attacking them in their home before the couple finally kill their stalker. The original version had its creative merits, but the revision helped make Fatal Attraction an enormous box office hit; it was the second-highest grossing movie of 1987 behind only Three Men and a Baby. The first ending was hidden from view for a while, but it wasn’t going to be ignored forever.
The later, ridiculous sequels often obscure the fact that the first Rambo was a moody character study of a Vietnam veteran (Sylvester Stallone, duh) who snaps after he gets mistreated by a small-town sheriff. After rampaging through a small chunk of the Pacific Northwest, Rambo’s former commanding officer (Richard Crenna) finally confronts him and calms him down. Seeing a familiar face, Rambo breaks down in tears and agrees to surrender to the police. At least that’s what audiences saw — director Ted Kotcheff also filmed an alternate version where Rambo kills himself in front of Trautman rather than give up and go to prison. It’s not only a plausible ending for John Rambo, it would have prevented the character from becoming the subject of four increasingly implausible sequels. (Some of which are interesting and entertaining in their own way! They just bear little resemblance to First Blood.)
The crowd reaction when Rod (Lil Rel Howery) showed up in a police car and rescued his buddy Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) at the end of Get Out was one of the loudest and most enthusiastic I have ever heard in a movie theater. Audiences loved the catharsis of Chris’ last-minute escape from the clutches of the evil Armitage family, and that certainly helped propel Get Out to the enormous box office success it had. Peele’s original ending was arguably truer to life, and more in line with the sort of Twilight Zone ironic twist endings he’s becoming known for. As first conceived, the police would show up right as Chris is strangling Rose (Allison Williams) and then arrest him. Rod visits Chris in prison, offering to investigate what happened. “I’m good. I stopped them,” Chris replies. I’m glad Get Out was a hit, and that its success has propelled Peele into the upper echelons of Hollywood directors. And Get Out is still a great movie with the updated finale. But it was even better with the first one.
At their core, the Evil Dead movies are about director Sam Raimi torturing Bruce Campbell and his fictional alter ego, Ash Williams, for the amusement of the audience. No matter how cocky ol’ Ash gets, some monstrous undead hellbeast is always around the next corner ready to knock him down a peg or two. He defeats the unholy evil in the woods in Evil Dead II only to get tossed back through time to the Middle Ages, which is where Army of Darkness takes place. That movie nearly ended with a similar cliffhanger, with Ash screwing things up yet again on his return journey to the present. Confusing how many drops of a sleeping potion he took, Ash inadvertently snoozes through all of human civilization only to awaken into a post-apocalyptic future. That was the ideal joke to end the franchise on, but Raimi eventually relented at the behest of Universal executives and gave Ash a more traditional happy ending — albeit one so ludicrously over-the-top that it plays like a spoof of studio-mandated happy endings. Raimi’s talented enough to make the best of a bad situation, but old Ash should have been trapped in the future, fighting zombies forever.
There’s arguably no more famous alternate ending than Blade Runner’s. For years, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir only existed in neutered form; a cut that removed all of its ambiguity and added a Harrison Ford voiceover that explained even more of the plot. That voiceover went all the way through the movie, right to its newly-added conclusion filled with aerial shots repurposed from The Shining. Several screenings of Scott’s workprint in the early 1990s garnered enough positive attention to encourage Warner Bros. to move ahead with a director’s cut, which enabled Scott to trash The Shining shots and Ford voiceover and restore the sudden and abrupt cut to black he always wanted.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
The greatest alternate ending in movie history is also one of the pricier deleted scenes ever made. According to this excellent history of Little Shop of Horror’s original ending, Warner Bros. spent $5 million out of a $25 million budget on the movie’s final 20 minutes, which were conceived to closely follow the events of the original stage musical. The version you didn’t get to see featured Audrey (Ellen Greene) and Seymour (Rick Moranis) eaten by the monstrous Audrey II plant, which then breaks out of the flower shop and begins its conquest of Earth. A legion of Audrey IIs take on the military, spread their vines around the Statue of Liberty, and then burst through the movie screen as if they are about to devour the entire audience. Test audiences, ahem, ate up the film right up to the point Moranis shoved Greene’s lifeless body into Audrey II’s slobbering maw. Test-screening scores below a 55 are considered bad; Little Shop earned a pitiful 13 thanks to its first ending. With no other choice, director Frank Oz and company reconvened for a three-week reshoot, completely rejiggering the film���s final act so that Seymour saves Audrey and then defeats the wicked plant.
Oz’s original finale not only matched the twisted humor of the rest of the film, it showcased some truly remarkable practical effects and puppetry, all of which got left on the cutting-room floor for decades. (They were eventually restored for release on the Little Shop of Horrors Blu-ray.) As was the case over and over on this list, the crowd-pleasing ending proved to be a financial success. Of course, those watching Little Shop of Horrors closely know that financial success often comes at the price of one’s soul.