Movie buffs will often tell you that they saw an ending coming from a mile away, and it’s true, there are plenty of films out there that are formulaic. Take, for example, one of those “inspirational inner city sports coach” films—you pretty much know how they’re going to end almost before they get started. But every once in a while, we get a movie that surprises us and blows us away with its ending. Many of these twist endings are now the stuff of parody or homage, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t exciting when they first appeared on the big screen. Here are 10 of them. (Spoilers ahead, naturally.)
10. The Terminator (1984)
When Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese were making their first of many escapes from the T-800, all audiences knew was that “the Terminator is an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it’s a hyperalloy combat chassis. Microprocessor controlled, fully armored, very tough. But outside, it’s living human tissue: flesh, skin, hair, blood, grown for the cyborgs.” Towards the end of the film, the T-800 is caught in an explosion and then falls to the ground, burning. Audiences figured if the flesh is destroyed, the machine won’t survive, and the movie is over, right? Nope. The endoskeleton rises from the flames and continues its pursuit for another 12 minutes or so of screen time before finally being crushed in a hydraulic press. But what a crazy 12 minutes.
9. Planet of the Apes (1968)
This surprise ending has long since become iconic, and has been parodied in The Simpsons, Spaceballs, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, among others. It’s the year 3978, and a crew of astronauts has been in hibernation for a little over 2,000 years. They crash on a distant world and are captured by an advanced civilization of apes. Humans on this world are considered worthless and/or dangerous, but ultimately the protagonist Taylor (Charlton Heston) fights his way out and regains his freedom, though he’s warned not to explore any further for the truth, because he won’t like what he finds. And what does he find? It’s not an alien world at all—it’s Earth, and long ago humans brought doom upon themselves and much of the planet in a nuclear war, allowing apes to evolve and become the dominant species. It’s this turn that gives the film a much heavier message, warning of a grim future.
8. Psycho (1960)
While driving to deliver stolen money to her boyfriend in California, Marion Crane takes a wrong turn off the highway and ends up at the Bates Motel. While taking a shower that night, she is murdered by an unknown figure with a butcher knife. Owner Norman Bates is convinced his mother is the killer, and covers up the crime. As the investigation unfolds, more people die by the hand of his mother, until it’s revealed that his mother has been dead for the last 10 years, and that Norman himself is the killer, dressed in a wig and his mother’s clothes. Looks like Norman had issues with his mother taking a lover, so he killed them both and developed a split personality: one Norman, one Norma (the mother). It’s been 55 years since this film was made, and even though we all know the twist by now, it’s still creepy as hell.
7. Fight Club (1999)
“I am Jack’s wasted life.” Our unnamed protagonist is a regular guy who hates himself and his store-bought life. On a flight, he meets the charismatic Tyler Durden, who teaches Unnamed how to live. And that living is done through fighting. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” They start an underground fighting club, which eventually expands into Project Mayhem, an operation much larger in scope with anti-consumerist goals, attracting men from everywhere who all feel the same alienation, numbness, or dissatisfaction with their lives. When Unnamed confronts Tyler, saying that it’s gone too far and it’s out of control, Tyler drops this bomb on him: there is no Tyler. They’re the same person. And then the movie gets weird.
6. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It’s the Big Daddy of twists (pardon the pun). On the one hand, the film seems too obvious to include in a list, but on the other, how could you not include it? The reveal of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father was the biggest secret on the set. Only the director and a handful of others knew—Mark Hamill himself didn’t know until just before they shot the scene, so the surprise, the horror, the emotion he portrays is as fresh as it can get. Some say Hamill should earn a “best overactor” nod for that moment, but let’s cut the guy some slack: how would you react if you found out that the nastiest villain in the galaxy, responsible for suppressing the freedom you’re fighting for and killing untold numbers of people and Jedi… was your own dad?
5. Seven (1995)
A serial killer goes on a rampage with each victim representing one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and two detectives are on the case. You’d think that after making it through most of Seven’s grotesque murder scenes the audience would be a little numbed towards the end, even as they’re keeping track of the number of victims. But once there are two more victims to go, the killer, John Doe, turns himself in, promising to reveal the locations of the last two victims out in the desert. When they arrive at the desert, they are greeted by a courier with a package. This movie has several unsettling moments, but none are as bad as “What’s in the box?!” So what’s in it? A grim ending, that’s what: it’s the head of the wife of one of the detectives, and that detective—according to Doe’s plan—will become Wrath, while Doe explains that he represents Envy, having wanted to live the detective’s normal life.
4. Primal Fear (1996)
This was Edward Norton’s debut feature film, and while it’s a solid courtroom drama, it’s Norton’s, ahem, killer performance that elevates it. He plays Aaron Stampler, a gentle altar boy who is accused of killing an archbishop. Throughout the course of the trial, it’s determined that Aaron likely did kill the archbishop, but isn’t guilty because it was his violent alter ego, which manifests itself as “Roy” whenever Aaron feels threatened or is provoked, who did it. At the end he’s remanded to a psychiatric institution, and his lawyer pays him one last visit in his cell. And here’s where the movie turns: Aaron was playing everyone the whole time. No split personality, no innocence. It was all premeditated and orchestrated. When his lawyer says that there never was a Roy, he is gleefully corrected: “There never was an Aaron.”
3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
A child psychologist, having survived an attempt on his life by a troubled patient, tries to help a young boy with similar symptoms—he can see the spirits of the dead. They realize that the boy can help the dead by communicating their unfinished business in order to let them leave the world of the living, but at the end he understands that he never survived that attempt on his life—he’s been a ghost the entire time! When this came out, everyone raved about the ending, which often prompted viewers to watch the entire film again in order to spot the cleverly hidden clues. Along with maybe The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense has, in a way, become the definition of a great twist ending, and nothing M. Night Shyamalan has made since has ever quite lived up to it.
2. Oldboy (2003)
A businessman, Oh Dae-su, is kidnapped and imprisoned in a hotel-like jail cell for exactly 15 years with no reason ever given by his captor. Once released, he eventually tracks down and confronts his captor, Lee Woo-jin, who tells him that he has five days to figure out why he was imprisoned, after which Woo-jin will kill himself. And what was the reason? Turns out they went to the same high school, where Dae-su saw Woo-jin engage in incest with his sister. The rumor that followed led to the sister killing herself, so Woo-jin locked Dae-su away, waited for Dae-su’s daughter to grow up, then used post-hypnotic suggestion to make them fall in love, so that they commit incest of their own. The reveal of Dae-su’s lover as his own daughter is jaw-dropping and horrible, placing Oldboy as a solid contender for greatest—and most disturbing—revenge flick ever.
1. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The only survivor of a gun battle on a boat loaded with criminals is Roger “Verbal” Kint. He is interrogated by the authorities and recounts the tale of how this one job all went to hell, and of the terrifying mastermind behind it: Keyser Söze. Kint was one of five criminals who met in a police lineup, each of which has wronged Söze in some way; this job was their way to repay their debt without getting their loved ones killed. The police don’t believe Kint’s story, but he posts bail and is allowed to leave, at which point the greatest twist ever occurs: they realize he made up the story on the spot using names from objects and papers posted in the messy office. Kint is Keyser Söze. Bonus: the film also ends on one of the best lines ever: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that… he’s gone.”