Everyone loves a good plot twist. We like to be taken on a ride when we go to the movies. The suspense, the build-up, we like not knowing something, but we also love to guess. I think that’s part of what makes a good twist so hard to pull off. Yes, we’re in it to try and follow along with the plot and try to guess what might happen, but we don’t actually like to guess correctly.
Usually, when the killer turns out to be who we thought it would be, it’s underwhelming. Horror is all about the unknown. So, for horror movies especially, we want to be surprised.
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Sometimes, that happens when we’re not even expecting a twist at all. Not every film sets itself up for one and that can be one of the most satisfactory facers of the cinematic experience, when we have the rug completely pulled out from under us.
With that in mind, here are a handful of films that do that do just that. Obviously, SPOILER ALERT for just about everything that’s going to be discussed.
This twist is one of the few that almost works better with age, which is a rarity. We’re so used to the slasher formula now that when Black Christmas starts pointing some obvious fingers at the killer toward the end, we’re not really given a reason to question it. And then we find out that not only is the killer not who we were led to believe it was, but we don’t actually find out who it was at all. Even by today’s standards, that was a bold move.
I’m putting this somewhat underrated ‘90s slasher on the list because it basically ripped off the ending of Black Christmas and still managed to get away with it. Basically, Valentine does set up the origin of a specific killer, but once again, the killer turns out to be a different person than we and the film’s survivor were led to believe. It’s done in a very interesting way that provides a perfect last little stinger before the credits.
I think this is one of the best plot twists in horror because it’s never considered as such. It works into the film so organically that it’s not even questioned. We’re led to believe one thing because it’s the title of the movie, so it’s really ballsy when that turns out not to be the case. Basically, there’s a scene in the film that spells out the difference between a poltergeist and a haunting. We naturally think it’s one thing, but then, as the gears shift entering the third act, we find out it is in fact the other.
Shock scare/reveal moment aside, the twist in Sleepaway Camp is actually pretty genius when you think about how it affects the movie as a whole—which is really what a twist is primarily supposed to do: change the meaning. We go into this expecting just another summer camp slasher. But the killer becomes really obvious, really quickly. It’s obvious that Angela is the killer. What’s not obvious is everything else about Angela, which we find out at the end. It’s now one of the most iconic endings ever, but it also helps to make the character more interesting.
There are people that hate this ending because it doesn’t make any sense, given that there are so many scenes that make it impossible for the heroine and the killer to be the same person. But I think it’s great. It’s classic unreliable narrator. Even if we’re not actually seeing this through Marie’s eyes, it’s all in her head. It’s her interpretation of events. That’s even clearly contextualized by the film, given that this is Marie’s explanation of what happened. It’s a controversial one, but I think the feature did everything it needed to make the twist work.
Another excellent French horror offering, Diabolique also has a magnificent and well-crafted ending. After a man’s wife and mistress conspire in his murder and strange events begin to follow—starting with the disappearance of the body—it’s finally revealed through an iconic moment in cinema that the man was never actually dead.
I don’t care how good people are at guessing, I can’t imagine nearly anyone actually caught onto this twist when they saw it for the first time. We’re given a villain in creepy Ben Linus from Lost. We don’t have any reason to suspect any of the other characters, mostly because we spend the bulk of the feature with two guys trapped in a room. Except that there are actually three people if you count the dead body on the floor. This one is right there, staring you in the face the whole time. It’s amazing and a true testament to the talent of James Wan and Leigh Whannell that it was not half as obvious as they feared it would be.
The granddaddy of all movie twists, Psycho is still the reigning king. There’s just no beating it. It’s expertly crafted, it has equal bearing on the story whether you’re watching it for the first time or the hundredth. There are so many subtle clues laid out, from skilled photography to some genuinely funny moments of black humor. Psycho almost seems to be made for tongue-in-cheek rewatch value. The fun Hitchcock had with keeping this secret and knowing something the audience did not is very much on display.