There are only so many ways to end a movie. Movie endings that genuinely throw the audience for a loop are difficult to achieve since almost everything has been done before. Characters repeatedly experience their past lives, use magical powers to defeat their enemies, and reveal true villainy after a full two hours of pretending to be the good guy again in cinema.
Most of the best twist endings have occurred more than once. Multiple popular films use the trope of the lead character being expired the whole time, and plenty of movies have flipped the script on a haunted house with the revelation that someone has lived in the walls all along. If these twists are done correctly, they work, even if viewers have seen it before.
The worst plot twists, those that come out of nowhere, tend to fall by the wayside, but the best twists pop up again and again. Some of these plot twists that were ripped off have had enough details changed to make them feel new and, occasionally, they work even better than the original script.
The 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls is one of those early films that's not only ahead of its time, but influenced every spooky movie that followed. The film follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) after she escapes a car that has run into a river after a drag race. She's then shadowed everywhere by white-faced ghouls and, in the end, it's revealed that she was not alive the entire time.
There's no doubt that M. Night Shyamalan was cribbing from Carnival of Souls when he wrote 1999's The Sixth Sense, a film where psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) helps a young boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who believes that he sees ghosts. In the end, it turns out Crowe himself had become a ghost at the beginning of the movie and treated Cole while being a supernatural entity. Crowe had no idea that he was no longer alive.
In both films, there are hints that the main character isn't among the living, but the twist in The Sixth Sense pays out like a slot machine, with every clue paying off major dividends.
The Dark Half is a 1993 George Romero film based off a novel by Stephen King wherein an author's personality splits between his normal self and his more insidious leanings. After "burying" his pen name, the character comes to life and begins offing people, but for most of the film, it's unclear if the author, Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), is in charge or if it's his pen name's persona, "George Stark." The film's finale features a showdown between the two sides of the same man with Thad coming out on top and vanquishing his more base instincts.
Fight Club is a 1999 film that follows an unnamed white-collar worker (Edward Norton) who starts an underground fight club with a mysterious man named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a character who pushes the narrator into escalating acts of aggression. Fight Club ends with the narrator shooting Durden who, as it turns out, is a manifestation of the narrator's more problematic personality traits.
While The Dark Half is interesting, Fight Club takes the same ideas and plays with the concept of identity beyond simply personifying boredom in ways that George Romero doesn't even attempt.
It! The Terror From Beyond Space is a sci-fi B-movie from 1958 about the inhabitants of a spaceship in the far-off future of 1973. They pick up the lone survivor of a mission to Mars, Col. Caruthers (Marshall Thompson), who claims that an alien took out the rest of his crew. No one believes Caruthers, and the alien eliminates the group one by one until Caruthers opens the ship's airlock and sends the creature into the emptiness of space.
The 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien follows the same plot through to the end where Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) jettisons the Xenomorph out an airlock after it picks off the members of her crew. Scott's film takes the concept behind its 1950s predecessor and explores both capitalism and the fear of intimacy while creating one of the most frightening creatures of 20th-century cinema.
April Fool's Day features character Kit Graham (Amy Steel) who experiences all the tropes of a classic slasher movie - friends who perish, butcher knives, and blood - but with none of the fallout. At the end of this 1986 movie, it's revealed that the mayhem was a prank the whole time, staged by a bunch of college friends on vacation together.
David Fincher's 1997 film The Game uses the same plot device, but the film's construction is arguably so much more enthralling. The film follows businessman Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) on his 48th birthday, and he takes part in a game where he's led through a series of risky tasks before he ultimately takes his own life. After jumping off a building and falling through a skylight, Nicholas discovers that the whole thing was a game meant to remind him not to let life pass him by.
Not only is Fincher's version of the twist more thought-provoking, but there's a build-up that brings the film together, whereas April Fool's Day feels like a lark.