April Fools’ Day is upon us — time to be on high alert against mischievous high jinks. And no better place to indulge in some fun April Fooling than at the movie theater, with its proud tradition of twist endings — those final-reel gotchas and neck-snappers. The best films always feel a bit like magic tricks, making us drop our guard as the narrative rug gets pulled out from under us. So here are the 12 greatest movies with twists we never saw coming. (Just so there are no surprises, consider yourself warned: There are spoilers ahead.)
“What’s in the box?! What’s in the box?!” David Fincher, who gave us The Game and Fight Club, is no stranger to messing with audiences’ heads with a fiendish twist ending. But even before those two jack-in-the-box finales, he’d already honed his trickster’s chops with Se7en. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt play a pair of police detectives on the trail of a serial killer whose grisly M.O. follows the seven deadly sins. But the psycho saves for last the two best sins — wrath and envy. The sadistic psycho nicknamed John Doe (Kevin Spacey, not listed in the film’s opening credits because Fincher wanted his big reveal to be a surprise) turns himself in and leads Pitt and Freeman out to the desert, where his last victim awaits. Doe gives Pitt’s Detective Mills a box with the head of his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) in it. Why her? Envy. Why does Pitt then blow him away? Wrath. The list is finally complete … and our nightmares are just about to begin.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
This is the movie that made the name M. Night Shyamalan synonymous with the whiplash twist ending — so much so that as his career went on, it felt like he had painted himself into a creative corner. But back when this psychological thriller first hit theaters, audiences gasped at how perfectly the director had engineered his trap. Ten-year-old Haley Joel Osment plays a troubled little kid who claims he can see dead people. Bruce Willis is the celebrated child psychologist hired to help the tyke work through his issues. Like the best ghost stories, The Sixth Sense slowly ratchets up the tension until it cries to be released. And when it finally is, it’s with a revelation that absolutely no one could see coming at the time: Willis’ character has been dead himself all along. Shyamalan assembles the tricky plot’s jigsaw pieces so seamlessly that the film manages to be even more impressive when you go back to watch it a second time.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Yes, the recent Planet of the Apes movies are surprisingly good. But if you’re looking for an iconic sting-in-the-tail ending, nothing beats the original. Charlton Heston plays the only surviving astronaut on a crew that crash lands on a planet populated by an advanced civilization of talking apes. We’re led to believe that Heston’s lowly human prisoner is shipwrecked far from Earth 2000 light-years in the future. But the film’s ultimate gotcha — the sight of the Statue of Liberty in ruins — is proof that not only has he been on Earth all along, but that humanity did itself in. Perhaps not surprisingly the social-commentary script was written by The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling.
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Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s creepy social satire may seem like another horror film on the surface, but it ends up having a lot on its mind about race. Daniel Kaluuya gives a breakout performance as a young Black man who goes to meet his white girlfriend’s parents deep in the heart of rich lily-white suburbia. At first, we start to think that Kaluuya’s Chris is paranoid about race and that his lover (Allison Williams) and her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are enlightened, color-blind liberals. But bit by bit, we discover that his paranoia wasn’t only justified, if anything he wasn’t nearly paranoid enough!
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The Usual Suspects (1995)
“Who is Keyser Söze?” That was the big, mysterious marketing come-on during the summer of 1995. By the time that Bryan Singer’s labyrinthine neo-noir arrived at the answer, jaws had to be pried off movie theater floors everywhere. A group of low-level crooks (Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollak, Benicio del Toro, Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Spacey) stick up a ship for its cargo (or do they?) and Spacey’s weaselly wiseguy makes it out alive to tell the cops what really happened. But, of course, his tale is pure hooey — a giddy, delirious fake-out that Singer snaps on the audience like a bear trap.
House of Games (1987)
David Mamet’s directorial debut is all about gamblers and con men, so going in you know you’re going to keep a close eye on which shell the pea is under. But good luck, even so. Lindsay Crouse stars as a best-selling psychiatrist who gets suckered by one of her patients into exploring the underworld of flimflam men. A sharpie played by Joe Mantegna is her guide. But what she doesn’t suspect is that he’s playing her. And what he doesn’t suspect is that she’s playing him playing her. It’s hard to explain, but trust me, Mamet unspools it all perfectly. It’s one of those Russian nesting doll plots that doesn’t let up until the final scene. And by the time the end credits roll, you’ll feel like you’ve been had … and you won’t mind a bit.
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Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic actually has two brilliant twists. One comes less than halfway through (the infamous shower scene in which the star of the film, Janet Leigh, is killed off just as the story seems to be hitting its stride); the other comes at the end. That one involves a dank basement, a swinging light bulb, and a twitchy, nervous mama’s boy named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) dressed in his dead mother’s wig and clothes. Psycho wasn’t the first twist ending ever, but it certainly was the most twisted twist ending. Hitchcock considered his masterpiece’s surprises so sacrosanct that he warned that no one would be admitted into the theater after the film began.
Primal Fear (1996)
How great is the final surprise of this lurid legal thriller? So great that it’s basically responsible for the career of Edward Norton. In the actor’s big-screen debut, he plays a troubled young man who is accused of murdering Chicago’s archbishop. It seems like a no-hope case. That is, until Richard Gere’s hotshot Windy City attorney comes along to defend the kid who suffers from a split personality. Norton’s then-anonymity helps sell the movie’s suspenseful, joy-buzzer ending because he’s such a blank slate to audiences. But after pulling off a ruse this good, Norton didn’t just become an overnight star, he got an Oscar nomination for his performance, too.
No Way Out (1987)
It’s always thrilling to see an actor turn into a movie star before your eyes, and that’s part of the fun of this twisty espionage thriller starring a young Kevin Costner. The rest of the fun is supplied by No Way Out‘s keep-you-guessing plot that saves its sucker-punch revelation for the final scene. A late Cold War–era update of 1947’s The Big Clock, this hugely enjoyable film features Costner as a soldier having an affair with the mistress (Sean Young) of the secretary of defense (a deliciously sinister Gene Hackman). When she winds up murdered, the race is on for Costner to find her killer and clear his own name. But even the biggest mystery fans won’t see No Way Out‘s whammo conclusion coming.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars fans had to wait three long years for the franchise’s first sequel and when it arrived in theaters it came with one of the most dramatic dark-truth revelations in movie history. As our hero Luke Skywalker does swashbuckling light-saber battle with the galaxy’s most evil villain, Darth Vader reveals the horrible reality that he is, in fact … dun-dun-dun … Luke’s father. Next to that nasty piece of business, it was almost anticlimactic when Luke discovered that Princess Leia was his sister. George Lucas, of course, had plotted this all out years in advance, but at the time, no one saw it coming.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles’ masterpiece is so narratively brilliant and technically audacious that it almost doesn’t matter what the film’s inciting red herring — the titular tycoon’s whispered dying word, “Rosebud” — really means. Still, this was Hollywood’s original Easter egg, the answer to a riddle no one could have possibly guessed on their own, but that still packs a satisfying punch nonetheless. After 80 years, it seems safe to assume that the statute of limitations is up on spoilers. (For those who didn’t make it to the end of the film — yet — Rosebud was Kane’s childhood sled, a memento of his lost youth.)
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Those are the last words in Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece starring Jack Nicholson as a hard-boiled L.A. private eye who gets ensnared in a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of political power and SoCal high society. Faye Dunaway is the damaged femme fatale who draws him down a dark alley that leads to destruction — and uncorks the film’s biggest WTF moment: “She’s my sister … she’s my daughter!” Incest, murder, corruption, in the end nothing matters and yet everything does. And as Nicholson walks away with the tragic, hard-won truth, we’re left punch-drunk and reeling.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.