Pulling off a great twist is no simple feat. It’s particularly difficult in today’s film industry when every twist is treated like a necessary gimmick, harped upon in the trailers and ruining any sense of actual intrigue the film had going for it. The horror genre has relied heavily upon the violent impact of the twist ending since the silent era with films like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. Some work. Many don’t. So, as we reach the end of our twisted Road to Halloween, let’s countdown the Best and Worst Horror Twists of all time!
SPOILERS ahead. Read at your own peril…
5. The Others – It’s not their house anymore
The classic haunted house period film. Always a classy entry. The Others stands a cut above of a lot of modern horror films by being a genuinely beautiful, quality film even without the scares. It also garnered a lot of praise for Nicole Kidman’s performance, and a few awards. Not too bad for a ghost story.
This particular ghost story finds Grace, a WWII widow; and her two ailing children alone in their Jersey manor after the death of her husband. The family is soon beset by “intruders” in their house, and it surely seems that they under attack by evil spirits. Things are complicated further by Grace’s returning husband, who quickly disappears again. In the end, after discovering that their friendly new servants are ghosts, Grace and her children discover that they too have been dead all along. The “intruders” are the new family that has moved into their home, while Grace and the children have been haunting them.
4. Psycho – Mother isn’t home right now
Now, when you think about classic horror twists, chances are Psycho is at the top of most list. You cannot argue its status as possibly the most iconic twist in film history, and certainly a shocking one, especially for its time. Hitchcock had a talent for the strange and unusual.
Norman Bates runs a small motel with his mother. Unfortunately, his mother has a bloody habit, and dispatches of multiple guests with a large knife. It’s not until the end of the film that we discover Mrs. Bates has been dead for years. The “Mother” who has been murdering all those people has been Norman in drag, his mind split in two from the guilt of killing his mother in a jealous rage. In the end, Norman is caught, in an institution, and his mind seems to be completely taken over by Mother’s charming personality.
3. Sleepaway Camp – Angela and Peter
Just look at that face. Doesn’t it bring you back to the days of young, summer love? Bob Seger and drive-in theaters, the whole deal. This is Angela. Or rather, this is “Angela.” Eight years ago, Angela was in a tragic boating accident in which her brother and father were killed, and she was send to live with her aunt. Now, at Camp Arawak, Angela is having trouble fitting in. Suddenly, her tormentors start turning up dead, killed in rather grisly fashion.
Angela’s the killer, right? Wrong! Well, sort of. It turns out that Angela is the one who died in the boating accident. Peter survived, but his cruel aunt never wanted a boy, and so raised him as Angela. This trauma, along with the shock of discovering his father was gay, is (apparently) enough to drive Peter into a murderous rage. The film ends with Peter standing over his latest victim clutching a knife, stark naked, junk out. Credits.
2. [REC] – The girl upstairs
This one is definitely a personal favourite of mine. Spain does horror right–even found footage horror. [REC] follows Angela Vidal, a journalist shadowing the local fire department for a story. They are called to an apartment building in response to an old woman in distress. The situation soon escalates into a full on viral outbreak, as residents and firefighters alike are infected, turning them into mindless, bloodthirsty killers. Classic zombie setup.
Except pretty soon only our lovely reporter and her trusty cameraman are left, and forced to seek safety in the penthouse. There they discover the truth. The apartment’s tenant was an agent of the Vatican, sent to treat a woman thought to be possessed. The “virus” is literally contagious demonic possession. And unfortunately, patient zero is still upstairs, lurking in the dark. Good luck, Angela.
[REC]2 (which made our list of great horror sequels) continued the demonic plot, and actually managed a pretty decent twist ending of its own. The American remake, Quarantine, unfortunately did away with the supernatural aspect, opting for a mutated form of rabies.
1. The Sixth Sense – He is dead people
This one is pretty obvious. No horror movie has had such a sudden and widespread effect on cinema and pop culture the world over than The Sixth Sense. It put M Night Shyamalan on the map, and helped make every one of his subsequent films, a huge disappointment. Malcolm is a psychologist, specializing in helping traumatized children. One night, a disturbed ex-patient breaks into Malcolm’s home and shoots him before committing suicide. A year later, stricken with guilt over his inability to help his former patient, Malcolm is determined to help young Cole Sear. Cole’s problems go beyond the psychological though. His visions are real. He sees dead people. But through the power of positivity and courage, Malcolm helps Cole communicate with the ghosts, and realize that he can help them in ways no one else can.
Returning home, satisfied that Cole will be alright, Malcolm discovers his wife asleep, watching their wedding video, and holding his wedding ring. Malcolm comes to the slow and terrible realization that he has been dead since the night he was shot. Cole is the only person who can see him, and has been the only one to interact with him throughout the film. His entire journey with Cole has been to find peace by helping one last troubled child, and he then leaves his wife in peace. It’s a fantastic ending, to a masterfully crafted film, and became an instant classic.
And now, for the worst of the bunch. Here are the horror twists that just fall flat…
5. The Village – The shitty acting is on purpose
And here is M Night Shyamalan again, going from arguably the greatest twist ending of all time, to one of the worst. The Village takes place in a tiny 19th century hamlet surrounded by forest. The townsfolk are warned by the elders to never venture into the forest, as there are evil creatures who will snatch them away. All is well until Ivy’s fiancee is hurt and in need of medicine. Ivy, who is also blind, must trek through the forest to find “the towns” and seek medicine and supplies to bring home.
What we discover when Ivy escapes the forest is a modern world. A park ranger finds her and gives her the supplies she needs to take back. It turns out that the “elders” are all victims of tragic loss, and decided to buy a wildlife preserve and use it as their own little neverending renaissance faire in order to escape the dangers of modern living. And of course, because Ivy is blind, she returns home none the wiser. That’s… dumb.
4. The Number 23 – “It was me all along!”
Jim Carrey is a tremendous talent. He is one of the most genuinely hilarious and creative souls alive today, and I appreciate his dramatic work just as much as his comedy. That said, The Number 23 is a 98-minute bowel movement. Walter’s wife finds a book in a store and buys it for him. The story speaks to Walter, as he identifies with the protagonist Fingerling, and is eventually consumed with the same paranoia as the fictional character surrounding the number 23. His descent into the relation between his life and the number lead him into a murder investigation as he searches for the author, and possibly the true killer.
It turns out Walter is the killer. He killed his cheating girlfriend, went nuts, wrote the book, published it, got arrested, went to an institution, was eventually deemed sane and safe, met his wife, had a happy family, and 13 years later she discovers the book in a store and buys it for him. Sound ludicrous? It is, and it’s even worse to see play out on screen in complete earnestness. This film was a waste of Carrey’s talents, and boasts an ending so illogical contrived that you can’t help but shake your head.
3. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare – Bad math
Don’t get me wrong, I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Elm Street series. Freddy has to be one of the greatest horror villains of all time, and even when the flicks weren’t quality, they were fun as hell. Now, the sixth film in the series, Freddy’s Dead: the Final Nightmare (not the final film, surprise), deals with Freddy returning to find his heretofore unknown child. This child is presented to the audience as John Doe, a 17-year old kid with amnesia. He has no clue who he is; all we know is that he is the last surviving kid from Springwood, after Freddy is finished wiping out every child in town.
Now, some of you more knowledgeable horror buffs may have a question at this point. “Wait a second,” you’d say. “The original Nightmare takes place in 1981, and Freddy died in 1968. How can he have a 17-year old kid in 1999?” Exactly, he can’t. TWIST! John Doe was a red herring. Freddy’s real child is the 30-something doctor that was treating our false hero. Her name is Maggie Burroughs, but after the revelation that she was adopted, we find her real name is Katherine Krueger. The entire premise and intrigue of the film is entirely dependant on the writer’s faith in the audience not understanding numbers.
2. Devil – The writers cheated
Shayamalan, why do you make me do this? Granted, he is only responsible for Devil‘s story, not its script. But still. This claustrophobic thriller takes place in a stuck elevator. Five strangers are trapped inside, but only four of them are known to have signed in at the front desk. The odd man out is Tony, but the strangers are all in the same boat once the lights go out and the Devil starts eviscerating them one by one. But which one of them is the Devil? Side note, if you’re wondering how exactly the idea of one of these people being the Devil even enters the conversation, a security guard drops his toast and it falls jelly-side down. Truly these are the end times.
As the survivors are whittled away, the last two are left staring each other down, unsure if they can trust the other, there is a horrifying revelation! The name on the lists that security attributed to Jane Kowski (an old woman who was killed by the Devil already) is actually Tony JANKOWSKI. This means that the Devil is… the old woman… who was killed earlier in the film. The old woman pops up, Hopeful horror writers, take note. In any “and then there were none” scenario, the killer can’t turn out to be a person already killed. This is called cheating.
1. High Tension – Marie gets around
There are a lot of dumb twists in cinematic history, folks, but this one takes the cake. Not even just for horror twists. Twist endings as a whole are marred by the existence of High Tension, a french slasher flick about two best friends, Marie and Alex, trying to survive against a bloodthirsty maniac.How maniacal is he? In his first appearance stalking our heroes, he is sitting in his truck fellating himself with a severed head. He soon tracks the ladies to Alex’s family’s home. Once there, he butchers the family, before taking Alex hostage in his truck. Marie manages to sneak into the vehicle, and attempt to rescue her friend. The killer stops for gas, killing the clerk while at it. Marie takes the clerk’s car and follows the truck once more. Spotting her, the killer drives Marie off the road, leading to a hand-to-hand fight in the woods which Marie wins. She then goes to finally rescue poor Alex.
Psyche! There is no bloodthirsty maniac; Marie did it all! She butchered Alex’s family, kidnapped her, murdered the clerk, and then drove her all the way to the middle of nowhere to profess her love for her. Marie of course remembers none of this due to her psychosis. Surveillance footage is shown with Marie killing the clerk, and flashbacks show how she killed the family.
Of course, NONE of this makes any sense. Where did the truck come from? How did the clerk’s vehicle And the truck get to the woods? What about the gun Marie used to kill Alex’s little brother? What about that scene at the beginning with the maniac pleasuring himself as Marie and Alex DRIVE AWAY? This isn’t just a bad twist, it turns the entire film into bad storytelling. It’s pure shock-factor and nothing more. Unfortunate, because the film is quite good up until the reveal. A bad twist will kill a movie’s ending, but a travesty like this completely invalidates the entire plot.
So, that’s it, boys and ghouls. Halloween is here. So, pick out your favourite scary movie, turn off the lights, and recapture that delightfully spine-tingling feeling of pure dread.