Everyone loves a good twist once in a while. Whether it was Charlton Heston screaming ‘You maniacs! You blew it up’ at the end of Planet of the Apes or Keyser Soze walking out from under the noses of law enforcement in The Usual Suspects, a great twist ending can sometimes turn a good film into a great one.
The horror genre has had its share of great final reveals. If you’re a certain age, you probably remember when and where you first saw The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut is arguably the pinnacle of jaw-dropping endings in horror films. It was such an inspired ending that not only did other horror film directors try to imitate it, Shyamalan himself spent the next several years trying to replicate it. Today in The Chopping Block, in celebration of The Sixth Sense’s anniversary, I take a look at some of best twist endings in horror films.
April Fool’s Day
April Fool’s Day was released a few years after the ‘Golden Age’ of the slasher film had begun to fade. It may have missed the peak of the 80’s slasher craze but, in many ways, April Fool’s Day was ahead of its time. Not quite as hip as Wes Craven’s Scream, the Fred Walton-directed chiller possessed the same self-awareness that made Craven’s film such a success.
On the surface, not much about April Fool’s Day seems to distinguish it from any other 80’s slasher film. Wealthy Muffy invites several college friends to her family’ island house. When a prank at the ferry terminal ends with tragic results, Muffy and her guests find themselves stranded on the island for the weekend with a killer stalking them. But the film’s twist serves to instantly separate April Fool’s Day from the rest of the pack. It’s the best kind of twist ending because it elevates what otherwise could have been just another generic horror entry.
The twist – no one is actually killed. The murders are all part of an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke organized by Muffy.
Carnival of Souls
Before The Sixth Sense and The Others, director Herk Harvey released his one and only feature film, Carnival of Souls. An ultra-low budget black-and-white chiller from 1962, Carnival of Souls follows Mary Henry, a church organist, who survives an accident when her friend’s car plunges in a river. With no memory of how she got out of the car, Mary moves to a new town but is haunted by visions of a ghoulish man (listed in the credits as ‘The Man’).
Carnival of Souls is surrealist classic and may very well be the best cinematic representation of how a nightmare actually feels. If you’re a fan of David Lynch and George A. Romero, you’ll see hints of their styles in Harvey’s sole directorial effort. The black-and-white visuals and organ score lend a haunting atmosphere to the film.
As for its twist ending, Harvey beat Shyalaman to the punch almost 40 years. At the film’s conclusion, Mary is chased onto a beach by The Man and several other ghouls. The next morning, her doctor and the police find only her footprints leading out to the beach where they simply stop with no body. Harvey then cuts back to the film’s opening scene where we see the car being pulled out from the river and Mary’s lifeless body along with her friends. Mary was dead all along. Carnival of Souls is a triumph of low-budget filmmaking and one of my personal favourite movies.
Identity is probably a ‘love it or hate it’ effort, but this James Mangold-directed neo-noir horror thriller is firmly in my ‘love it’ camp. Loosely following the structure of the classic Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None, Identity follows two seemingly unrelated stories. Malcolm Rivers, played by the creepy Pruitt Taylor Vince, is a convicted mass murderer subject to a last-minute hearing to determine if he is legally insane. In the second story, ten strangers find themselves trapped at a remote Nevada hotel during a rainstorm. Each of the strangers seems to harbour a secret and one of them is a killer methodically picking off the others one by one.
John Cusack heads an impressive cast of instantly recognizable talent in a solidly paced thriller. While the twist will probably feel heavy-handed and predictable today, I was engrossed enough in the movie when first watching it to be blown away by its big reveal. As it turns out, all of the events at the hotel are in Malcolm Rivers’ head. Rivers suffers from dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) and the ten strangers are mental constructs of each of his personalities. Their deaths represent Rivers combatting his own illness and eliminating each rogue personality from his psyche. Identity may play its twist on the heavy-handed side but its final reveal, which I won’t reveal here, is a gut punch.
For the majority of its run-time, Sleepaway Camp is a pretty run-of-the-mill 80’s slasher film, albeit a little more cruel than some of its cohort. When she was a little girl, Angela survived a horrible boating accident that killed her father and brother, Peter. Now a teenager, Angela is shipped off to a summer camp with her cousin, Ricky, where campers begin mysteriously dying. Like most of the lower-budget, non-franchise slashers from the era, Sleepaway Camp has its idiosyncratic quirks. Quirks aside, nothing could have prepared audiences for the movie’s final shocker.
Shy camper Angela is the killer – but that’s NOT the big twist. When counselors arrive at the lake, they find Angela sitting with the severed head of her crush, Paul, in her lap. But when Angela stands up and turns around, naked and covered in blood, they discover that Angela is a boy. Flashbacks reveal that it was Angela who died in the boating accident and her aunt decided to raise Peter as a girl. It’s a disturbingly shocking moment that fades as ‘Angela’ makes a guttural animal sound. The implications of the twist are pretty problematic for a variety of reasons, but setting that aside, the twist works so well because you never see it coming.
The Sixth Sense
Did you really think any other film would make the top of this list? M. Night Shyalaman (The Visit, Unbreakable) hit the big time with his debut feature length film. When it was released in the summer of 1999, The Sixth Sense was the very definition of a ‘word-of-mouth’ box office hit. People couldn’t stop talking about that ‘twist ending.’ It was November of that year before I finally saw it in theatres in a second-run cinema, but the damn thing was still playing on the big screen.
Even if you ignore the twist ending, The Sixth Sense is an incredibly well made horror film in just above every regard. It’s a scary, well-acted, and emotionally engaging film wrapped in masterful atmosphere. Shyalaman’s final twist simply takes a great movie and turns it into a timeless classic. Most importantly, the twist works – it’s not just a gimmick. The twist is an an absolutely integral part of the story and that’s why The Sixth Sense belongs at the top of this list.