The 11 Wildest Horror Movie Plot Twists
By Paul Schrodt
Broadly speaking, you know what you’re getting at the end of a horror movie. If you’re not scared and/or surprised by the time the credits roll, you’re probably pissed—and should be. Halloween's Michael Myers starts off horrible, and only gets worse. But, at least in terms of plot, the cleverest scary movies upend our definition of "scary" altogether. It’s only after they’ve turned our brains over that we can understand how every piece of the film horrifyingly, weirdly, and deliciously fits together.
Below, bask in some of the wildest horror movie twists—the kind that will make you yearn for the most mediocre reality. (Hopefully it goes without saying, but spoilers ahead.)
1. Buried (2010)
Yes, Deadpool, a.k.a. Ryan Reynolds, was in an English-language Spanish psychological thriller at the turn of the 2010s. And yes, it’s the best thing he has ever done. Riffing slightly on 1988’s The Vanishing then zagging to its own creepy conclusion, the movie keeps us claustrophobic alongside Reynolds in a coffin as he phones for help and finally seems to receive it, only to find that in a turn of fate, no one is coming to save him.
2. Deep Red (1975)
We expect a murder mystery to flip the script when unveiling its killer. But it’s much rarer to find a film that causes the viewer to question their own perception of what they’ve seen—and by extension, the world around them. No movie does that as well as Deep Red, Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist in Rome (David Hemmings) discovers a woman has been murdered in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. A whodunit brimming with style, its ace in the hole is its final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning to make yourself feel like a fool, too.
3. Dumplings (2004)
Many movies—way too many—have explored the idea of eternal youth. But the boundary-averse Hong Kong horror movie Dumplings delivers this century's most ingeniously monstrous take on the timeless setup. An aging actress (Miriam Yeung) clinging to a more glamorous past seeks out a cook whose dumplings do the trick. She then learns that they’re filled with the flesh of unborn fetuses. As if that weren't more than horrifying enough, the real twist here is the lengths the characters continue to go to for the sake of beauty.
4. Freaks (1932)
Tod Browning’s pre-Code tale of sideshow performers raging against the world that diminishes them so rattled audiences during its time that it promptly ended its director’s career. But what a bang to go out with: While the “gobble, gobble, gobble” scene steals all the shine, the grotesque display really climaxes when we see that the pretty Cleopatra has been turned into a half-bird by the "freaks"—a physical revenge fitting of her inner inhumanity.
5. Martyrs (2008)
Spoiler (not of the plot kind): Do not watch this brutal “New French Extremity” movie unless you’re ready to be intensely disturbed. But if you’re eager for something much more thoughtful and complex than your average torture porn, dig into its winding story of a woman who intrudes on a bourgeois home to understand a tormented past, only to discover secrets that would shake the most resolute Christian. Let’s just say that, according to the movie’s sublimely grim outlook, the afterlife is no salvation.
6. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Some people would argue that David Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece is a mystery rather than a horror movie, but the viewers who peed their pants watching it for the first time would argue differently. While it initially scans as more of a WTF ending, the demonic twist sinks in as you mull over what you just witnessed. Much of the movie is a dream, a reconstituted reality in which Naomi Watts’s antiheroine finds herself mixed up in a caper with Laura Harring’s wayward sexpot. The hard truth hits her (and us) as she wakes up: She was jilted by the more successful actress she fell for, put out a hit on the screen beauty, and kills herself out of guilt. “Silencio.”
7. The Others (2001)
Sure, The Sixth Sense was supremely spooky, but leave it to Nicole Kidman to turn unnerving up to 11. The star delivers a superb performance in the similarly themed ghost movie The Others, an elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar. Kidman plays a mother in a post-WWII European country house protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits who have decided they own the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before killing herself. It’s a devastating capper to a thoroughly haunting story.
8. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock always did love to manipulate his audience. But with his only true foray into horror, the Master of Suspense outdid himself. Janet Leigh’s secretary sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. Standard enough. But the tumult begins with the ostensible star’s death in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. It only gets freakier from there, landing on a last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy/Oedipally inclined Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.
9. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
The crude cult favorite Sleepaway Camp is notorious for all kinds of appropriate reasons: cable access-worthy stilted acting and dialogue; so-bad-they-went-back-to-great-again special effects; and '80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what the hell writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. Turns out in the animalistic final shot, she is the killer, and she also has male genitalia, because kooky aunt always wanted a daughter.
10. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The twist ending to kill all '90s twist endings set up very unfair expectations for the rest of M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Immediately compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience, he hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since—but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it becomes clear that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) is himself dead, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.
11. The Vanishing (1988)
The Vanishing, a slow-burning, intellectual Dutch thriller that became justifiably infamous upon arrival, starts with the premise that the worst fate possible for its protagonist is not knowing what happened to his girlfriend, who went missing at a roadside rest stop. But what makes the movie so chilling is how much more nightmarish his quest for answers becomes when it’s revealed: trapped underground in a box, just like the woman he loved.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.