One of the hallmarks of any good horror movie is its ability to manipulate us. All art is intended to affect us emotionally but we give horror a special kind of leeway to wreck us; after all, we want to be afraid. The best horror movies are the ones where the twist is so perfectly integrated into the story that it devastates and shocks us but makes complete sense for the story. Not all of these films managed to pull off their twists with finesse, but here they are ranked in terms of how well they pulled it off:
Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead
I mean, come on. This film is only watchable because of the brilliance of Vera Farmiga’s acting. A family takes in a 9-year old Russian girl named Esther from the local orphanage only to find out by the end that she’s a murderous 33-year old with proportional dwarfism who only looks like she’s 9 (background checks, guys). The twist isn’t enough to save this film from its own sleaziness and predictability.
High Tension (2003)
This French horror film (named Haute Tension in France) has a twist that you either love or you hate. A woman named Marie spends the weekend studying at her best friend Alex’s parents’ house when a serial killer breaks in, kills the parents, and abducts Alex. Marie follows and tries to rescue Alex, killing the serial killer and saving the day. The twist is, of course, that there was no serial killer; Marie killed everyone and is secretly in love with Alex. It’s a cool twist, but one that makes you wonder how the logistics of everything worked (who was driving the car?)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
This slasher film has one of the most infamous twist endings of all time that garnered it a cult following. A series of murders take place at a summer camp, and at the very end it’s revealed that the killer is a girl named Angela; only, she isn’t Angela, she’s really Angela’s twin brother Peter who we’d thought died when they were both young. It turns out Peter’s aunt decided to raise him as her daughter because she already had a son (solid logic). The film ends with a naked “Angela” holding a severed head of her last victim and letting out an animalistic growl. What’s the real shocker; that she killed a bunch of people, or that she’s secretly a boy?
The Mist (2007)
Based on one of Stephen King’s novels, The Mist is about the members of a small town who get trapped in a supermarket after a mist containing horrific monsters envelops the town. The twist of the film comes at the very end after the main characters escape and reach the end of the road. Left with no other option but to die painfully at the hands of the monsters, the main character shoots everyone only to find that rescue was just a minute away; it was all in vain. Brutal!
Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror film, Us brilliantly combines the concept of the doppelganger with the American xenophobic fear of the Other. The first twist of the film works the best, when it’s subtly revealed that everyone has a doppelganger that’s been tethered to them their whole lives. The surprise at the end of the film is that the main character, Adelaide, was kidnapped and replaced by her doppelganger when she was a little girl; the doppelganger we thought was the villain the whole film was the real Adelaide. This twist works for the metaphor but it doesn’t really change anything about the film (and arguably it was obvious from the beginning).
Let me be clear: the acting in Saw is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. But despite that, the first film is beautifully simple: two men, Adam and Lawrence, are locked in a room by a serial killer and have to either kill each other or die. They try and follow clues to escape, but by the end, Lawrence gives up and decides to chop off his foot (ouch!) to escape. The shocking twist comes at the very end when it’s revealed that the dead body that’s been lying in between them during the entire film is really the serial killer who put them there. He gets up and leaves Adam to die, slamming the door shut and yelling, “Game over!”
Seven was the twist to end all twists. Although it was not the first, most horror movies nowadays are cheap imitations of the shocking ending that made Seven so iconic. David (played by Brad Pitt) and William (played by Morgan Freeman) hunt a serial killer named John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey) who’s killing people based on the seven deadly sins. The film is more of a neo-noir crime thriller rather than straight horror, but the ending is nothing short of horrific. John Doe presents David a box containing the head of his pregnant wife, due to his sin of envy, causing David to shoot him in a rage, due to David’s sin of wrath. This twist will forever cement into our memories the line, “What’s in the box?
The Sixth Sense (1999)
It’s hard to place this one above Seven, but The Sixth Sense is arguably the most well known horror movie twist of all time. It established M Night Shyamalan as a writer and director and caused us to furthermore associate him with the concept of the twist ending (although nothing he’s done since then has been nearly as good). The reveal that Bruce Willis’ character was dead the whole time is something that everyone now knows whether you’ve seen the film or not, but what makes the twist work so well is just how much of a shock it was when you first saw it and how well it holds up to repeat viewing.