We’ve all been there. We settle in for a nice relaxing evening with that movie everyone’s been talking about. It seems pleasant enough for the first hour or so, but then the filmmaker does the cinematic equivalent of a table-flip and what is even happening?! Up is down, nothing is as it seems, and it was the butler all along!
Yes, welcome to the twist ending. In the wrong hands, this tool can be cringe-inducing at best and movie-ruining at worst. But when applied by a deft storyteller, shock and surprise can make a bolder point. Expectations are powerful; having them subverted in a skillful way is even more so.
Read on to see our picks for the 30 best twist endings we’ve ever seen. Be warned: there are many, many spoilers ahead.
30. The Sting (1973)
The Set-Up: Robert Redford and Paul Newman play Hooker and Gondorff, a pair of professional con-men looking to fleece Robert Shaw's mob boss for all he's worth. At the climactic face-off, both men end up shot as both are revealed to have betrayed each other.
The Twist: Neither of them are really dead! It was all their clever plan to part the mobster from his loot. Hooray!
How Shocking? Not hugely, to be honest. For a film with more double-crosses than your average Fifa convention, you kind of expect there to be a twist in the tale.
29. The Descent (2005)
The Set-Up: An all-female group of spelunkers find themselves trapped underground when a cave-in blocks their way out. And surprise-surprise, they're not alone down there
The Twist: After various thrills and spills, the last surviving member of the caving party finally finds her way out, bursting into sweet daylight and her salvation. Until she wakes up and realises she's still trapped. Doh!
How Shocking? Its a cruel, cruel twist. Too cruel for the American market, for whom the film finishes before the heroine awakens.
28. Gone Girl (2014)
The Set-Up: This literary adaptation of the popular novel ranks among one of the creepier entries in the relationship-turned-bad subgenre. Ben Affleck plays Nick, whose wife Amy disappears on their fifth anniversary. The ensuing investigation makes it look like the apathetic Nick has killed her.
The Twist: Amy is in fact alive. She staged the whole thing, hatching an intricate plot to frame Nick for her murder after their marriage fell apart.
How Shocking? Gone Girl is definitely shocking. But the true nature of Amy’s disappearance is revealed pretty early in the narrative. The shock comes more from the lengths Amy goes to in framing Nick and then in reuniting with him than from the twist itself.
27. The Machinist (2004)
The Set-Up: Christian Bale plays emaciated factory worker Trevor Reznik, a sufferer of chronic insomnia who finds himself stalked by a strange man named Ivan. When a series of malicious messages begin cropping up in his apartment, Reznik becomes convinced that the man is out to kill him.
The Twist: Ivan is a product of Trevor's subconscious and represents the guilt he feels over a previously undisclosed hit and run incident involving a small boy. It is also revealed that many of the film's supporting players and scenarios have been hallucinations spawned by his troubled conscience.
How Shocking? A question mark has been hovering over Trevor's mental state throughout the story, and with the revelation of the twist, many of the film's more unsettling moments (the nightmarish ghost train ride, for one) suddenly fall into place.
26. The Village (2004)
The Set-Up: The film is set in a small village at the turn of the 20th century. Its inhabitants are terrorised by a group of violent monsters living in the surrounding woods.
The Twist: The film is actually set in the present day. The village was founded by a group of people who'd chosen to opt out of modern life. It is they who continue to play the part of the 'monsters' in order to preserve the myth.
How Shocking? Given that this is an M Night Shyamalan picture, audiences expect a twist to come as standard. However, whilst you can see clues about the big pay-off in some of his other works, this one comes straight out of left field. Divisive it might be (and plenty find it infuriating), but it's an ending that will certainly get you talking!
25. The Vanishing (1988)
The Set-Up: When his girlfriend is kidnapped by a stranger whilst backpacking in France, Dutch traveller Rex becomes obsessed with what happened to his lost love. Some three years later, he comes face-to-face with the man who snatched her from him. Inviting Rex to the same cafe where his girlfriend was abducted, the kidnapper tells him he will discover what happened to her if he drinks a proffered cup of coffee
The Twist: Having drunk the coffee, Rex awakens to find himself buried alive in a coffin somewhere beneath the ground.
How Shocking? Terribly. The only thing worse than being buried alive would be the dying thought that your girlfriend went the same way. Truly horrific.
24. The Wicker Man (1973)
The Set-Up: A policeman heads to a remote Hebridean island in order to investigate the case of a missing girl.
The Twist: The missing child was simply a hoax concocted to lure someone to the island from the mainland. Fearing another poor harvest, the nut-nut locals were looking for as human sacrifice to appease their Sun God.
How Shocking? One might have suspected the islands 'colourful' inhabitants were not all they seemed, but the magnitude of their deception is startling, as is the extent of their apparent madness.
23. Arrival (2016)
The Set-Up: Aliens touch down on earth. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor played by Amy Adams, is leading the effort to communicate with the heptapods and understand what they want. As she works, she has visions of time with her daughter, who died from cancer as a teenager.
The Twist: The movie had been positioning the scenes of Louise and her daughter as flashbacks. But her knowledge of the heptapod language has enabled her to see into the future, and the visions are actually flash-forwards.
How Shocking? It’s unusual for a prestige science fiction movie to be based on a premise as outlandish as seeing the future, so this one took most viewers totally by surprise.
22. Friday The 13th (1980)
The Set-Up: 22 years after young Jason Voorhees died at Camp Crystal Lake, someone is menacing the camp councellors. Given that Jason's body was never recovered, the hapless teens suspect he's returned to take his revenge
The Twist: It isn't Jason doing the killing, it's his dear old mum! That said, Jason's corpse still isn't quite as lifeless as it ought to be.
How Shocking: The initial twist represents a nice bit of misdirection, whilst the second scare guarantees a jump every time.
21. Buried (2010)
The Set-Up: American contractor Paul Conroy awakes to find himself buried alive in a wooden coffin somewhere in Iraq. Managing to access his cellphone, he maintains frequent contact with Dan Brenner, the leader of a hostage rescue group. Brenner reassures him that such cases are often resolved, citing the example of one Mark White, a man he had previously rescued.
The Twist: Conroy receives a call from Brenner telling him the rescue team have managed to pinpoint his location and are on their way. Sadly, it turns out they've been led to the coffin of Mark White, the man Brenner had claimed was already rescued.
How Shocking? The revelation that Brenner was lying is an extremely powerful way to ram home the bigger twist at play here, namely that our hero is going to die after all. Bummer.
20. American Psycho (2000)
The Set-Up: Manhattan trader Pat Bateman spends his days doling out fashion tips, eating in the city's finest restaurants and occasionally hacking people to pieces with his trusty axe. He's an American psycho, you see.
The Twist: Having confessed to his murders, Bateman realises that many of his supposed victims are still alive and kicking, the suggestion being that his crimes have only played out in his head.
How Shocking? It's more bewildering than shocking, as Bateman's madness is revealed to be even more pervasive than we'd first thought.
19. The Orphanage (2007)
The Set-Up: A couple moves into a former orphanage, only for their young child to go missing soon after. When the mother spies a ghostly boy with a bag over his head, she suspects something spooky has been going on.
The Twist: The ghost-boy is actually the spirit of her son, who she had accidentally trapped in the cellar. The noises she had heard in the house were the sounds of him struggling to free himself.
How Shocking? It's quite a convoluted payoff, with a hearty amount of hallucination involved. Yet somehow it manages to be simultaneously horrifying and uplifting. No mean feat.
18. Oldboy (2003)
The Set-Up: After being kidnapped and held in captivity for 15 years, Oh Dae-Su is out for answers when he's unexpectedly released. As he sets about planning his revenge, he meets and falls in love with a young girl named Mi-Do.
The Twist: Mi-Do is Oh Dae Sus daughter. The kidnapper engineered their meeting and courtship as part of a fiendish and diabolical plan. What a bastard!
How Shocking? Shocking. Sickening. Harrowing. Take your pick. One thing's for sure though: we definitely weren't expecting that!
17. Memento (2000)
The Set-Up: Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man incapable of making new memories. As he hunts for the villains who made him this way and killed his wife, he sets about tattooing himself with clues to help him remember the case.
The Twist: Leonard's wife actually survived the attack. Leonard was the one who killed his diabetic partner by bungling her insulin injections. Rather than face up to his guilt, Leonard has chosen to exploit his condition to restore meaning and purpose to his life.
How Shocking? Extremely, particularly since the audience has spent the film rooting for Leonard on his quest for justice. Whilst his story remains undeniably tragic, the final revelations force us to view him in a very different light.
16. The Secret In Their Eyes (2009)
The Set-Up: Agent Esposito is assigned to a brutal case of rape and murder involving the wife of a man named Morales. The killer is convicted, but ends up freed by a crooked politician and given a job in a special government agency. Years later, Esposito tracks down Morales, intrigued by how he coped with this affront to his wife's memory. Eventually, the man admits to murdering the killer himself.
The Twist: Having left Morales' isolated, rural home, Esposito is struck by something about the man's manner, and stealthily returns to the property. He learns that the killer is not dead, but lives as Morales' prisoner in a rudimentary cell.
How Shocking? Its a thoroughly nightmarish denouement, even though we know what an animal the killer is. When he tells Esposito that Morales won't even acknowledge him, you almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
15. The Others (2001)
The Set-Up: Grace and her two nippers seem to be sharing their country home with some uninvited guests from the spirit world. Things go bump in the night quite a lot 'round this dwelling.
The Twist: Grace is dead, as are her children. Not only are all three of them ghosts, but Grace is the one responsible. Driven mad with loneliness, she killed the kids and then herself!
How Shocking? Very, with the old family photographs providing a supremely effective reveal.
14. Primal Fear (1996)
The Set-Up: In the dock for a grisly murder, Ed Norton's altar boy pleads diminished responsibility on account of his split personality, a condition that causes him to veer between stammering innocent and twisted killer.
The Twist: Once lawyer Richard Gere has got him off the hook, Norton reveals that the innocent side of his personality was mere performance. He's a killer to the core.
How Shocking? Very, given that the audience has spent the majority of the film rooting for him. Norton's disconcerting performance, coupled with Gere's crumpled disillusionment ensures this final revelation is loaded with emotional weight.
13. Les Diaboliques (1955)
The Set-Up: A headmaster's wife teams up with his mistress to bump off their hated lover. However, their plan hits a snag when his corpse goes missing and sightings are recorded of him walking around, alive and well.
The Twist: The missing body reappears in the family bathtub, rising up to menace the terrified wife. She promptly keels over with a heart attack, just as the headmaster and his mistress had planned. They were in on it all along.
How Shocking? Extremely! You might have suspected the husband wasn't really dead, but the mistress plays her hand very close to the chest.
12. Chinatown (1974)
The Set-Up: Hired as a private investigator to pry into the business of a big wheel in the L.A. power and water industry, Jake Gittes becomes embroiled in the convoluted affairs of femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray.
The Twist: When pushed on her relationship with her husband's mistress Katherine, Evelyn reveals that the girl is both her sister and her daughter, the result of a childhood liaison with her father, Noah Cross.
How Shocking? The multitude of revelations are both dizzying and disturbing. At the film's close, you can't help agreeing that Gittes is best off out of it. "Forget it Jake" and all that.
11. The Mist (2007)
The Set-Up: Tom Jane and friends finally lose all hope of salvation as their little car finally runs out of gas with a host of otherworldly beasties still milling around outside. Reaching for his gun, Jane sadly dispatches his fellow survivors, saving the last bullet for his young son.
The Twist: Two minutes later the army turns up. If only he'd been a little more patient...
How Shocking? It's an ending that never fails to leave us utterly shell-shocked. The cinematic equivalent of a punch in the gut.
10. Citizen Kane (1941)
The Set-Up: A Newsreel reporter tries to get to the bottom of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane's dying word, Rosebud.
The Twist: Rather than referring to a lost love or a valuable artifact, Rosebud is revealed to be the name of Kane's childhood sled. In dying, Kane was pining for his lost youth, the one time in his life when he was truly happy.
How Shocking? It's moving rather than shocking, a subtle twist that casts a pall of melancholy over the life of a man who seemingly had it all.
9. Planet Of The Apes (1968)
The Set-Up: Having crash-landed on a foreign planet, Charlton Heston's gruff astronaut discovers a strange society in which a group of apes has evolved into humanoid creatures with the power of speech.
The Twist: This strange planet is none other than Earth itself, turned into a post-apocalyptic nightmare by the greed and foolishness of mankind. The half-submerged Statue of Liberty in the last shot is what tips him off.
How Shocking? That final pull-back and reveal has become so iconic that you'll see Lady Liberty on the cover of the DVD. Which kind of gives the game away somewhat...
8. Soylent Green (1973)
The Set-Up: Far away in a distant, dystopian future, the all-powerful Soylent Corporation feeds the resource-stretching populace with tasty wafers known as Soylent Green. Meddling copper Charlton Heston is suspicious of where these wafers are coming from, leading him to question just what's going into his diet...
The Twist: The now-famous line says it all: Soylent Green is people!
How Shocking? This one isn't so much shocking as it is stomach-turning. Not advised for after-dinner viewing.
7. Fight Club (1999)
The Set-Up: As Project Mayhem begins to spiral out of control, Ed Norton's narrator sets about attempting to shut down the movement, following Tyler Durden's paper trail from city to city.
The Twist: Wherever the narrator goes, he's greeted as Tyler by the members of the project. Soon enough, Tyler turns up to spell things out: he and the narrator are two sides of one split personality.
How Shocking? The clues are there throughout, but this was a real stunner when we first saw it back in the day.
6. Saw (2004)
The Set-Up: A doctor and a photographer awake to find themselves trapped in a dingy bathroom, with only a corpse, a saw and some instructions for company. Told that one must kill the other in order to survive, the pair realise a grisly task lies ahead.
The Twist: When one of the men finally makes his escape (having sawn off his foot to do so), the other is left with the corpse as he waits for help to be sent. Suddenly, the corpse rises to its feet, revealing itself to be none other than the Jigsaw killer himself. Game over, he snarls as he locks the door behind him.
How Shocking? Hugely. Its an ingenious bit of misdirection that has been at play since the opening scene. Very clever stuff.
5. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Set-Up: Bright-eyed boy wonder Luke Skywalker comes face to face with Darth Vader at Cloud City, engaging the Sith lord in a fearsome lightsaber battle that costs him his hand.
The Twist: Darth Vader, embodiment of all that is evil, reveals himself to be Luke's old man. Luke does not take the news well.
How Shocking? It's a twist that wouldn't be out of place in a soap opera, but the paternal truth feels more profound when paired with the whole good-vs-evil debate.
4. Psycho (1960)
The Set-Up: Mad old Mrs. Bates has been preying on the guests of the Bates Motel, sneaking up on them during their most intimate moments before hacking them to pieces. As plucky Lila Crane goes prowling around the old Bates house, she spies Mrs. Bates sitting in the cellar and prepares to confront her.
The Twist: Mrs. Bates is nothing more than a mummified corpse. Norman on the other hand, is alive and well. Er, he's alive at least.
How Shocking? It's quite a surprise, although the protracted psychoanalysis from Simon Oakland's hammy shrink dilutes the effect somewhat.
3. Se7en (1995)
The Set-Up: Having worked his way through five of the seven deadly sins, serial killer John Doe inexplicably turns himself in to detectives Mills and Somerset, promising to show them where the last two bodies are hidden. As the trio reach the wasteland Doe has led them to, a delivery van arrives to bring them a package.
The Twist: The package contains the severed head of Detective Mills' wife. Consumed by jealousy of the investigator's happy home life, Doe has become envy. Mills then becomes rage, shooting Doe in the head. And so the madman's masterwork is finally complete.
How Shocking? Extremely, although you kind of know that something is amiss when the killer turns himself in so willingly. Poor Gwyneth!
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Set-Up: Young Haley Joel Osment suffers from an unusual condition. That's right, he sees dead people. Fortunately, Bruce Willis' friendly psychologist is on hand to help him through it. Not that things are all roses for Bruce, whose relationship with his wife has got so bad that she barely seems to acknowledge his presence.
The Twist: Bruce was dead all along, which is why only Haley Joel could see him. Ta-daaaa!
How Shocking? In retrospect, you'd kick yourself for not working this one out. M Night Shyamalan sprinkles the film with clues aplenty (the marital dinner scene seems shamelessly blatant on second watch), and yet we have to admit to being totally hoodwinked first time around. Bravo, sir.
1. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Set-Up: When a botched heist leaves a boat full of corpses at the door of inspector Dave Kujan, he ropes in limping con-man Verbal Kint for a protracted haul across the coals. As he leans on the hapless Kint, he learns the legend of a monstrous crime lord known as Keyser Soze.
The Twist: Convinced he has wrung the source dry, Kujan sends Kint on his merry way before realising he's just been fed a pack of lies. Meanwhile, out on the street, Kint (aka Keyser Soze) shakes off his limp and rides off into the sunset. And like that, he's gone.
How Shocking? It's the greatest twist ending in history, so no, we didn't see it coming. Absolute genius.