Note: This article contains spoilers for Last Christmas, The Cabin in the Woods and Friday the 13th.
The entire internet figured out Last Christmas on the day the trailer arrived.
The combination of a decidedly heavenly Henry Goulding, numerous scenes of Emilia Clarke being rushed into hospital and the lyrics of the title song had people joining the festive dots with consummate ease. He was dead, and she had received his heart in a transplant a year ago. For digital sleuths used to untangling the mystery box mess of Rey's parentage and R+L=J, this particular plot secret was child's play. A decade or two ago, a writer with the flair of Emma Thompson and a director as adept as Paul Feig possibly could've got away with penning a movie twist inspired by a Wham track. Today, though, is a different matter. Everyone with a Twitter account who went in to the cinema to see that film was pretty sure, firstly, that they knew exactly how the story was going to play out and, secondly, that it wasn't going to be any good.
Both of those certainties was born out by the early reactions to the movie. Critics absolutely pasted Paul Feig's festive romcom with the kind of knives-out glee that only usually happens when a Michael Bay movie lumbers its way into the multiplex in a cacophony of exploding helicopters and exhaust fumes. The other thing that happened, though, was that people started spoiling the film.
The major UK press screening for Last Christmas took place around a week before its general release into British cinemas. Almost immediately after the credits rolled, social media was ablaze with people merrily confirming that the internet's suspicions were correct. Goulding was indeed dead and Clarke was indeed carrying his heart in her chest. It seemed that, because the movie was a bit of a dog's dinner by all accounts, nobody had a problem with spoiling it a week before general audiences had chance to see it for themselves and make up their own minds. The film wasn't worth seeing, many seemed to reason, and so it certainly wasn't worth seeing unspoiled.
This is far from the first time film critics have taken it upon themselves to dish out spoilers for movies they didn't like. The late Gene Siskel famously revealed that Pamela Voorhees was the killer in Friday the 13th when he reviewed the film in 1980, incensed as he was by the “sickening” and “truly awful” slasher. Siskel described the use of a plot spoiler in the second paragraph as a “powerful (and controversial) weapon” before urging the reader to trust him to use that weapon “sparingly”.
Siskel's argument is a bizarre one, seemingly casting spoilers as something of a public service. He seems driven by a genuine desire to rescue his readers from experiencing something he believes to be morally repugnant. Almost four decades after Siskel's review, Friday the 13th is now considered something of a classic that helped to usher in the golden age of slashers, alongside other major fright flicks including Halloween, Black Christmas, Prom Night and A Nightmare on Elm Street. With that in mind, Siskel looks somewhat out of touch and curmudgeonly – a bitter veteran spitefully attempting to ruin something that appeals mostly to those younger than him.
More recently, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's inventive horror genre subversion The Cabin in the Woods received the spoiler treatment in two prominent reviews. Mark Olsen of Village Voice literally began his review with a description of the final shot. It has to be read to be believed...
“At the end of The Cabin in the Woods, the world is destroyed by an apocalyptic hand of fate — an actual hand, mind you — yet that is not a spoiler, not really.”
Olsen's review is, overall, a pretty disastrous exercise in which he's guilty of much of the self-satisfied smugness he accuses the film of embodying. In deciding that he is the arbiter and adjudicator of what constitutes a spoiler, he places himself on exactly the sort of pedestal the rest of the world assumes every film critic believes they occupy. It's an act of shameless elitism. By the time he writes that the movie “dares the anger of the spoiler-sensitive”, it would be perfectly understandable for any reader to throw their laptop out of the nearest window and crack out their Blu-ray of the movie to enjoy its B-movie-embracing oddity all over again.
The other prominently spoiler-filled review of Cabin came from New York critic Rex Reed in the Observer. Its spoiler revelations are less climactic than in Olsen's take but, crucially, Reed commits an even more terrible sin. His spoilers are completely incorrect. It at least takes Reed 400 words or so to get to his most egregious plot details, but they're clear nonsense when they arrive.
“It’s all part of an elaborate video game that allows paying customers to watch real people slaughtered according to the horror of choice. The five kids in the cabin are innocent pawns to test the mechanics of the game, the way fiends in a horror movie test the sounds of screaming babies as they feed them to the jaws of mutated crocodiles.”
If you've seen Cabin, you'll currently be scratching your head trying to remember the video game element. It doesn't exist. The constructed horror trope scenario in the film is in fact part of an ancient ritual designed to appease a cabal of hibernating deities who, if angered as they indeed are by the film's conclusion, will rise and destroy the world. There is no video game, no paying audience and no testing of mechanics. Rex Reed is not only spoiling the film; he's getting it wrong.
Reed was 73 years old when he wrote this review, which is significant. Later in his piece, Reed stated that Cabin in the Woods was likely to appeal to “electronics nerds and skateboarders addicted to Xbox 360 video games whose knowledge of the arts begins and ends with MTV2”. He also argued that the audience likely wouldn't even know who the cameoing Sigourney Weaver was, taking a needless and ignorant swipe at young people while also spoiling one of Whedon and Goddard's best surprises. Like Siskel when he reviewed Friday, this has all of the hallmarks of a parent in the 1950s cautioning against that rocking and rolling nonsense.
The common perspective about spoilers is that audiences today are more sensitive than they used to be. However, this is a world in which anyone who's minded to read about a film can access at least a dozen reviews within a handful of Google clicks – some of which will be from professional film critics and some of which will be from part-time writers or hobbyists. Some of those people – both pro and amateur – have strict ideas around spoilers, while others absolutely don't. People aren't more scared of spoilers today, but they're much more likely to stumble upon them accidentally. It's spoiler paranoia which is on the rise – and it's totally fair.
In this landscape, it's incumbent upon film critics to be more careful with the details they reveal, both in their written reviews and on social media. Seeing movies before they go on general release is part of the job, but it's also a privilege that many would give their right arm to experience. It's a bad look for those critics to spoil the movie for others, no matter how certain they are of their viewpoint that it's awful. In the specific case of Last Christmas, it's also a lousy defence to state that the spoiler was already out there because people had guessed it. As I wrote earlier this year, there's a massive difference between a credible fan theory and a confirmation from someone who's seen the movie.
A common refrain from critics in relation to this subject is that a certain amount of plot detail is required in order to effectively critique a film – particularly one that relies on misdirection and narrative concealment. That's certainly a fair point and the best writing about cinema is often the writing afforded the ability to dive a little deeper. But this writing should, and usually does, come adorned with a “spoiler warning”, allowing those who wish to remain naïve to take their cinema seat without any knowledge of what's to come.
Thankfully, the practice of critical spoilers doesn't seem to have any negative effect on the success of the films in question. Despite the protestations of Mr Siskel, there have now been a dozen Friday the 13th movies and Last Christmas was the film to finally dethrone Joker from the top spot at the UK box office. It has already earned in excess of $50m globally, doubling its budget a month before Christmas Day itself. Whether they know the twist or not, people are flocking to the multiplex to see the movie.
But none of that means film critics have the right to spoil a story, just because they didn't like it. The world is a broad church of movie opinion, and everyone deserves the chance to form their opinion without someone else stepping in to decide which stories are worthy of having their secrets preserved. Even if those secrets were revealed by George Michael through the medium of song 30 years ago.