A movie twist can be a hell of a thing.

A good one can elevate a good film into an unforgettable ride (The Empire Strikes Back). A bad one can reduce a decent film into a hunk of crap (Pay It Forward). Regardless of how important a jarring twist can be to the plot, no decent movie can rely entirely on that single moment of misdirection at the climax. The characters, narrative arc, settings, and themes all need to stand on their own regardless of how crazy the payoff at the end may be. The twist is just the exclamation point … the cherry of perfection atop a ready-made sundae of excellence.

This lineup features nine movies which do just that. They would all be outstanding films as long as the endings were somewhat logical. The twists at their conclusions made for richer experiences that made them more exciting, more enjoyable, or more heartbreaking depending on which way the filmmakers zigged when we were expecting them to zag.

Here is my Starting Nine of great movie twists.


1. Wild Things (1998)

Much of the genius of my leadoff movie lay in the deceptive marketing campaign that preceded its release. The trailers made Wild Things look like an adolescent boy’s wet dream — a sleazy sex thriller packed with Cussing, Corpses, and Cans. Those all-important “Three C’s” are indeed well represented in this film, and you better believe 16-year-old me had it earmarked for immediate rental from Blockbuster Video once I saw that first preview. I was straight up flabbergasted when the story miraculously turned out to be intricate, extremely well-plotted, and downright spellbinding. When you think about it, this movie actually has five or six memorable twists that all unfold in the last ten minutes or so. It’s a labyrinthine plot that continually dekes us out, and by the end we have no clue who is good (virtually nobody), who is bad (essentially everybody), who is dead, and who is alive until that yacht turns about and the credits roll. Wild Things features sensational storytelling and great acting from all except Denise Richards, who still manages to fill her role incredibly well.


2. Psycho (1960)

“We all go a little mad sometimes.”
Perhaps the most historically significant suspense film of all time, Psycho’s jaw-dropping ending still holds up 63 years after its release. Hitchcock’s greatest thriller gave us perhaps the first true WTF moment in the history of cinema, a scene that now has incredible social relevance when viewed through the lens of modern times. As the ultimate sign of admiration (not to mention shameless greed), countless films in the following decades basically pirated the climax under the guise of “homages,” right down to the biting violin shrieks in the score. However, as terrifying as Norman Bates’ face is when we finally realize what’s been happening at his motel, not even Psycho is strong enough to crack the heart of this lineup.


3. The Usual Suspects (1995)

I couldn’t sleep after the first time I watched this. I was so rattled by what unfolded in the last two minutes of this movie that I couldn’t stop rewinding every scene in my head to determine how I didn’t see the final revelation coming a mile away. Does this ending hold up? Did the filmmakers cheat us? Could this character actually be the “real” Keyser Soze? Well, several viewings later, I can confidently say that everything about The Usual Suspects checks out. It follows all the rules of honest storytelling and, best of all, it drops enough hints along the way that the most astute of viewers could theoretically deduce the twist before it’s revealed (though I will call anyone who says they predicted this twist a liar to their face). Bryan Singer’s masterpiece spawned nearly as many imitators as Hitchcock’swith studios rushing to spin their own complex, foul-mouthed crime mysteries with a side of *gasp* immediately thereafter. None of the imitators approached the overall quality of the original though, and few films of any genre have ever delivered a mind-bending conclusion that sticks with you like that of The Usual Suspects. 


4. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Earth-shattering plot twists went mainstream in the 1990s, culminating with this mesmerizing film that made M. Night Shyamalan’s career and, no pun intended, haunted him forever after. Haley Joel Osment’s adorably tortured face, the best acting of Bruce Willis’ career, a star-making turn from Toni Collette, and a few well-placed scares combined to make The Sixth Sense a really good movie right up until the end, where it transcended into something iconic. Zero people saw this twist coming, and a million hearts exploded when a ring, a doorknob, and a breath of cold air revealed what had been right in front of our faces all along. The ending was so good that Shyamalan’s career became entirely about chasing that high again, an impossible task that had no chance of success. In the world of movie twists, The Sixth Sense is Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr. all rolled into one.


5. Se7en (1995)

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap people on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer.”
An amazing movie cursed with a gimmicky title, Se7en never holds back in its examination of the evil deeds that plague humanity. We’re shocked throughout the duration of the film; at the depravity that human beings are capable of, at the pessimism that oozes off every frame, and at just how much we reluctantly agree with the killer’s overall message. The heart-wrenching twist comes not at the revelation of the killer’s identity (which is never intended to be a mystery), but at the horrid lengths that he goes to in order to weave his masterpiece of gruesome penitence. Following this all-star cast on their journey through Hell is a gripping experience that is not enjoyable in the least, yet is still somehow one of the most re-watchable films ever made. You feel downright miserable at the end of this movie, and that’s what makes it so good.


6. Basic Instinct (1992)

Another great thriller disguised as a trashy sex romp, Sharon Stone’s body is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons for watching Basic Instinct. It’s a whodunnit that doesn’t concern itself in any way with proper police procedure or whether or not the realism of the events could ever hold up under scrutiny. This movie is all about turning us on with hot sex scenes, exciting car chases, and tense confrontations. The mystery is wrapped up during the climax in a neat little package … too neat a package when you really think about it. That’s what’s on our minds when we see the twist in the very final frame, and that’s what we think about when we immediately go back and re-watch the climax. Although let’s be honest, anyone who enjoys the fairer sex would still re-watch Basic Instinct a whole lot regardless of how it ended.


7. Don’t Look Now (1973)

Despite the lengthy sex scene that has no bearing on the plot whatsoever and is hilariously exploitive, Don’t Look Now actually gives more insight into the complexities of the human condition than any other film in this lineup. It’s about how a mother and father cope with the most heinous trauma imaginable, the sudden death of their young child. The mother grieves with the loss while the father tries to distract himself from it, which merely delays the inevitable suffering that goes hand-in-hand with such a tragedy. Is that really his dead daughter running around the slums of Venice? What’s the significance of the visions that pester him? Are the creepy psychic’s messages from beyond the grave truly genuine? These questions aren’t answered until the very end, with a twist that’s as poignant as it is tragic.


8. Frailty (2001)

An informant walks into the Dallas FBI office to reveal the identity of a serial killer. To explain who committed the murders and why, he discusses growing up with his brother and their single father, a kind and loving man who came home from work one day to tell the boys that God had given them a list of “demons” to slay in His name. The informant recalls his childhood burden of living under the thumb of a psychopath while trying to protect himself and his little brother, all the while promising to divulge how the murders of the past tie into the murders of today. This is no typical serial killer movie where the cops hunt down an evil murderer. This is a film about love, duty, and loyalty — to your family, to “God,” and to yourself. The brutally unsettling twist reveals exactly where those loyalties lie for the main characters, and we watch the credits roll in stunned silence as we try to digest what happened.


9. Halloween 4 (1988)

Yes, it’s a slasher film. And yes, it’s full of tired slasher tropes that we’ve seen over and over again since 1978, when the original Halloween set the bar for all slashers to come. Even big Halloween marks like myself will agree that virtually all the sequels are garbage, but this is the one exception. Much like the original, Halloween 4 doesn’t go overboard with the gore, it portrays Michael Myers the way John Carpenter initially intended to portray him, and it provides a revolutionary twist that could have driven the franchise for several installments to come if the creators of the next sequel hadn’t screwed up so royally. That final twist stands out as the only genuine scare the franchise has delivered since ’78, and it has stuck with me ever since I first saw it at age 12. Dr. Loomis’ face above perfectly sums up everything that I felt during that first viewing. It’s a cinematic terror that no slasher movie had ever instilled in me before, and no slasher movie could ever come close to instilling in me again.



By Luke

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