From the stories of O. Henry to The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, the plot twist has long been a staple of storytelling. In horror movies, twists can either heighten the scares or provide an exit out of a lousy script. In the hands of a hack, a twist is merely a cheap shot. In the hands of a master, a twist can be a hammer blow to the psyche. Whether you love them or hate them, they’re an unavoidable part of the genre.
Below we’ve compiled a list of 10 of the most unexpected, most terrifying plot twists in the history of horror cinema. Be warned, there’s nothing but spoilers from here on.
The 2003 French thriller High Tension (Haute Tension) has one of the most shocking and divisive twists ever. In the film, friends Alex (Maïwenn Besco) and Marie (Cécile de France) are on the run from a relentless serial killer presumed to be a murderous delivery man. However, a gruesome sequence in the film’s final act upends the plot when an insane Marie is revealed to be the real killer.
The Cabin In The Woods
Screenwriter Drew Goddard, best known for scripting the found footage monster movie Cloverfield, made his directorial debut with 2011’s The Cabin In The Woods. In a seemingly self-aware homage to backwoods horror classics such as The Evil Dead, a group of college kids vacationing at a deserted cabin accidentally resurrect a sinister family of zombies. In the first of two twists, a series of cutaways to a mysterious lab reveals that the students are the unwitting participants in some kind of experiment. As The Cabin In The Woods approaches its climax, the plot unexpectedly careens into Lovecraftian territory when the experiment is revealed to be a ritual designed to hold ancient, malevolent gods at bay.
Based on William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel, Angel Heart, directed by Alan Parker, stars Mickey Rourke as hardboiled private investigator Harry Angel. When Angel is hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyphere (Robert De Niro) to track down a missing crooner named Johnny Favorite, he finds himself drawn into a web of murder and black magic. As witnesses who may hold the key to Favorite’s whereabouts begin to turn up dead, Angel fears he may be next. In a shocking turn, the dogged gumshoe stumbles across a clue that reveals that he is the man he’s been tracking all along, and Louis Cyphere (Lucifer) is the devil who’s come to collect Favorite’s soul.
One of the more effective adaptations of author Stephen King’s work, The Mist, based on the 1980 novella of the same name, contains one of the most gut-wrenching twist endings in horror history. Closely following the events of King’s story, Frank Darabont’s adaptation stars Thomas Jane as David Drayton, a father trapped along with his young son (Nathan Gamble) and a group of survivors, in a supermarket by a mysterious mist filled with man-eating, transdimensional monsters. As the trapped shoppers are killed off by the creatures, Drayton, his son, school teacher Amanda Dunfrey (Lauren Holden) and two others make a bid for escape. Realizing that death is certain, the survivors decide to end their lives. Down to his last four bullets, Drayton kills the others, including his son, and awaits his fate. In a devastating twist, the military, which has gained control of the situation arrives seconds too late.
Although later installments of the franchise lapsed into pointless, Rube Goldberg-esque exercises in torture porn, James Wan’s original 2004 shocker Saw was one of the most innovative entries in early 2000s genre cinema. Saw’s villain, the elusive trickster John Kramer aka. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has since become a horror icon, but his first appearance stemmed from an unforgettable twist. The revelation that the presumably dead man on the floor is the architect of the film’s diabolical plot remains the Saw series’ highpoint.
Based on the terrifying Japanese cult horror film Ringu, The Ring directed by Gore Verbinski is a remake that works. In the 2002 film, Naomi Watts stars as Rachel Keller, a journalist who stumbles upon the truth behind an urban legend concerning a videotape bearing a deadly curse. The tape, which contains a series of surreal and disturbing images, promises death to anyone who views it within seven days. The story becomes personal for Keller when her young son Aidan (David Dorfman) watches the tape. Keller soon discovers that the tape is a psychic imprint left behind by a murdered child named Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase). Believing that freeing Samara will lift the curse, Keller releases the dead child from her watery crypt. Here, The Ring destroys a tried-and-true cliché of horror movie hauntings when the slightly psychic Aidan tells his mother “You weren’t supposed to help her.” Chilling.
A criminally underrated ‘80s slasher flick, Sleepaway Camp is much more than just another Friday the 13th rip-off. Released in 1983, the film stars Felissa Rose as Angela Baker, a shy and withdrawn girl sent to live with her eccentric aunt following the deaths of her father and twin brother Peter in a boating accident. Finally permitted to go to summer camp with her protective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tierstan), a fragile Angela is a prime target for bullies. One by one, Angela’s tormentors die under mysterious circumstances. Although Angela is indeed revealed as the killer, Sleepaway Camp’s true twist is the revelation that it was Angela who died in the boating act, and the character we’ve followed throughout the film is actually her brother Peter groomed by their aunt to take Angela’s place. However, mere words don’t do this twist justice. Sleepaway Camp’s climax must be seen to be believed.
Night Of The Living Dead
One of the greatest horror movies of the last half of the 20th century, George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead is ground zero for the flesh-eating zombie subgenre. Taking place over the course of a single night, Romero’s film concentrates on a group of survivors taking refuge from a plague of the undead in a lonely farmhouse. In the end, however, they prove far more dangerous to each than the flesheaters, as a petty struggle for dominance dooms them to their horrible fate. The tragic ending is a crusher. Heroic Ben (Duane Jones), the lone survivor of the zombie siege is mistaken for a ghoul and killed by a trigger-happy posse of zombie hunters.
The Sixth Sense
Over two decades since its release, The Sixth Sense remains filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s best and most effective horror film. Haley Joel Osment stars as a Cole Sear, a sensitive little boy with the uncanny ability to see the dead. As his frightening gift begins to take an emotional toll on Cole and his mother (Toni Collette), child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene to aid the child with his unusual problem. As the film concludes, Cole comes to grips with his power as a tool to relieve the suffering of the deceased and Malcolm Crowe is revealed to have himself been a ghost all along.
Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name which itself was loosely based on the real-life story of murderer Ed Gein, Psycho is a landmark of the horror genre. Long before the term “spoiler” entered the pop culture lexicon, Alfred Hitchock, cinema’s celebrated master of suspense, expressly forbade audiences to reveal Psycho’s now legendary ending. Forbidding theater owners to allow late entry into the movie, Hitchcock successfully preserved one of the greatest shock endings in cinema history. Although even casual fans are no doubt aware that meek and mild motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) murders in the guise of his dead mother, the revelation surely came as a terrifying surprise to audiences in 1960.