Moviegoers love to be surprised by a plot twist or twists. It’s a very satisfying experience, when it’s done right. If there are holes, or the twist doesn’t make logical sense, or it ruins and invalidates everything that came before it, then it’s not satisfying at all, and can make an otherwise decent movie terrible. Plus, you can only truly enjoy the plot twist once. After that, you can watch the movie with prior knowledge of the twist, so you can see any red herrings or Easter eggs or foreshadowing that the savvy director may have slipped in there under the radar to tease the audience. You can also see if there are any things that don’t quite add up. But once in a blue moon, the plot twist will be perfect. See, plot twists in movies are a dime a dozen, so for them to be truly inspired or even be logical or intelligent is rare. But it does happen. Plot twists come in all different shapes and sizes. They could be a surprise ending or a big turnaround halfway through the story. They could be good characters who turn out to be bad or vice versa. They could be characters who are supposed to not know each other but really don’t, or characters who are supposed to hate each other but are really working together to pull the ultimate con. Movies with plot twists are remembered afterwards only for their twists, so they can be tricky to pull off. Without further ado, here are the fifteen greatest twists to ever grace the silver screen.
Orphan is a terrific horror thriller about a couple that adopts an Eastern European girl named Esther after their third baby is stillborn and they suffer from the loss. The movie turns sinister when Esther reveals her true colors, turning violent against her adoptive mother and making sexual advances on her adoptive father. This is because she’s not actually a little girl; she’s a 35-year-old woman with a condition that makes her look like a little girl. That’s insane, right? Well, it’s one heck of a twist. However, it was met with criticism as it furthers the stereotypes that adoption is dangerous and that people from Eastern Europe are evil and should be feared, which isn’t good for anyone. Isabelle Fuhrman, who played Esther, has since enjoyed a lucrative acting career, appearing in The Hunger Games, Masters of Sex, and more.
14. The Parallax View
Hollywood’s response to the Richard Nixon era of Vietnam and Watergate was to make a string of political thrillers about paranoia and conspiracies. Perhaps the best of all (unless that title is reserved for All the President’s Men) was The Parallax View; a trippy odyssey born from a Presidential candidate’s assassination. Journalist Warren Beatty goes down a dark path through corporations influencing politics and people double-crossing each other. People try to kill him more times than you can count. And, at the end of it all, there’s no great comeuppance or payoff. Beatty discovers he’s being used as a patsy – a pawn in a larger, wider political game that he couldn’t have hoped to take down all by himself – and he’s killed and framed as the mastermind behind everything. Beatty’s dead, the bad guys get off scot-free, and then the movie ends. Something similar may be happening within the Trump administration right now as we speak.
13. Wild Things
It’s difficult to pin down the twists in Wild Things. They just keep on coming. The first one comes very early on. The plot is introduced as being about a college professor (Matt Dillon) who is accused of rape by two students (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell). It goes to trial and the court finds holes in the students’ stories and so the professor is acquitted, and since his reputation and public image are now tarnished, he gets a huge payout. And then all of a sudden he’s making out with the students because their plan worked out perfectly and now they get to split the cash and take off! But the twists keep on coming as Kevin Bacon is introduced into the mix and all the characters start killing each other. Great movie.
12. Don’t Breathe
Don’t Breathe is a home invasion thriller, but it’s so, so much better than that label suggests. Three down-on-their-luck cat burglars break into a blind old man’s house in the hopes of stealing his fortune. But what they don’t expect is that he has sharper senses and quicker reflexes than them, and he’s determined to stop them. And he’s a war veteran, so he’s a merciless killer. But about halfway through the movie, there’s a disturbing twist that kicks the movie up a notch, and some say it went too far. A woman is found tied up in the basement, and it turns out the blind guy is keeping her captive to have his baby after his real child was killed. He impregnated her with a semen-filled turkey baster, and when he accidentally kills her, he ties up Jane Levy instead. But she manages to get the turkey baster in the blind man’s mouth. It’s a nasty series of twists and turns, but it makes for one memorable movie.
11. The Mist
This has to be one of the most bleak and harrowing twist endings of all time, and it turns a decent sci-fi disaster movie into one of the most memorable horror movies of the 21st century. It’s based on a short story by Stephen King, the master of the horror genre, and it tells the story of a mysterious mist that descends upon a small town. Then the monsters start to come out, and a group of survivors including a father and son are left stranded in a grocery store. When they make a break for it, they hop into a car and drive, hoping to get themselves out of the mist to some kind of salvation. First, the guy drives past his home to find that his wife had been killed pretty much as soon as the mist showed up. And when they drive out to find salvation, they run out of gas, still stuck within the mist. So, they lose all hope and the guy shoots his son and the other survivors before he intends to kill himself. But then the military show up and save the day. Literally ten seconds after the guy killed his son and all his friends. It’s so horrifying, but so good.
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming
SPOILERS follow for the new Spider-Man movie, so stop reading now if you haven’t seen it. Seriously, you don’t want to know this twist before you watch the movie, and you should watch the movie because it’s an incredible experience, so please, for the love of God, stop reading now and go out to the movies and watch Spider-Man: Homecoming. But if you have seen it, how great was that twist?! You’re watching the movie. You’re seeing Michael Keaton’s sinister villain building his empire and killing people and selling alien weapons on the black market. You’re seeing Peter Parker track him down and figure out his whole organization. You’re seeing them fight and develop a personal and intense feud, despite being unbeknownst to each other’s true identities. And then Tony Stark takes Peter’s costume and Peter goes through his own personal journey, and we pretty much forget all about Michael Keaton. All of these things contribute to the shock of the twist. It’s the fact that Keaton brings up his family for the whole first two acts of the movie and we never see them. And we don’t suspect a thing from Liz, because she’s not white like Michael Keaton, so it’s all the more stunning when he opens that door and Peter looks into his eyes. The stunned look on Tom Holland’s face throughout the whole scene is the same look everyone in the audience has on their faces. The next ten minutes after that are extremely tense, as none-the-wiser Liz gives her dad all the information he needs to figure out that Peter is Spider-Man, when she doesn’t even know it herself! It’s a truly shocking twist and director Jon Watts and actor Tom Holland handle it terrifically. That was a great movie. It might be worth going back to the theater to watch again. We’ll see.
Just when you thought John Doe had been caught so easily, it was too good to be true; the FedEx truck arrives. David Fincher’s grisly thriller stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as a pair of detectives hunting down Kevin Spacey’s serial killer, John Doe, who is using the Bible’s seven deadly sins as the basis for his murders. But he’s only gotten through five when he shows up at the police station and turns himself in. Of course, he’s not done and that was all part of his grand plan. A FedEx delivery arrives and it’s Brad Pitt’s on-screen wife Gwyneth Paltrow’s head, so she’s the sixth victim. And then Brad Pitt flips out and shoots Kevin Spacey in the head, so he is his own seventh victim. How’s that for a twist, huh?
8. Back to the Future Part II
Okay, okay, the second Back to the Future movie isn’t as good as the first one, but what is? That movie is perfect. It’s a masterpiece. But for a movie that’s stacked up next to it, Back to the Future Part II is all right. It’s good. It takes the first one’s mind-bending travels through time and confusing timeline changes and amplifies them up to 11. Doc Brown takes Marty to the future to fix his dopey kids’ lives, but he screws up everything in the process, as a sports almanac gets into past Biff Tannen’s hands and he uses it to make himself as rich and as hot tub-dwelling as Tony “Scarface” Montana. But the big twist comes at the end, when Doc and Marty fix everything, and then Doc is blasted out of the sky by lightning and disappears. Marty is devastated, thinking he’s lost Doc forever. But then a guy from the Post Office shows up to say that they’ve been holding onto a letter since 1885 to bring to Marty on this specific date at this specific place and this specific time. It’s from Doc! That’s where (or when) he went to. So, naturally, Marty rushes back to that year’s Doc to tell him he needs to send him back to 1885 to save another version of Doc. That Doc, who just sent Marty back to 1985 at the end of the first movie, is so flabbergasted that he faints. And so do we.
7. The Others
This is one of the most tragically beautiful twists of all time. The Others is a haunted house movie starring Nicole Kidman as a woman living in a house with her kids that she begins to suspect may be haunted. Now, usually, the formula for a haunted house movie is this: a family thinks their house is haunted; some spooky goings-on happen like things moving around on their own accord or doors slamming to create jump scares; then they bring in some ghost hunters and use them to expel the demons from their home, at which point they can sleep easy. But The Others has a terrifying twist on that: Nicole Kidman and her kids are the ghosts!! Kidman’s performance was well-received, too. Roger Ebert, a.k.a. the biggest movie critic who ever lived, said that she “succeeds in convincing us that she is a normal person in a disturbing situation and not just a standard-issue horror movie hysteric.”
6. Gone Girl
You may have expected The Sixth Sense to be on this list, but no! That twist is awful. It doesn’t make any sense. Was Bruce Willis’ wife having a one-sided conversation at the restaurant? And if Haley Joel Osment is the only one who can see him and talk to him and Osment’s mom doesn’t speak to him in the waiting room because he’s a ghost, then who hired him? What is she sitting there waiting for exactly, if she can’t see or hear the guy who’s counselling her son? It’s stupid. But do you know what is a good twist? Gone Girl. If you haven’t read the book, make sure you do. Even if you’ve seen the movie, because the book is better. The movie’s good too, though. Both renditions of Gone Girl tell the story of an ostensibly perfect marriage that has its ugly flaws revealed when the wife disappears. The twist is genius: the wife has faked the whole thing and taken off, leaving the media to frame her husband as having killed her, ruining his life. And why would she do that? Because he cheated on her. It’s a fantastic story, both on the page and on the screen. But better on the page. Still good on the screen, though.
In the opening moments of Saw, the main victim (read: the one who wasn’t in The Princess Bride) wakes up in a bathtub chained to the wall of a dank little room in the middle of nowhere with no idea how he got there. In his freak-out, he inadvertently yanks the plug out of the tub and all the water goes down the drain. There’s a dead guy on the floor and another guy (the one from The Princess Bride) chained to the other side of the room. What follows is 103 tense minutes of the guys trying to figure out why they’re there and who put them there. The double gut punch twists at the end are that the ‘dead guy’ on the floor has really been the serial killer who trapped them there lying perfectly still the whole time, and when the guy drained the bathtub, he lost the key. So, the whole movie was based around the search for a key that was lost forever the second the movie started. Brilliant!
4. The Usual Suspects
Kevin Spacey sure makes good twist movies. This slick crime thriller is very complex and convoluted and therefore difficult to explain. It’s about the search for a mysterious man named Keyser Soze. Basically, the story is what happened between five criminals meeting in a police line-up that we as the audience suspect is random and coincidental but turns out to not be so much, and a deadly shootout on a boat. But what exactly does happen in between is pretty up in the air. See, it’s framed in the movie by Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, who is the only survivor of the events, as he explains it to the cops. The whole movie shows his accounts of what happened and who was involved and how mysterious and untraceable Mr. Soze is. And then, as he walks out and gives up pretending he has a limp, the cop realizes that everything Kint has told him was taken from random words and items he saw around the room. Verbal Kint was really Keyser Soze the whole time, and then he hops into a car and says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” and disappears without a trace.
3. Fight Club
Whaaat?!? Edward Norton is Tyler Durden?!? This twist will make your head spin. You go back and think, “How is that possible?” But it makes sense. The movie itself even goes back and shows a montage of the movie’s key scenes with Brad Pitt omitted and Norton just in there, beating himself up and talking to himself and you realize that it actually makes perfect sense. And that just screws you up even more. Rosie O’Donnell was horrified by the movie. She announced on her TV show on the day of Fight Club’s release that she’d seen an advance screening and it had made her lose sleep, so she begged her audience not to see it, which would’ve been excusable. But then she also gave away the big Tyler Durden twist, which Brad Pitt said was “unforgivable.”
No, it’s not the shower scene. That is a twist, but it’s not the great one. Plus, after being parodied to death, it’s no longer shocking, terrifying, or even unexpected. Every moment a new viewer is watching Psycho these days, they’re just waiting for Janet Leigh to get in the shower so a dark figure can stab her to death. But pay attention to the plot the whole way through and you’ll be treated to an even greater twist. Sure, following a woman who’s on the run for embezzling money for half the movie and then suddenly killing her off to focus on the guy running the motel that she was staying at and the investigation into her murder is a doozy of a twist, but wait until the very end if you want the best. See, we assumed that the woman who killed Janet Leigh was Norman Bates’ mother, since Norman had been complaining about her and bigging her up as a sinister woman. And then, at the end of the movie, we find out that every time we’ve seen her, it’s really been Norman dressing up in her clothes, since he killed her years ago and keeps her rotting corpse in the basement, where he still hangs out with her as if she’s alive. It’s pretty messed up, and it’s a terrifying twist that pop culture hasn’t ruined for everyone.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back is the dark horse of the Star Wars saga. If you imagine each chapter of the Star Wars saga as siblings in a big family, The Empire Strikes Back is the college dropout and recovering alcoholic who has achieved immense success, while A New Hope is the straight-laced honors student who has achieved almost the same amount of success, but still resents Empire for its success. This is because Empire Strikes Back is much darker in tone than A New Hope, and takes various harrowing twists and turns. However, it’s still every bit as brilliant as its predecessor and then some. It’s always included on lists of sequels that were better than the original, and it’s a tall order to be a better movie than A New Hope. Perhaps Empire’s crowning achievement is its shocking plot twist. Its impact has been ruined over the years because everyone knows that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, but that moment – “No, I am your father” – is easily the greatest plot twist in the history of cinema. It rewrites everything that came before it and gives the audience a transcendent introspective transformation and enlightenment. In short, it’s amazing.