Many horror films rely on a twist ending to sell the film and surprise viewing audiences. Sometimes twist endings work and sometimes they fall flat. Either way, twist endings are a staple of slaughter cinema. We, at FEARnet, have put together a list of what we regard as ten of the most jaw dropping twist endings in horror cinema. This list obviously contains spoilers, so read with caution.
This flick surprised the hell out of me when I watched it for the first time. The twist is clever and unexpected. My complaint with Identity, however, is that it's a one trick pony. There's no reason for viewers to watch it a second time. The entire film is so reliant upon the twist that revisiting it is rendered pointless. Learning that the entire film is taking place inside a madman's mind negates any need for subsequent viewings. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to check out once.
Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead is not just classic horror cinema, but classic cinema, period. The final scenes deliver a hearty double dose of surprise when we find out that Karen, the child being harbored in the basement, is not actually just ill, she is a creepy little zombie. Then, she eats her dad like he is a tasty snack. After that, in the very final scene, Ben prepares to emerge from the house he's been holed up in, but before he can even reach the door, he's met with a bullet between the eyes. Some over zealous zombie hunters mistake him for the undead; making all of his efforts for naught. The first time I watched Night of the Living Dead, I thought of the ending as a bit of a kick to the stomach, but it’s nothing if not unexpected.
My Bloody Valentine
This '80s slasher staple is a brutal good time. The characters are likeable, the deaths are extremely violent, and the surprise ending is well played. Part of what makes the ending great is that it doesn't waste too much time explaining the killer's motivation. I've watched My Bloody Valentine too many times to count and that has a lot to do with the fact that the twist doesn't negate the film’s potential replay value. It's understated enough for the viewer to take it in stride and still enjoy the film.
Most of Dario Argento’s films have twist endings, but Tenebre is notable because it shocks its audience with a double twist ending. By the end of the film, we've learned the identity of the primary killer, but we also witness main character, Peter Neal, staging a copycat killing to get rid of his pesky ex wife. You can read more about Tenebre in our Crash Course on Dario Argento.
By the fourth entry in the Scream franchise, the "twist ending" was formulaic and predictable, but the big reveal scene in the original Scream film packed a major punch. Finding out that there were not one, but two killers, one of which was Sydney's boyfriend was a huge surprise to audiences. With the first half of the 90s being somewhat starved of quality horror films it was great to see a well crafted slasher that ended with a bang. Horror fans owe much gratitude to Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson for helping to resurrect the horror genre with Scream.
April Fool's Day
April Fool's Day is one of my all time favorite slasher films. The odd thing is that is that it's not really a slasher film at all. We learn in the big reveal scene that Muffy St. John (one of the best character names, ever) is actually playing an elaborate and slightly sick April Fool's Day joke on her friends. The audience discovers that Muffy has staged the deaths of almost all of her houseguests, leaving would be final girl Amy Steele in the dark about her special brand of tomfoolery until the final scenes of the film. Unlike most films with this type of twist, the audience doesn’t feel cheated. April Fool's Day has one of the most well-executed twist endings in horror film history. April Fool's Day is rich with enjoyable characters and hilarious dialogue (IE: "I start convent school next semester and I f**k on the first date. April fools.”)
Happy Birthday to Me
The ending to Happy Birthday to Me knocked my socks off the first time I saw it. To find out that Ann had been masquerading around in a Ginny mask, slaying members of the Crawford Top 10 was not what I was expecting. Interestingly enough, the original draft for the film's script didn't include a twist ending. The producers continued to shoot the film without a definite ending in place and eventually settled upon the delightfully bizarre twist ending audiences have come love over the past 30+ years. Happy Birthday to Me is a fan favorite amongst '80s slasher fans. The script is clever, the characters are fun, and the kills are both brutal and creative. You can read more about Happy Birthday to Me in our picks for Horror Films That Should Have Had Sequels.
The Sixth Sense
Save Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, I am not a M. Night Shyamalan fan. But I have to give him credit for a really creative and well crafted ending in The Sixth Sense. The twist in The Sixth Sense has been knocked off ad nauseam, but never has it been done as effectively as it was in this film. Shyamalan did it the right way. He gave the audience clues to the twist, so that if the viewer was paying close enough attention, they could piece the mystery together. But he used clever diversion tactics to keep his viewers from figuring out the twist, prematurely. Look for an early appearance from Mischa Barton of The OC as the creepy vomiting girl.
Cécile de France turns in an incredible performance in this Alexandre Aja vehicle. Like The Sixth Sense, the ending in High Tension is often impersonated, but has yet to be done with such seamless execution as it was in 2003's High Tension. High Tension is noteworthy because, unlike many of the films that have since tried to impersonate High Tension, the story is being retold from the killer's POV. Relaying the story through the killer's eyes gives Aja a legitimate reason to show the murders being carried out by a killer that only exists in Marie's mind.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the founding fathers of both the slasher film and the horror twist ending. Hitchcock’s expertly crafted horror-suspense-thriller had audiences gasping when they realized that Norman Bates and ‘Mother’ were one and the same. Psycho earns its place on the top of our list for not only being one of the first, but also doing it best. It's films like Psycho and Peeping Tom, also released in 1960, that paved the way for seventies slasher films like Black Christmas and John Carpenter's Halloween.