120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 8: Best Twists & Reveals
It’s the moment you wait for the entire horror film. It’s not just a plot twist or a payoff but a trigger to your deepest emotions. You want to be shocked and sickened and saddened when the killer is revealed, the hero suddenly dies, or the mystery is solved. Most of all, you want your jaw to be on the floor. **Spoilers obviously ahead**
The Brood (1979)- Mommy knows best
David Cronenberg’s third horror film is his first truly great movie and also his first superbly acted film. The Brood’s ensemble is solid but Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar stand out as maverick doctor Hal Raglan and his disturbed patient Nola Carveth. Nola’s estranged husband Frank (played by Art Hindle) teams up with Dr. Raglan in the film’s suspenseful climax. He confronts Nola while Raglan attempts to rescue Frank’s young daughter from a group of murderous deformed children. Their plan disintegrates as Raglan is attacked by the children while Nola pulls up her white dress and reveals to Frank the disturbing and graphic source of the deadly brood. The sequence caps off a brilliant and horrific film about the damaging cycles of child abuse. (Terek Puckett)
Don’t Look Now (1973)- Bleeding love
Donald Sutherland’s John learns all too well that there is nothing like a father’s love in Nicholas Roeg’s psychedelic thriller. A great twist can be built on shock value or on tragedy or on the flaw of a character. Don’t Look Now‘s final reveal is built on all three in one of horror cinema’s greatest acts of misdirection. After the tragic drowning death of their daughter, John and Laura Baxter (Sutherland and Julie Christie) relocate to Venice. There they meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be psychic and says that she has seen the spirit of their daughter. John is skeptical but soon begins having the same visions of his child–clad in her red raincoat–roaming the Venetian streets. Sadly, the visions are a classic case of a grief stricken man seeing what he wants to see. The girl in the raincoat is not his daughter, but a serial murderer that has been terrifying the local streets–a little person to be exact. It’s a cruel twist of fate that puts John in a state of bewildered fear long enough to become the next victim. Instead of going for cheap shock value, Roeg goes for melancholy. As John bleeds out, we get a montage of his happy time together with his wife and of all the beautiful moments that led him to the fateful alleyway. His visions may have caused his death, but they also allowed him to reconnect with his wife. It’s oddly comforting in a macabre sort of way. But then comforting and macabre go hand in hand with Nicholas Roeg. (Shane Ramirez)
Dressed to Kill (1980)- Elevator to the gallows
Many would argue that the quality of Brian De Palma’s filmmaking is not what it once was. While it may be unfair to judge his output over the past twenty years with his oeuvre from the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, it’s only natural given how his films from those decades are still something to behold. Among them is 1980’s Dressed to Kill, a film that pays tribute to the great Alfred Hitchcock without the audience ever really knowing it until De Palma goes in for one of the most surprising kills in movie history.
The movie begins with the great Angie Dickenson as Kate Miller, a sexually frustrated wife who makes the acquaintance of a mysterious admirer at the Metropolitan Museum. Following a deliciously filmed, expertly cut, dialogue-free ten minutes, things only get more intense from there, as Kate takes a cab ride with her new lover. After having sex in said vehicle and at his condominium, Kate quietly leaves (after learning a terrifying surprise about her host, no less). However, realizing that she has left her wedding ring at the man’s place, she returns to the elevator, only to be greeted by a tall, blonde women wearing shades who, equipped with a razor, murders Kate in cold blood. There is virtually no way the audience could have predicted that sort of an outcome, just as moviegoers in 1960 were kept in the dark about Marion Crane’s fate in Psycho. The sequence has such great momentum and is so wonderfully filmed that its conclusion brutally announces that director De Palma is ready to throw anything at the audience. (Edgar Chaput)
Invasion of the Body Snatches (1978)- It’s not polite to point
We think he’s made it. That’s how director Phillip Kaufman sets up the ending of his Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. In place of the Cold War paranoia of the 1956 original is a fear of conformity and New Age mumbo jumbo of the late ’70s. This is a less political film than the first, more sociological, but fascinating nonetheless in how it handles our innate fear of being replaced. Donald Sutherland–the unofficial king of disturbing ’70s horror movie endings–lends his deadpan talents to Matthew Bennell, a health inspector who fights against the invading pod people. After a harrowing night that leaves him as the sole survivor of his group, we see Matthew at work the next day, going about his routine. We think he is merely imitating the emotionless mechanics of his pod overlords, but when he is approached by survivor Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), his face contorts into a grimace, and he releases a piercing alien scream. The final shot zooms in on the black space of Matthew’s gaping mouth. The original Body Snatchers is infamous for its studio mandated happy ending. Twenty years later and Kaufman gives us the bleakest capper possible, an ending that stays true to its decade’s era of realistic horror by dispelling the carefree notions of safety and victory that infected the original. The movies are the one place where we get to win. A true horror film deprives us of even that. (Shane Ramirez)
Les Diaboliques (1955)- Scared to death
With the current attitude towards spoilers in pop-culture, it’s surprising that all Henri-Georges Clouzot had to do sixty years ago to ensure the ending of his film remained a secret was to introduce a title card asking viewers not to say anything to their friends. Sixty years later, the film’s fatal, rug-pulling final twist has not had its impact diminished, even with the countless number of thrillers with unpredictable third acts it has inspired–not least Hitchcock’s own slice of macabre camp, Psycho.
Nicole and Christina (Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot) are the mistress and wife, respectively, of Michel (Paul Meurisse), the unpopular and easily detestable headteacher of the boarding school where they all work. The two have a friendship despite their social positioning and plan on murdering the man who is emotionally manipulating them both. After a well-executed killing, the body disappears, with Christina slowly losing her sanity as a police investigation gets underway and a body still refuses to be found.
In the tensest segment of cinema of the ’50s, a bed-ridden Christina is left alone in the school after confessing to a private detective (he doesn’t believe her, naturally). After hearing noises in the corridor, she goes exploring and reaches a bathroom. Lying in the tub is Michel’s body…which stands up out of the water and gives her a fatal heart attack. Clouzot uses every trick in the book in order to terrify the audience; most successfully, he uses natural sound instead of a score, creating a terrifying intimacy. The reveal of Michel is an image of surreal horror that was likely as influential to David Lynch as it was to a provocateur like Hitchcock. (Alistair Ryder)
The Mist (2007)- A moment too late
Nothing cements a good horror film like a big reveal or twist ending. This is quite possibly why The Mist has been ranked by many critically acclaimed publications as one of the top horror films of the last two decades. Timing is what makes the film’s big finish a shock. After braving interdimensional monsters while holed up at a local grocery store, David Drayton (Thomas Lane) is able to escape in a car with the few remaining survivors, including Billy (Nathan Gamble), his eight-year-old son. After stalling, the gang finds themselves at the end of the road in the thicket of fog. With no hope, David does the hardest thing imaginable; he uses the four remaining bullets in his gun to kill each of the passengers, sparing them from a brutal impending death. In the universe of Stephen King, a quick end is better than a torturous one. The scene plays somber and quiet, keeping the visuals implied. When the shots come, we only see the muzzle flashes and hear the gunshots pop off one by one. In agony, David steps out of the car in the hope that the monsters will end his misery. What he receives is much worse–the army, coming to the rescue. “If only he had waited a bit longer,” becomes the lingering thought to this horrifying circumstance. Nothing punches you in the gut like a heart-breaking ending. (Chris Clemente)
The Others (2001)- We’re not dead!
Despite her children’s insistence, Grace (Nicole Kidman) refuses to believe in the ghosts that might be wandering her mansion. It isn’t until she comes face to face with a roundtable of “spirits” that she gains definitive proof that the house is haunted. That is, haunted by Grace and her children. Had The Sixth Sense not came out less than two years prior, The Others‘ big twist would have surely surprised more moviegoers. As it is, the reveal doesn’t come as a total shock, given how director Alejandro Amenabar places clues throughout the entire film. That’s ok, though, he isn’t finished yet.
In a double-twist of sorts, Grace learns that she smothered her children, Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann, James Bentley), then killed herself. It is especially heartbreaking knowing the lengths this mother went to in order to keep her son and daughter safe, all while having committed the ultimate betrayal. Grace then tearfully recounts the harrowing tale to the children as they slowly come to terms with their new stage of life. If twists are defined by how much they surprise the audience, then this reveal is significant for how much devastation it causes. (Colin Biggs)
Scream 4 (2011)– Fans await
The reveals in the Scream franchise are less interesting narratively than they are metaphorically or ideologically. It’s the killer’s motivations and to what degree they play with established tropes of the horror genre that makes them compelling. Scream has always delighted in a meta approach to its writing, constructing well-worn archetypes and toying with how they are used. From the dangers of eroticism to silly Oedipus complexes, Scream’s peak, as far as half-joking reveals go, is in Scream 4.
Once again, a familial connection is made between the perpetually-stalked-by-serial-killers Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Jill (Emma Roberts), her spoiled rotten cousin. The revelation of Jill as Ghost Face is a rather cynical one, reorienting the film on a level not unlike this year’s Unfriended. It’s an indictment of millennial narcissism, where Jill blithely elaborates on her goal to become famous by creating a tragic narrative of her own to steal the spotlight from Sidney, who has long been the center of the story.
There’s a level of the scene that’s played for camp, evident in Roberts’ forced explanation of her plan. Mean little jibes fall from her tongue so easily that it’s no wonder Ryan Murphy inducted her into his hall of divas. “Shut the fuck up already!” she tells her ex, dying on the floor, her eyes rolling as if she’s hijacked Clueless with a knife. Sure, the zeitgeist aspect of this scene, where Jill’s narcissism drives her insane and social media is the primary form of proliferation, seems on the nose, an extension of a Nancy Jo Sales piece in Vanity Fair, but Roberts makes it believable. It’s about the performative nature of her scheme, of “becoming” Sidney. Horror movies aren’t the culprit this time, we are. (Kyle Turner)
Seven (1995)- John Doe’s pièce de résistance
Less a reveal and more of a reversal of power, the twist ending to David Fincher’s Seven remains just as powerful twenty years after its release. The mysterious John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has led Detectives William Somerset and David Mills (Brad Pitt) out to the middle of a barren wasteland where the numerous high-tension towers feel like oppressive tombstones. Soon a package arrives for Mills, and we crosscut between John Doe revealing his master plan and Somerset opening a box. What’s inside? The “pretty head” of Mills’ wife (Gwenyth Paltrow). Despite Somerset’s pleas, a grief-stricken Mills succumbs to his wrath and unloads his clip on the murderer. If the buildup is tense, the release is downright unsettling.
The entirety of the film up to this moment has been bleak, but the ending leaves the audience with pessimism about the state and future of humanity. It’s a hard scene to shake off, posing questions about the necessity of vigilante justice in the face of a villain willing to martyr himself. The backdrop is eerily reminiscent of the Old West. Somerset’s last line to his police captain (R. Lee Ermey), “I’ll be around,” and their walking off into the sunset feels straight out of a Western. But unlike the rides of cowboys past, this one is completely devoid of heroism or even hope. (William Penix)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)– Oh boy!
Sleepaway Camp is one of the most entertaining slasher films from the 80’s due to its unexpected twist ending, which burns in your memory long after the credits roll. Back in 1983, audiences were shocked to discover the killer in Robert Hiltzik’s slasher was none other than the sweet, mousy teenager Angela (Felissa Rose). But there was an added twist: Angela isn’t just the killer–she’s actually Peter, her brother. The real Angela died years earlier, and Peter assumed her identity after his aunt forced him to dress in girl’s clothing and change his name.
Two of the surviving campers find Angela sitting outside in the dark woods, holding Paul’s (Christopher Collet) in her arms. It’s obvious at this point that Angela is the killer and Paul is now dead, but Hiltzik carefully blocks the shot so viewers are not aware that Ricky wasn’t just murdered but also decapitated. A flashback shows us Angela’s crazy aunt presumably talking to her as a child. But an over the shoulder shot reveals a little boy instead of a girl. We cut back to Angela fully nude, covered in blood, knife in one hand, severed head in the other and growling like a caveman. In case we aren’t clued in enough, a freeze-frame of Angela dissolves into a matching shot of Peter.
The final scene isn’t just a technical marvel, it also adds a new layer of narrative depth that changes the meaning of the entire film. Without prior knowledge of the killer’s identity and gender, we assumed the murder scenes were all from the point of view of a male. But in knowing that Angela is really Peter, the traditional male gaze associated with slasher films no longer applies. If not for the final jaw-dropping, tape-rewinding finale, Sleepaway Camp might have faded into obscurity. (Ricky D)
The Vanishing (1988) – Buried alive
Based on Tim Krabbe’s The Golden Egg, this clinical, maddening descent into the mind of a serial killer left audiences buzzing with excitement over its ending. The Vanishing could very well be the best but least influential serial killer film of all time and one of the most interesting character studies of obsession: the obsession of a man searching for his missing lover, and a killer’s obsession with stalking young women.
Written in a nonlinear fashion, the egg-shaped overlapping narrative tells the same story from two points of view: the perpetrators and the victim’s. If it seems complex, it is, but the facts are laid out in a straightforward manner since we know so much so early in the film. The mystery isn’t who the kidnapper is, but why he took the girl, and more importantly, where she is now. Every key sequence and every beat foreshadow the shocking dénouement, which is possibly the greatest ending to any movie ever.
By the time Rex (Gene Bervoets) meets Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), he has already sacrificed everything he has in his search for Saskia (Johanna Ter Steege), his girlfriend. He’s physically and mentally exhausted and has nothing left to lose. Raymond refuses to tell Rex what exactly transpired the day Saskia disappeared and instead he gives him an ultimatum: Raymond will show Rex what happened to her if he takes a sleeping pill, or he will leave and Rex will never know the truth. Rex must decide between self-preservation or satisfying his obsession, and in the end, he puts his curiosity ahead of his safety. The final scene is outright terrifying for showing us the face of evil without having to underline it stylistically. The scene fades to black and fades back in on Rex waking up to discover he is being buried alive. As Raymond piles the dirt over his body, Rex screams in terror. In the end, Rex never makes it out, because, well, Saskia never made it out. The Vanishing‘s final scene is simple but effective enough to leave viewers gasping for a breath of fresh air when over. (Ricky D)
The Wicker Man (1973) – Sgt. Howie learns the truth
When a young girl disappears on the Scottish island of Summerisle, Sgt. Howie is sent to investigate. A deeply devout Christian, Howie is instantly out of his element on Summerisle, whose inhabitants seem stuck in a time of Celtic and Druidic ritual. Each turn in his investigation reveals some new offense to his religious sensibilities, some new excuse to wrap his protective cloak of piety tighter around him. He is such a righteous figure, solving such a heinous crime in such an unholy land, that he never imagines the sucker-punch of an ending. With utter horror, Howie learns too late that there never really was a missing girl: the people of Summerisle needed to sacrifice a virgin, and he fit the bill. He is led to a hilltop where a giant human effigy crafted of wicker looms over the landscape like a sentinel. After placing Howie inside, the crowd sets it ablaze. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer’s true genius is in tricking the audience with the same misdirection to which Howie falls prey. We’re so used to the trappings of good vs. evil, so prepared for the pious detective to solve the case among all these pagans, that we never see it coming either. As Howie shrieks his final, futile plea to the heavens, the movie reveals that it’s not a detective mystery so much as a shrewd commentary on religious fervor of all stripes. (Robert M Grunwald)