Plenty of movies try to surprise the audience with twists and turns, but the best twist endings can change the way you see an entire film. Whether it's a supposedly heroic character being revealed as a villain, a startling revelation about the film's reality, or the unexpected manner in which a mystery is solved, a good twist can turn a great movie into a certified classic.
Of course, not all twists are created equal. Plenty of bad movie twists have baffled audiences over the years. There have also been some so influential they not only impacted the movies in which they appeared but future movies as well. The hallmarks of a monumentally good twist are unpredictability and the addition of depth or relevance to the plot, both of which lead the viewer to rewatch the film to savor the set-up to the big reveal more closely.
The most influential twists of all time aren't just cinematic parlor tricks; they've made a significant, long-lasting impression on cinema as a whole.
In Rosemary's Baby, an innocent woman (Mia Farrow) becomes suspicious of her neighbors. Over the course of the film, the audience realizes her misgivings are valid - her neighbors are all members of an evil cult, and they have chosen Rosemary to become impregnated by the Devil. At the story's end, she looks in horror at the infant she's delivered. The real twist, however, is that Rosemary walks over to the crib and begins rocking the child - a disturbing acceptance of her situation.
Although Rosemary's Baby is based on an Ira Levin novel, director Roman Polanski's artistic flair - evident in both the mounting sense of palpable dread and the ending twist itself - is what cements the film as an all-time horror classic. Despite Rosemary's revulsion at her devil-child, she acts maternally towards it, as though she knows resisting will bring about something even worse. Or read another way, she has fallen completely under the spell of her evil neighbors.
The influence of Rosemary's Baby is far-reaching. Despite being over 50 years old, it continues to inspire modern horror filmmakers. Director Ari Aster sold Hereditary as "Rosemary's Baby meets Ordinary People," and like Polanski's work, it ends with a character's apparent submission to an evil force. Alice Lowe's Prevenge and Jordan Peele's Get Out also owe a debt to the classic.
Actors: Mia Farrow, Tony Curtis, John Cassavetes, Charles Grodin, Ruth Gordon, + more
Directed by: Roman Polanski
In the 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston plays George Taylor, one of several astronauts who crash-land on a remote planet inhabited by highly evolved apes. The apes are not only capable of speech, but they have also created their own society. In the final scene, Taylor sees the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand and reaches the startling realization that the post-apocalyptic wasteland is Earth.
Planet of the Apes serves as a classic example of misdirection. Viewers assume, as Taylor does, the story takes place on a distant planet; recognizing the hellscape as Earth reshapes everything preceding the twist, while simultaneously providing a resonating, punch-in-the-gut sense of hopelessness.
The twist of misleading the viewer - whether about a story's location or period - has been used countless times since Planet of the Apes. In Alex Proyas' 1998 Dark City, the audience doesn't realize the city where the story occurs is floating in space until the protagonist inadvertently stumbles upon it himself.
M. Night Shyamalan used a variation of the twist for his 2004 film, The Village; the movie appears to be set in the 19th century until the ending reveals the isolated characters are living in the modern era. These and other films built on the idea Planet of the Apes so brilliantly introduced.
Actors: Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, James Whitmore, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, + more
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Fight Club tells the story of a nameless, unhappy narrator (Edward Norton) who joins the world of underground fist-fighting after a chance encounter with a stranger named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). He's appalled to see Tyler morphing the club into an organization determined to create social chaos. The twist ending reveals the Narrator and Tyler are, in fact, the same person.
Tyler is merely a personality the Narrator created during a dissociative state. The movie ends with the Narrator and his love interest, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), watching the city's destruction, an outcome he unknowingly set in motion.
Fight Club was a box office disappointment upon its 1999 release, earning $37 million domestically against a $63 million budget. Many reviews were downright angry, with Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calling it "a mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching [aggression]." Home video and cable TV, however, helped the film's reputation grow considerably.
In many ways, Fight Club was ahead of its time in that its themes weren't easily digestible. Viewers who could pause, rewatch, or sleep on the film before forming an opinion came to recognize it as a rather scathing satire of how consumer culture pushes harmful gender roles onto men.
Interestingly, not everyone got the joke. Aside from achieving cult-classic status, Fight Club has also become a virtual handbook for "men's rights activists," who yearn to be real-life versions of Tyler Durden, thus missing the film's point.
Actors: Brad Pitt, Jared Leto, Helena Bonham Carter, Edward Norton, Meat Loaf, + more
Directed by: David Fincher
In The Maltese Falcon, hard-boiled detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) discovers the woman who hired him for a missing-person case is the party responsible for the subsequent slaying of his partner. She's also one of many people attempting to gain possession of an extremely valuable statuette. Given the detective falls in love with her during the complicated ordeal, the audience is invariably shocked when Spade rats her out to the police.
The Maltese Falcon is considered by many film experts to be the first film noir. While plenty of books utilized the elements of noir before the film's release, no movie had ever captured these tales as visually - nor as precisely - as director John Huston. With this single film, all the requirements of film noir were put in place: the asymmetrical shot composition, the use of high-contrast lighting and deep shadows, snappy dialogue, a femme fatale, and - thanks to the powerhouse twist ending - a downbeat perspective on humanity.
Dozens of other movies over the decades have utilized the template established by this celebrated film.
Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Walter Huston, Ward Bond, + more
Directed by: John Huston