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The 13 Most Influential Plot Twists In Cinema History

Updated November 24, 2020 9.7k votes 1.9k voters 118.9k views13 items

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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. 

  • Unlike many movies, Psycho's plot twist doesn't come at the end - it's somewhere near the middle. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a secretary who embezzles money from work so she can pay off her boyfriend's debt. While driving from Arizona to his home in California, Marion stops at the Bates Motel. During a shower, a shadowy figure rips aside the curtain and slays her with a knife. 

    The brilliance of this twist stems from its transformative nature. The audience grows attached to Marion and her journey from the film's start; when she's dispatched not even halfway into the runtime, the viewer must reorient their focus - perhaps against their will - to the polite but disturbing motel owner, Norman Bates. This abrupt change of subject contributes to the film's terror.

    Psycho was the first film to utilize a "false protagonist." Identifying the hero for the audience is a fundamental rule of filmmaking, and once broken, viewers may become deeply unsettled by the plot's ensuing uncertainty. Other movies would mimic this twist in later years; Scream, which offed A-list star Drew Barrymore in the opening scene, is a prime example.

    Director Alfred Hitchcock knew what he had. As part of Psycho's promotional campaign, he refused to allow anyone entrance to the theater once the movie had begun, an effective tactic for preserving the impact of his devious plot turn. 

    • Actors: Alfred Hitchcock, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam
    • Released: 1960
    • Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
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  • In The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment plays a young boy who can see the departed, and Bruce Willis plays the child psychologist attempting to help him. Audiences were flabbergasted when the ending revealed its unexpected conceit: Willis's character was a ghost the whole time.

    With a domestic box office of $293 million and six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, The Sixth Sense was nothing less than a career-making phenomenon. Because it was a sleeper hit that achieved success without pre-release hype, it encouraged Hollywood to take chances on other low-budget chillers, like Paranormal Activity, and brought ghost stories back into vogue, resulting in The Conjuring, The Others, and Insidious.

    Shyamalan, meanwhile, became known as the rare "name on the poster" director whose movies almost always end with a twist. Signs, The Village, Unbreakable, Split, and Glass are all films in which he pulled the rug out from underneath the audience in the concluding moments.

    • Actors: Bruce Willis, Mischa Barton, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, M. Night Shyamalan
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
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  • In the final moments of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker duel in the central air shaft of Cloud City. Vader severs Luke's hand and attempts to cajole him into joining forces. Luke accuses Vader of slaying his father, which prompts Vader to speak a line that sent moviegoers reeling: "No, I am your father."

    As the film ends shortly afterward, audiences had to wait three years for the release of Return of the Jedi to find out whether the claim was true, and if so, what repercussions it would have on the epic story. Before Empire's release in 1980, movie sequels tended to adhere to the formula of the originals. They were essentially do-overs, with minor changes in setting or casting. The Empire Strikes Back was different in that it's intrinsically designed as the middle of a saga.

    It follows up on events from A New Hope, but also sets up elements that don't pay off until Return of the Jedi. The concept of an extended cinematic narrative was a total game-changer. The thought of making audiences sit on a cliffhanger until the next movie's release was previously inconceivable.

    In this regard, Empire set the stage for franchises like Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which similarly utilized an extended narrative to encourage sequel viewership. The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games franchises also benefited from the trail Star Wars blazed. Likewise, imagining something like Avengers: Infinity War - which ends with half the characters getting wiped out - seems impossible without this precedent.

    • Actors: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, James Earl Jones, Alec Guinness
    • Released: 1980
    • Directed by: Irvin Kershner
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  • 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
    • Released: 1968
    • Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
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