Throughout cinematic history, certain movies have made audiences file out of the theater in complete silence, mentally reviewing the feature they’ve just seen for any clue, any indication, that they could have seen that bombshell coming. Their directors, meanwhile, must surely have smiled in satisfaction as a result, knowing the shocks they’d pulled off successfully astonished even the most astute of film buffs. The twists contained in the 10 films we now present are arguably the best and most unexpected in the history of the silver screen. They were executed with the most extreme attention to detail, so as not to give away any clues to theatergoers – complete with secret scripts and director lies. The revelations of these mind-bending flicks came flying right out of left field.
10. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Frank Darabont’s 1994 adaptation of a Stephen King novella may have laid low at the box office, but Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne undoubtedly kept his plan to escape from Shawshank State Prison quieter. The movie, narrated by Dufresne’s prison mate and friend Red (Morgan Freeman), shows us Dufresne’s incarceration and how he becomes acclimatized to prison life. He asks for very little – a small rock hammer and “Rita Hayworth” – yet gives a lot, transforming the prison’s library and dealing with the warden’s taxes, and all while maintaining his own innocence. However, after Dufresne unearths potential new evidence that he didn’t commit the crime for which he has been put behind bars, the warden is angered and punishes him with two months in solitary confinement.
After his time in “the hole,” Dufresne asks Red for a rope, which his prison mates (and the audience alike) assume is for him to use to commit suicide. A different scene greets us, though, when the light shines through his prison cell the next morning: Dufresne’s disappearance, and the discovery of the quiet, humble man’s escape. The audience watches in amazement as they learn how Dufresne used his time between stacks of books to execute a painstaking escape plan and then how he exposes the prison’s corruption.
Though The Shawshank Redemption underwhelmed financially upon its release – it earned just over $700,000 in its opening weekend – the film’s incredible popularity as a rental title has seen it gross over $28 million domestically, as of 2012, and $58.5 million worldwide.
9. Primal Fear (1996)
In 1996’s Primal Fear, Edward Norton, in his first movie role, plays Aaron Stampler, a seemingly innocent, stuttering altar boy accused of murdering an archbishop. Richard Gere is Martin Vail, a high profile, skeptical criminal defense lawyer who takes on Stampler’s case pro bono. The audience is led to believe that new evidence found concerning Stampler suggests he may have had a motive for the murder. However, the real twist arrives not when Roy, the altar boy’s alter ego, emerges for the first time, but rather when, after he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, it’s revealed that Roy has fabricated the personality of Aaron all along.
Norton, a virtually unknown actor at the time, took liberties when developing the character of Roy, creating a stutter that did not exist in the script or the original novel, written by William Diehl. Director Gregory Hoblit considered an alternate ending – one with Stampler being retried and justice done – but it was decided instead that Stampler would divulge that he has bamboozled Vail (and audiences) throughout the entire trial.
8. Psycho (1960)
What’s black and white and red all over? Marion Crane’s murder in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 movie Psycho – providing the viewer has a good imagination. Although this scene may be one of the film’s most famous, it was the heavily guarded secret in the basement that supplied the shocking twist for audiences. When Marion goes missing, her boyfriend Sam and sister Lila turn up at the Bates Motel looking for clues and trying to discover the mysterious whereabouts of proprietor Norman Bates’ mother. Lila goes in search of Mrs. Bates, finding a seated figure resembling an old woman with her back turned. It is when Lila reaches to touch the woman that she sees Mrs. Bates’ decayed corpse, and her screams draw Norman to the basement, clad in women’s clothing and a wig and wielding a knife – revealing him to be the killer. From the last few lines of the film, the audience also learns that the persona of Mrs. Bates has seized Norman completely.
Hitchcock went to great lengths to protect the ending of the film. After purchasing the rights to the novel on which the movie is based from author Robert Bloch, the director bought all the copies of the book he could find in order to retain the ending’s surprise. Additionally, Hitchcock swore the cast and crew to secrecy on the first day of filming, and he even kept the last part of the script secret until he absolutely needed to reveal it. Hitchcock’s efforts proved successful, and Psycho has since gone down as one of the greatest movies of all time.
7. Arlington Road (1999)
When the dust settled on Arlington Road after its release in 1999, it had grossed over $24 million, and an average suburban couple with apparently nothing to hide became one of the unlikely new faces of terrorism. The movie sees college professor and American terrorism expert Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) become increasingly suspicious of his new neighbors Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). However, every accusation he throws in their direction is received with disbelief by both his girlfriend Brooke Wolfe and his widow’s former FBI colleague Whit Carver.
Just as Brooke is coming round to Faraday’s theories, she is killed in a supposed car accident, and after receiving a series of clues, Faraday is in pursuit of his son, who is unknowingly being held hostage by the Langs. They’re one step ahead of Faraday, though, and the clues lead him to unwittingly drive a bomb into a federal building, with the device exploding – killing him and 183 others, including Carver. Faraday is named the terrorist, his son never learns the truth, and the Langs are left to plot their next despicable charade.
An alternate ending was considered in which Faraday’s son learns that his father is innocent, but it was decided not to go down that route owing to time constraints.
6. Se7en (1995)
David Fincher’s 1995 crime thriller showed audiences just how fatal the seven deadly sins can be. As the bodies pile up, two detectives, Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman), begin a manhunt for the serial killer responsible. They track down the sociopathic “John Doe” (played by Kevin Spacey), who volunteers to give the detectives the location of two additional bodies as well as confess to the murders. During the trip to find the bodies, Doe reveals his motive for the slayings, right before it is discovered that he has killed Mills’ wife and unborn child and arranged to have her head delivered in a box to the middle of the desert. Doe uses this to bait Mills into killing him, and Mills obliges, conveniently rounding out the seven deadly sins murder theme with a crime scene symbolizing wrath.
According to Freeman, in the ending originally proposed for the film, it was Somerset and not Mills who pulled the trigger on Doe; but Pitt argued that there was no way his own character would not have shot Doe, and his ending won out despite the concerns of studio executives. Regardless, Fincher’s film has to date grossed over $100 million in the U.S. – and probably left more than a few moviegoers’ stomachs churned in the process.
5. The Others (2001)
If walls could talk, audiences might have learned pretty early on that the family at the heart of 2001’s The Others – folk who experience spooky goings-on in a remote mansion – are in fact themselves ghosts. Writer-director Alejandro Amenábar’s first English-language film, The Others stars Nicole Kidman as Grace, a war widow who, we ultimately learn, smothered her two young children and then shot herself. However, Grace has since blocked out this painful memory and continues to haunt the house in which they once lived.
Speaking of the movie, Amenábar said, “I find it more effecting to use hidden things.” And true to the filmmaker’s words, Amenábar’s characters are blinded by their false reality. The locked doors and closed curtains perhaps serve as a metaphor for the mental block that Grace has with regards to the killings; a block rendering her unable to remember what has happened – and keeping the audience in the dark as to the coming surprise.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The original Planet of the Apes was, of course, the 1968 adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes. This classic movie stars Charlton Heston as Colonel George Taylor, an astronaut whose ship crash-lands on an apparently alien planet after a journey of over 2,000 years. The ship’s crew has aged only 18 months, however, thanks to the relativistic effects of traveling at near-light speed.
Planet of the Apes’ pioneering prosthetic makeup, seen on the apes themselves, may have been by itself something of a surprise to audiences upon its release. Nevertheless, the ultimate shock is undoubtedly the iconic final scene, in which Taylor discovers a half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that the “alien” planet is in fact a post-apocalyptic Earth on which the human race wiped itself out long ago, facilitating the apes’ rise to supremacy.
3. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The line between fact and fiction is balanced with exquisite precision in Bryan Singer’s 1995 classic The Usual Suspects. The interrogation room confession of Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) casts a line to U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), and despite believing that he himself is the big fish, it’s Kujan who’s caught hook, line and sinker. It’s not until the final few minutes of the movie that Kujan and the audience alike realize that Kint is as fictional as the entire story he’s fabricated, with the help of ordinary objects dotted around the interrogation room, and that the apparently lame suspect is in fact the mythical criminal mastermind Keyser Söze.
In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Spacey revealed that Singer had led each of the key actors in the movie to believe that he was Keyser Söze, leading to an argument between Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton in the movie) and Singer when Byrne found out he was not the chosen one. In the end, it was Spacey whose character waltzes out of the police station on bail, his fake limp cast aside as he makes his escape.
2. Saw (2004)
What happens when the one thing assumed to be true for the entire duration of a film is unraveled during the last five minutes? Low-budget horror hit Saw, developed from a short film by Leigh Whannell and James Wan, may provide the answer. The movie, released in October 2004 right before Halloween, had audiences on the edge of their seats as they watched to find out what would become of Adam Stanheight and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Whannell and Cary Elwes, respectively), two men chained up in the dingy underground bathroom of an undisclosed location, fighting to escape and stay alive.
After an intense series of events, Gordon crawls from the bathroom for help, leaving Stanheight alone with two seemingly dead bodies. The scene then takes a drastic turn: Stanheight looks on as one of the bodies that has been on the floor the entire time rises, pulls off a mask to reveal he is actually Jigsaw – the character behind the entire sinister plot – and simply walks out of the room, leaving Stanheight for dead.
“When I read the final scene, it took my breath away,” commented Tobin Bell, who played Jigsaw. Audiences flocked to the theater to catch the movie, which grossed over $18 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. alone. It has since grown into a multimillion-dollar franchise and spawned six sequels.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
When Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) remembers young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) telling him, “They only see what they want to see,” audiences watching 1999’s The Sixth Sense may very well have reeled at the double meaning as they realized it applied to them as well. All along, Crowe has missed small clues – the fact that he never changes his clothes, that his wife pays the check at their anniversary dinner, that he never has a real conversation with anyone other than Sear – which all add up to the shocking revelation that he has in fact been dead the entire time.
M. Night Shyamalan’s astonishing supernatural thriller flick became a hit, earning a $26 million payout in its opening weekend. And the fact that Shyamalan’s inspiration was drawn from the Nickelodeon show Are You Afraid of the Dark? is another twist that you probably never saw coming. The Sixth Sense went on to earn six Oscar nominations, and its “I see dead people” line won a spot as the American Film Institute’s 44th most memorable movie quote.