The 21 Most Shocking Horror Movie Twists Ranked
By Dan Auty on
One of the biggest staples of the horror movie genre is the plot twist. It's a genre that relies on tension, mystery, and surprises, and how better to shock an audience than by making them question everything they've seen so far? Of course, it's also something that's very hard to get right.
Some of the best plot twists in horror are as famous as the movies themselves--films such as Psycho, The Sixth Sense, and Saw are famous for their shocking final revelations. These would be great films even if they didn't deliver a twist, but those final plot revelations add to their effect, making them must-sees for fans of the genre.
Of course, for every one of those there are a dozen movies that get it badly wrong, delivering ridiculous, predictable, and laughable twists endings. There's nothing worse than a plot twist that insults the viewers and actually diminishes the movie before. Better a film ends with a normal ending, with the good guys surviving and the villain defeated, than it tries a shocking plot-reversal that totally fails.
So here's some of the very best twists in horror. Many of these are final reveals that change everything we thought we knew about the plot and characters. Some of them are more subtle, others come from absolutely nowhere, and there are even those that are very silly, but are so crazy that they work in adding to the fun of watching the movie.
Also, it goes without saying that there are big spoilers ahead--we're going to tell you what happens in each of these movies. Let's twist!
21. Carnival Of Souls (1962)
Very little in this classic low budget chiller makes logical sense, and that includes the ending. A woman survives a car accident, in which her vehicle plunges into a deep lake. For the rest of the film she experiences all sorts of strange visions and ghostly apparitions, until we discover--you guessed it--that she died in the lake. By modern standards it's perhaps a bit predictable, but back '62 this sort of twist wasn't nearly so familiar, and the movie's weird, dreamlike atmosphere makes it work.
20. The Orphan (2009)
Some twists are so ridiculous that it seems incredible that the writers didn't abandon them before they ever reached a second draft of the script. The Orphan has such a final reveal, but somehow it adds to the fun of watching this preposterous shocker, especially if you know it in advance. It turns out that the evil killer "child" that we've been watching for two hours is in fact a psychopathic 33-year-old former sex worker born with a rare hormonal disorder that gives her the appearance of a nine-year-old girl. Yes, you read that correctly.
19. The Descent (2005)
Enjoying the twist at the end of Neil Marshall's claustrophobic chiller actually depends on which version you see. The movie should end with the shock of realising that lead character Sarah hasn't escaped from the cave network in which she and her spelunking pals are trapped, hunted by dozens of flesh-eating cave creatures. Instead the happy scene in which she finally emerges into daylight is simply a hallucination, and she remains deep underground, unable to find a way out. Unfortunately, the movie's American distributor decided that was all a bit bleak, so simply ended the film with her "escape", and didn't cut back to the final, horrifying reveal. Boo.
18. High Tension (2003)
One of the more controversial twists on this list, the revelation at the end of Alexandre Aja's French gorefest is either a brilliant subversion of the entire storyline, or a stupid, nonsensical plot point that adds nothing to the movie. Having watched a young woman called Marie attempt to survive against a deranged killer who seems intent on slaughtering everyone she encounters, we find out that it was Marie doing the killing all along. Some fans loved it, many more hated it--but it's undeniably got the movie plenty of attention.
17. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
There are few things creepier in horror than weird kids, and the nightmarish Belgian movie Goodnight Mommy has two of 'em. Twins Elias and Lukas spend their days playing in and around a huge, isolated house, trying to avoid their strict, domineering mother, who is recovering from plastic surgery. The pair become convinced that this woman is not, in fact, their mom, and tie her to the bed and torture her to find out the truth. We eventually discover that the car accident that disfigured her also killed Lukas, and Elias has been playing out a fantasy in his head that his brother is still with him.
16. Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker's film is a dark, thrilling mix of film noir and satanic horror with two huge stars (Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro) and a big twist in the final minutes. A private detective called Harry Angel is hired to find a missing man and heads to New Orleans, where a series of brutal murders are taking place. The surprise is that Harry is searching for himself, and that the man who hired him is actually the devil (although, his name--Louis Cypher--is a bit of a giveaway!)
15. Don’t Breathe (2016)
This recent home invasion hit contains a double-twist, which leads into one of the most notorious scenes in a horror movie for some time. If you've seen the film, you know the scene! A trio of teen thieves break into the house of an old blind man with the intention of stealing the huge payment he received after his daughter was killed in a car accident. Unfortunately, the man (played by Avatar's Stephen Lang and known only as The Blind Man) is a super-tough former Marine who doesn't need his eyesight to kick their asses. The invaders discover that he has been keeping the woman who accidentally killed his daughter prisoner in his basement. To double down on this, he has impregnated her in order for her to replace the child that she took from him. Inevitably, gets grimmer from there--let's just say a turkey baster is involved. Eeewww.
14. The Mist (2007)
Without doubt the cruellest twist on this list. This Stephen King adaptation ends with main character David and his young son escaping into the dense, terrifying mist in which monsters, madness, and death lurk. Believing that their situation is hopeless and wanting to spare his son a horrifying death, he shoots him. Unfortunately, the mist clears soon after and an army convoy rattles up, blasting monsters and offering sanctuary. This ending didn't feature in King's novella but was added by writer/director Frank Darabont. However, King was a fan, and subsequently described it as "the most shocking ending ever."
13. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Everything about George Romero's zombie classic was shocking for audiences in 1968--the gore, the scares, the stark matter-of-style style, and the ending. The final twist still packs a punch. Having survived the night, holed up in a farmhouse and under siege by zombies, our hero Ben emerges into the daylight, only to be suddenly shot dead by a local posse and tossed onto a pile of corpses. It's an absolute gut-punch, made all the more powerful by the fact that the movie was made at the height of the civil rights movement, and Romero shows us a strong, brave black character killed by an unthinking white mob.
12. The Orphanage (2007)
A decade before he was thrilling audiences with his blockbuster dinosaur sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, J.A. Bayona made his directing debut with this superb Spanish language chiller. The final twist is both clever and deeply tragic. A young boy goes goes missing soon after his family move into a former orphanage, but it turns out the strange sounds that his mom heard afterwards were not ghosts, but the boy himself, who has been accidentally trapped in the cellar during a game.
11. Black Christmas (1974)
While the huge success of 1978's Halloween is frequently credited for launching the slasher movie craze of the early '80s, the earlier Black Christmas deserves some credit too. This seasonal shocker focuses on a house full of female students who are menaced by a unknown killer known as Billy, who has a habit of calling the house phone at night to announce his gruesome intentions. The big twist is that all the calls are coming from within the house itself. Not ever finding out the identity of the killer adds to the chilling ambiguity of this classic.
10. Scream (1996)
Wes Craven's slasher favorite gave '90s horror a much-needed kickstart and ushered in an era of knowing, self-referential horror. Scream's greatest asset is that it still works as a slick, scary slasher movie as well as a deconstruction of the genre, and features a great twist. The set-up is a classic whodunnit as to the identity of the movie's masked, horror movie-quoting killer, but it turns out there are two murderers, each taking turns behind the mask to confuse the cops while they pick off their pals.
9. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Viewed these days, the twist at the end of the surreal, scary Jacob's Ladder seems like a total cliché--basically, it's all in the main character's head. But back in 1990 it was a genuine surprise, and is helped by the dark, paranoid atmosphere, Adrian Lyne's direction, and Tim Robbins' powerful lead performance. Robbins plays a Vietnam vet who suffers from nightmarish visions and hallucinations, only for us to discover that he is still in 'Nam and these horrific experiences are merely the final visions of a dying man.
8. Seven (1995)
David Fincher's modern masterpiece is one of the darkest, most gripping serial killer movies ever made. The miserable, oppressive tone throughout never once suggests that we're going to get a happy ending, but few audiences were prepared for the gut-punch of its final twist. Mad killer John Doe lures detectives Mills and Somerset out into the desert, with the promise that he will complete his series of murders based on the seven deadly sins. By delivering Mill's pregnant wife's severed head in a box to him, he does just that. Doe is the sin of envy, jealous of Mills' seemingly perfect life, which he had to destroy. And Mills becomes wrath, blowing Doe's brains out in anguished vengeance. Bleak, man.
7. April Fool’s Day (1986)
April Fool's Day was released towards the end of the slasher movie craze of the '80s. And for much of the movie it seems like a fairly standard--albeit funny and entertaining--entry. The final twist, however, is quite a radical one, when we discover that none of the gory murders in the preceding 80 minutes are real, and the whole thing has been an elaborate prank on the lead character. To be fair, the clue is in the movie's title, but audiences were so used to generic holiday-themed slashers by that point that it actually works.
6. Les Diaboliques (1955)
Back in 1955 audiences weren't expecting filmmakers to pull the rug from under their feet, and the final revelation of Henri-Georges Clouzot's French masterpiece was a groundbreaking surprise. A woman called Christine plots to kill her abusive husband Michael, with the help of his mistress. The crime seemingly works but in a stunning sequence, Michael emerges alive from the bathtub in which his "body" has been placed. Christine drops dead of a heart attack and the true plot is revealed--Micheal's "murder" was all a hoax, and Christine was the intended victim all along.
5. The Others (2001)
As in The Sixth Sense a couple of years earlier, the clues to the twist at the end of Alejandro Amenábar's gothic classic are actually right there in front of us, making it even more fun on a second viewing. Grace (Nicole Kidman) lives in an old deserted house with her children, and three mysterious staff members, who have randomly turned up for work one day. Increasingly, Grace hears what she thinks are supernatural sounds, leading her (and us) to believe that the house is haunted, and that the three strangers have something to do with it. And while it turns out that the strange trio ARE ghosts, we discover that Grace and her kids are also dead, and they are the ones haunting the house. The sounds they are hearing are from the real world.
4. Saw (2004)
In comparison with the increasingly ridiculous and convoluted sequels that followed, the original Saw is surprisingly simple and straightforward. But that doesn't stop writer/director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell throwing in one of the genre's great twists. Two men are trapped in a dirty, abandoned room for the entire movie by the evil Jigsaw, each chained to the wall with the body of what looks like a former victim on the floor. But in the final revelation, the "corpse" stands up, revealing himself to be none other than Jigsaw himself. Gotcha!
3. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock's classic features one of the all-time great movie twists--it's not Norman Bates' mom committing gruesome acts of murder in the rundown Bates Motel, but Norman himself, dressed up in a dress and wig while mom's bones sit in the attic. Hitchcock knew he had a doozy of a twist, and even appeared in the movie's trailers, imploring audiences not to give away the ending as "it's the only one we have."
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
You'd be forgiven for thinking M. Night Shyamalan invented the movie twist, given how famous, influential, and parodied the final reveal at the end of his debut movie has been. It's a twist that everyone knows (Bruce Willis's cop character is dead all along) and given how obvious it seems in retrospect, it's amazing that it worked as well as it is did. But it really did, and the gobsmacking surprise of this final twist made the movie one of the 1999's biggest hits and launched the career of one of the modern era's most successful filmmakers.
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
This 1973 British classic delivers one of the most shocking final moments in horror. Mainland cop Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is investigating the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish island. After discovering that the islanders are part of an ancient cult, he believes that the girl will be offered as a sacrifice to the Pagan gods they worship. But too late he learns that HE is the sacrifice! Poor Neil is imprisoned in a giant Wicker Man, which is slowly engulfed in flames as the islanders dance merrily around it.