What makes a great plot twist? It’s not just that you didn’t see the ending coming. On rewatching the film, you see all the little clues and signs that should have made you guess what would happen all along.
These movies left audiences shocked, unsettled, and often terrified with the twists in the final act. How many did you guess before the twist was revealed?
It should go without saying, but this list contains ALL the spoilers. You’ve been warned!
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Let’s start with the obvious. M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career has been built on the twist ending, but the first one is still the best. When I saw this movie in the theater, people audibly gasped when they figured out the twist.
The Twist: Bruce Willis’s character, Malcolm Crowe, was a ghost the whole time. He didn’t realize he was dead, and only Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) could interact with him. Upon reflection, you notice the little details pointing the audience in that direction all along, such as the silent treatment Malcolm’s wife has been giving him.
Atonement is one of those movies that punches you in the gut and leaves a lasting bruise. Starring Keira Knightly, James McAvoy, and Saoirse Ronan, you think that the movie is going to be one of those lush, tragic historical dramas featuring lots of unrequited longing. And you’d be right… sort of.
The Twist: Briony Tallis (Ronan) accuses Robbie Turner (McAvoy) of a terrible crime he did not commit, misunderstanding the relationship between him and her older sister, Cecilia (Knightly). As an older woman, Briony narrates the story of how Robbie joined the army to get out of jail, then later reunites with Cecilia for a happily-ever-after ending. Except that story isn’t true either. Cecilia and Robbie both died during the war, and Briony rewrote the story to give herself closure.
The Game (1997)
The Game is one of David Fincher’s most underappreciated movies. It stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas van Orton, a banker whose life feels empty. His sense of reality unravels after being invited to play “The Game.” As things fall apart and the mysterious company behind the game invades every aspect of his life, Nicholas seemingly loses everything.
The Twist: The Game was actually a gift given to Douglas’s character by his brother (Sean Penn) to help him realize that life is worth living. Everything that happened was part of the act–even when Nicholas seemingly shoots his brother and then jumps off a building. It’s like a twisted, violent version of It’s a Wonderful Life–or Saw, but with a happy ending.
Shutter Island (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star in this rain-soaked thriller from Martin Scorsese, based on a book by Dennis Lehane. I think this film suffered because it was released the same year as Inception. It might not have been quite as mind-blowingly ambitious as Christopher Nolan’s film, but Shutter Island is still a great movie.
The Twist: Shutter Island leads you to believe that Leonardo DiCaprio is a U.S. Marshall on the hunt for a killer who escaped from a mental hospital. But as the investigation grows more nightmarish, we finally understand that the truth is much darker. DiCaprio is one of the patients at the hospital, having had a complete mental collapse after his wife drowned their children and he killed her.
The elaborate role-playing therapy was his last chance to accept reality before the last resort of a lobotomy. In the end, it appears that the treatment did work, but he cannot live with his guilt and wants to be lobotomized.
The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige pits two stage magicians against each other at the end of the 19th century. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman seemed determined to outdo each other, no matter the cost. Like Shutter Island and Inception, this film suffered from being released the same year as a similar film, The Illusionist. However, The Prestige features David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, so it wins.
The Twist: Audiences were divided on whether this twist ending was satisfying or not. Both Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) performed a trick called “The Transported Man.” But while Bordon’s trick used his twin brother to make it appear that he could teleport, Angier’s “prestige” was a little more complicated. He used a machine to clone himself, then killed the clones during the act.
Honestly, that’s only one tiny facet of this convoluted tale of murder, revenge, magic, and mad science. Watch it for yourself–and read Christopher Priest’s novel, too. It’s great.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
So the real-life twist here is that both director Bryan Singer and star Kevin Spacey were later accused of sexual misconduct. Depending on where you fall in the art vs. artist debate, you might not want to revisit The Usual Suspects. I’m including it (and, later, Se7en) because it’s one of the greatest twist endings in cinema.
The Twist: After a crime gone wrong, Verbal Kint (Spacey) seems to be one of only two survivors of his gang. As he is being questioned, Verbal recounts how they were all at the mercy of a man named Keyser Soze. The customs agent interrogating him becomes convinced that the other survivor, a disgraced ex-cop, must be Soze. Verbal, who has cerebral palsy, is allowed to leave after posting bail.
But as Verbal walks away, his limp suddenly vanishes, and his entire demeanor changes. Only then does the investigator realize that the whole story was a lie as he sees the names and places from Verbal’s testimony on the bulletin board behind his desk. Verbal was Keyser Soze all along.
Now You See Me (2013)
Stage magicians played by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, and Isla Fisher call themselves the Four Horsemen, and they do way more than just card tricks. They commit daring robberies while currying favor with a mysterious group called “The Eye.” Everything you see on screen during the final heist–including the apparent death of one of the main characters– was all just a trick. But that’s not the real twist of the movie.
The Twist: At the very end of the film, it is revealed that the FBI agent investigating the Four Horseman (Mark Ruffalo) was actually behind the whole thing. He did it as payback against everyone who had a hand in his father’s death, but now that the Horsemen have proved themselves, he welcomes them into the ranks for future capers.
Fight Club (1999)
Pro Tip: If you ever meet a guy who says that Fight Club is his favorite movie, proceed with caution. David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel is a critique of toxic masculinity, but try telling that to the fans who wanted to set up their own underground fight clubs.
The Twist: We all know this one, right? Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) never existed. Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator, a seemingly mild-mannered office drone who gets drawn into a dark world of violence and crime, was the one responsible for everything that happened. A fan theory holds that his alter ego is literally modeled on Brad Pitt because a movie kiosk in the movie advertises Pitt’s film Seven Years in Tibet.
Crazy, Stupid Love (2011)
Not every movie with a twist ending is a horror flick or a thriller. Crazy, Stupid Love is a rom-com starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Steve Carrell with a twist at the end that left audiences surprised and delighted.
Carrell’s character Cal is devastated when his wife (Julianne Moore) leaves him. Meanwhile, Gosling’s womanizing character Jacob gets shot down by Hannah (Emma Stone). The two men cross paths, and Jacob offers to teach Cal how to pick up women.
The Twist: It turns out that Hannah, the girl Jacob falls for, is Cal’s daughter. It’s not a mind-bending twist like some of the other films on this list, but it adds an unexpected layer to the rom-com. All of the characters reconsider their behavior throughout the film and choose true love.
The Others (2001)
You’d think that audiences would have gotten wise to horror movies about hauntings, but The Others proves that there are still plenty of twists to be found in this genre. Alejandro Amenábar wrote and directed this atmospheric haunted house flick starring Nicole Kidman as a mother convinced that an evil presence in her home is threatening her young children.
The Twist: Yeah, that evil presence? It’s Grace. She and her children–whom she killed–are ghosts haunting the mansion. Her sinister visions are glimpses of the mansion’s current (living) inhabitants and the spiritual medium they hired. Ultimately, the family decides to put the house back on the market, and Grace is doomed to spend eternity grappling with what she did.
Primal Fear (1996)
Before Fight Club, Edward Norton pulled off a stunning performance in Primal Fear. He plays Aaron, a teenage altar boy accused of killing an archbishop. Richard Gere is Martin Vail, the lawyer who defends him. Vail becomes convinced that shy, sweet Aaron is the real victim, as he suffers from dissociative identity disorder–in other words, he has multiple personalities. Vail believes that it was not Aaron but his split personality, Roy, who committed the crime.
The Twist: Primal Fear is one of those movies that completely pulls the rug out from under you in the final moment. After Aaron receives a light sentence due to his mental disorder, Vail feels he’s done a good deed. Then one tiny slipup reveals that “Aaron” was an act all along. Vail realizes that he helped a monster go free, and the camera lingers on his devastated face.
Dead Again (1991)
Dead Again is an underrated thriller starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, and Robin Williams. I loved this movie when I was, frankly, too young to be watching it. Branagh is Mike Church, a private detective who tries to help a Jane Doe with amnesia (Emma Thompson) figure out her identity. He calls her Grace, and the pair are drawn to each other without fully understanding why. As they try to figure out why Grace has been having night terrors about a murder that happened fifty years ago, they find themselves reenacting a star-crossed love story.
The Twist: Church and Grace are the reincarnations of Roman and Margaret Strauss, a glamorous couple whose lives were ended by tragedy in 1949. Roman was blamed for murdering Margaret, but the housekeeper’s sociopathic son was the real culprit. The murderer is still alive and wants to make sure that the souls of the people he killed don’t come back to finish him off. In the end, the couple gets their revenge and the future together that they lost the first time around. As a double twist, Church is the reincarnation of Margaret, and Grace is Roman.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The fact that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father is so cemented in pop culture that it hardly registers as a twist anymore. But at the time, it felt like a shocking revelation. Audiences were already primed to see Luke as the hero and Vader as the villain, so finding out that they were related made everything more complicated–and led to a redemption arc for Anakin.
A similar twist was much less successful in The Rise of Skywalker. After the first film in the new trilogy, we were left to wonder if Rey was related to Luke, Leia, or even Obi-Wan since her parentage was a mystery. In the second film (which I actually like, but I understand a lot of the audience’s frustration), we find out that Rey’s parents were nobodies. Then the third film reveals that actually, she’s the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, AKA Darth Sidious. Cool cool cool.
Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson is the filmmaker behind the much-maligned middle film in the most recent Star Wars trilogy. Thankfully, Knives Out was a much more successful picture. There are multiple twists and turns in this clever whodunnit, which stars the late Christopher Plummer as a patriarch of a dysfunctional family and Ana de Armas as his nurse and closest friend.
The Twist: Knives Out keeps you guessing until the very end, but rather than wondering who killed Harlan Thrombey, the question is whether Ana de Armas will get away with accidentally poisoning him. Then we find out that the medicine she accidentally switched–leading Thrombey to literally fall on his sword for her–was already switched by the spoiled younger son of the family (Chris Evans).
Gone Girl (2014)
Readers of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller went into this film knowing the shocking twist that happens halfway through the book. The ultimate “he said, she said” story of Nick and Amy remained mostly the same in the David Fincher adaptation after it was rumored that Flynn had written an entirely new third act. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike turn in top-tier performances in this thriller–but I still think the book did it better.
The Twist: When Amy goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary, all signs point to her husband, Nick, as being guilty of her murder. As the evidence mounts up against him–including a diary where Amy confesses her fears that her husband will kill her–it seems like his guilt is a done deal. Then we find out that Amy orchestrated the entire thing to frame Nick. However, she decides that she’d rather keep Nick after all and fabricates a different story where she heroically kills the ex-boyfriend who abducted her. Amy returns home to her “loving” husband and announces that they’re going to have a baby, and Nick realizes that he is trapped with this sociopathic woman forever.
A Little Princess (1995)
I need a palate cleanser after recapping Gone Girl. Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of A Little Princess doesn’t commit to the original ending of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel. However, it is still a beautiful little movie that earned Oscar nominations for art direction and cinematography.
The Twist: Sara Crewe’s father enrolls her at a boarding school in England after enlisting in World War I. When her father is reported dead, the cruel headmistress forces Sara to work as a scullery maid. Meanwhile, the wealthy man living next door to the school goes to a military hospital in the hopes of finding his son, who was reported wounded. Instead, he finds a soldier suffering from amnesia and temporary blindness. He takes in the soldier, who turns out to be Sara’s father. They’re reunited, and everyone lives happily ever after.
In the original story, Sara’s father was killed in action. The next-door neighbor was his friend and searched for Sara. Ultimately, he adopts her, and Sara’s happy ending has a tinge of the bittersweet.
The Mist (2007)
With Stephen King and Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) involved, you knew that The Mist was going to be scary. What you didn’t know was that it would also end with a heartbreaking gut-punch. Based on King’s novella, the movie follows David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his family as they try to survive inside a terrifying mist that settles over their sleepy Maine town. Creatures emerge from the mist and kill anyone who ventures outside.
The Twist: Drayton, his son, and a small group of survivors tries to escape the mist, but they seem to be trapped and moments away from a gruesome death. Deciding that a bullet is kinder than being ripped apart by monsters, Drayton uses the last bullets in his gun to grant the others what he believes is a merciful death. Moments later, the mist parts to reveal not monsters but soldiers who have just arrived to rescue everyone. The camera lingers on Drayton as he realizes what he has done.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The last moments of this film have become iconic–spoiling the surprise for anyone who might want to see Planet of the Apes without knowing the big twist. The original film stars Charlton Heston as Taylor, an astronaut living in the distant future who crash lands on a planet inhabited by sentient apes. While humans exist on this planet, they are kept as slaves and do not speak.
The Twist: At the end of the film, Taylor escapes the apes only to discover the terrible truth. He finds the broken remains of the Statue of Liberty half-buried on the beach of this remote planet and realizes that “the planet of the apes” is the human’s long-lost homeworld of Earth.
Psycho is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most-loved films and features a twist ending so shocking that it had to be seen to be believed. From the very beginning, Hitchcock played against audience expectations by killing off Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, in the first act. Leigh had been hyped as the star of the picture, but Vera Miles had a much more significant role as Marion’s sister, Lila, who investigates her disappearance.
The Twist: We all know by now what happened at the Bates Motel. But go back and watch the big reveal, when we find out that Mrs. Bates was dead the whole time and the killer was Norman dressing up in his mother’s clothes. If you don’t get a chill when that rocking chair turns around, then you’ve probably been watching too many movies like the next one on our list…
Love it or hate it, but director James Wan launched a new horror genre with Saw. The physical and emotional torture on screen might be too much for some viewers–this viewer included. Even though Saw isn’t my cup of tea, I can appreciate the mind-blowing twist at the end.
The Twist: When Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in a locked room with a corpse, it sets off a series of terrifying and violent games orchestrated by the Jigsaw Killer. After sawing off his own foot to escape, Gordon discovers that the man he thought was a killer was just another victim. The real Jigsaw Killer was the “corpse” on the floor with him the whole time.
As I was putting together this list, I realized that we might have been doing Mr. M. Night Shyamalan a disservice. He gets a lot of flack for having a twist ending in most of his movies… but honestly, David Fincher does the same thing. The twist in Se7en isn’t quite as much of a “gotcha!” moment as some of his other films, but it deserves a spot on this list.
The Twist: After pursuing a serial killer whose crimes are inspired by the seven deadly sins, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) confronts “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) only to find that he’s been set up. The killer has murdered Mills’ pregnant wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) and put her head in a box because he envied the couple’s happy life. Mills succumbs to the sin of wrath and shoots John Doe dead.
“What’s in the box?!?!”
The Wicker Man (1973)
To be clear, we’re talking about the original 1973 film, not the remake starring Nicolas Cage. The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a police sergeant searching for a missing girl. He travels to Summerisle, a rural community that practices ancient pagan rites. Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian, finds himself increasingly unnerved by the May Day festivities and begins to suspect that something very sinister is going on.
The Twist: Howie should have been a lot more suspicious. The islanders, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), concocted the story of a missing girl to lure a specific type of victim. Howie is captured, forced inside a giant wicker man sculpture, and burned alive during the harvest ritual.
If you liked Midsommar, then you should check out this movie!
Friday the 13th (1980)
Pop quiz: Who is the killer in the classic slasher film Friday the 13th? Although Jason Vorhees would join Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers as one of the great movie villains, the original movie had a twist ending that no one saw coming.
The Twist: At Camp Crystal Lake, Jason was the son of a single mom who blamed negligent camp counselors for his death by drowning 20 years before the film takes place. Pamela Vorhees was the unhinged killer targeting teenagers at the camp. However, after the “final girl” vanquished Mrs. Vorhees, the film reveals that Jason could still be alive after all, setting up the rest of the franchise.
The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Night of the Living Dead is an undeniable horror classic, and George A. Romero is the godfather of the entire zombie genre. The simplicity of this black-and-white horror film makes it all the more terrifying. I made the mistake of watching it by myself as a young teenager, and while I wasn’t scarred for life, the movie’s ending has stuck with me.
The Twist: Ben is the only survivor of the main cast after a zombie outbreak. In the morning after the night of the living dead, he leaves the cellar where he was hiding–only to be shot and killed by a group of locals who think Ben is a zombie. In the film’s final moments, we see our hero tossed onto a pyre with the rest of the corpses.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The first twist is that this remake of an earlier film is better than the original. It stars Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy as part of a group of people fighting against invading aliens who create “pod people” duplicates to take over the world.
The Twist: After a harrowing, paranoid struggle to evade the aliens, we think that Matthew (Sutherland) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) have managed to survive. For horror fans of a certain generation, the moment Donald Sutherland raises his hand and emits an unearthly shriek is a nightmare that can never be forgotten.