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Top 10 Thriller Plot Twists

shirtless, smoking brad pitt with other fighters standing around

Warning Iconic Thrillers Ahead

Imagine watching an intense movie, enjoying it wholeheartedly, and then getting to the credits only to want more. Some films have a solution for that. The plot twist comes usually at the end of the film and deeply changes the way people think about a film. In some cases, rewatching the same movie creates a new viewing experience after the reveal. Directors will hide incredible details related to the twist that only make sense to audiences after the twist occurs, thus making the film entirely new upon a second or even a third viewing.

Ten films, in particular, stand out for their masterful use of the twist. Be warned, once a twist has been read, it cannot be unread. The movies included on this list in no particular order include The Usual Suspects, Psycho, The Prestige, Saw, Seven, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Primal Fear, Scream, and Arrival. It is recommended to go and watch the films before reading on, as there will be spoilers.  

10. Scream: Two for the Price of One

ScreamSetting the stage for slasher horror for years to come, the original Scream challenged the horror genre with a twist on the killer reveal. The first new idea came through the accusation of the real killer within the film’s first half hour. As teenager Sidney Prescott is cornered over and again by the horrifying Ghostface, she suspects her boyfriend, Billy Loomis, of donning the costume and committing murder. He is quickly sent to jail, but then she continues to be bothered by the murderer. The film directs suspicion away from Billy as a ploy to deepen the shock value. The key strategy was to have two killers, Billy and his best friend Stu Macher, because then no one could reasonably suspect Billy despite his guilt. This movie establishes the one body, two puppeteers rule, wherein two people are committing a crime behind one figurehead, which impacted the horror genre greatly and, for that reason, deserves the tenth spot on this list.

9. Seven: What’s In the Booooooox?

SevenInspired by the Bible’s seven deadly sins, a killer specifically designs his murders around the legend while getting past two desperate detectives. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), close to retirement and on his last series of jobs, partners with David Mills (Brad Pitt), a rookie looking for his first big case. As the film plays out, Mills’ wife reveals her worries to Somerset about the shady area and crime rates. Meanwhile, in a shocking first turn of events, the John Doe killer turns himself in and threatens to plead insanity in court unless the two detectives take him into the middle of the desert, all the while two of the seven sins, wrath, and envy, have yet to be revealed. As a package is dropped off, Somerset checks inside, leading to the iconic line “What’s in the box?” from Mills. Therein lies the twist as Doe reveals that Mill’s wife’s head is in the box, and as a reaction, Mills shoots Doe dead and is promptly arrested by his partner. The final victims… John Doe is “envy” for Mills and his wife, and Mills is “wrath” as he shoots Doe in raw anger. This twist creates a limited rewatchability due to the impact the first time around but still has some major shock value and iconicity, placing it at number nine.

8. Primal Fear: Acting Scared

Primal FearMoving into the courtroom, Primal Fear follows another killer with a deep and painful secret. Displaying Dissociative Identity Disorder, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is on trial with defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere), attempting to prove that Aaron’s second identity, known as Roy, committed the murder of a Catholic archbishop. In Norton’s breakout performance, he earned himself a Golden Globe win for the performance that defines this plot twist. At the end of the film, the decision lies in favor of Aaron, and Vail visits him in his cell. An important note is that Aaron claims to black out whenever Roy takes over and retains no memory of the events. In the cell, Aaron asks Vail to apologize in his stead to one of the prosecutors that Roy attacked. They reveal Vail being played by his own client as he denotes that there was never actually a Roy, to which his client promptly responds, “There never was an Aaron.” The twist itself has merit but generally does not hit deviously hard, so why as high as eighth? Simply put, Norton’s performance in the reveal has a deeply menacing tone that shakes audiences to their core, as his whole character shifts from meager and shaken to horrifying in one of the greatest twist portrayals out there.

7. Psycho: The Original Twist

Black and white, screaming woman in shower with old woman raising knife to kill her. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock defined the twist as well as the subtle horror genre with Psycho. A precursor to the slasher genre itself, Norman Bates acts as the template for killers based in reality even today. Many audiences no longer get tricked by the twist that Bates is the killer due to the pure cultural iconicity the film holds, but at the time, Norman was made to seem sympathetic and even wholesome to audiences. Instead, his mother is framed as the murderer from behind the scenes. The great twist occurs when his mother’s corpse turns around, showing a skeleton with gray hair. At the time, Norman’s Dissociative Identity Disorder (seen on this list already) was a revolutionary concept where his dressing as his mother to commit murders entails him as a deep psychopath, hence the title. The twist has merit and even a bit of old-school elegance, but does it deserve the top ten? Given the iconic nature and how it impacted the movie twist for years to come, Hitchcock’s Psycho fits nicely in spot seven.

6. Saw: No One Saw It Coming

Scary puppets rides bicycle.Moving on to the psychological horror section, do you want to play a game? Saw as a franchise has had ups and a lot of downs but stays relatively iconic due to its premise and original plot twist. The first film stands to go deeper than some horror films of the time and asks psychological questions for the characters and the audience. The film centers around Adam Stanheight whose life is in his own hands as he attempts to escape the destroyed bathroom where the film takes place. During the entirety of the film, a corpse is just lying in the room with Adam. In the end, the corpse stands, revealing himself as John Kramer, with a series of flashbacks to the rest of the story, placing Kramer’s story and reason for setting up his scheme. His motivation is to force others to appreciate life by bringing them as close to death as possible, thus allowing others to understand how being on the verge of dying due to disease makes him feel every day. The twist stands out for being incredibly unseen as almost no one who watches it guesses that the killer would be crazy enough to play dead for the entirety of Adam’s attempted escape. With the flashback, this plot twist lands itself in the number six spot.

5. Arrival: Hope For the Future

Woman holds hand up to window, peering at alien. The most recent hard-hitting plot twist to stand out, the 2016 sci-fi thriller Arrival takes on a unique premise. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must communicate with aliens coming to Earth while grieving her daughter’s death. Keep in mind, this twist impacts all the more because instead of being a twist on the characters, the twist is simply on the audience as crafted by the storytelling technique. The audience sees the grieving of the daughter as well as many other flashbacks of the child, as keys to understanding Banks as a character, as they would any memory scene in any film. This changes when a key character speaks to her from the future, or more accurately, to her future self from whom she is receiving a memory. The twist is not only key to the plot but also devastating, as all of the supposed memories of Banks’ dead daughter are, in fact, visions of her future. The film’s themes revolve around the incapability of choice and how fate will align, confirming that Banks will not only have a daughter who will die young, but she also has to have the child, all the while knowing her fate. The twist is expository for the theme, key to the plot, and deeply impactful. The only piece it lacks is historical significance which it is sure to snag as it rises higher in appreciation from the audience.

4. The Prestige: Classic Nolan

The Prestige Two key film pieces are sure to be layered with twists, turns, and plenty of confusing elements: magicians and Christopher Nolan. Following two rival magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the film layers their hijinks as they go back and forth, outdoing each other. Borden gains great fame earlier than Angier by perfecting the act known as The Transported Man. This desperation leads Angier to enlist the help of Nikola Tesla to create a machine to clone him during every performance. Yet, this wild lack of realism is not the key twist. When Angier is assumed dead, Borden is tried for murder and promptly hanged. The great twist comes when Borden comes back to shoot Angier, in which it is revealed that he was a twin the whole time, two men sharing a life so devoted to their craft that they shared injuries, lovers, and a second role as their own assistant. Yet, the power of the twist does not stop there as Michael Caine’s character, acting as Nolan talking, tells the speech told at the beginning of the film about the act of prestige. He details the opening trick (The Transported Man), the flashy second act (the cloning), and the prestige itself (the reveal of the twins). The key to this fantastic and ultimately confusing twist is that Nolan tells the audience that there will be a twist at the end, and even still, it is practically impossible to see it coming.

3. The Sixth Sense: Better Than the Rest

Small Child looks up from under blankets. A plot twist movie list would be thoroughly incomplete without a film by M. Night Shyamalan. Known for his, at times, divisive movie twists, Shyamalan captures the attention of audiences with twists that change the course of the story he is telling. In The Sixth Sense’s, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is tasked with aiding the young Cole Sears (Haley Joel Osment) through a challenging time. All the while, he struggles with his marriage, claiming that his wife does not really see him. The twist comes with another iconic line in this list, that of “I see dead people,” uttered by Cole. At this moment, just before the credits, the audience gets to understand that Malcolm has been dead for most of the film. This twist, in particular, stands out for the emotional prowess delivered through Malcolm’s acceptance of death and the conversation around moving on. Both men gain acceptance through each other and find closure in their lives. Shyamalan delivers a twist that changes the entirety of the film and truly stands out from some of his lesser twists.

2. The Usual Suspects: Who is Keyser Soze?

Four men stand in police line up. The Usual Suspects can be a challenge to understand as it follows the real-time hunt for Keyser Soze while going back in time through Verbal Kint’s (Kevin Spacey) story about how Soze hired him and a team of miscreant outlaws. The story takes many turns, seeing the entire team killed with a whole movie full of tangents and minor side characters. After Kint finishes his story, he tells the cops that they will never see him again and leaves because he has immunity. The twist comes as the officer turns around to his board. If an audience member has been paying pristine attention to every minute detail of Kint’s story, they will recognize the twist immediately. The board and general room have plenty of names and references to Kint’s story as the truth comes out that he based a massive percentage of the story on random words and lies. A sketch of Keyser Soze then arrives from a patient in the hospital, confirming the truth for audience members who may have missed it. The special parts of this twist are the combination of the best parts of many twists, incredible acting from Spacey as he goes from a twittering buffoon Kint to the confident Soze, the dropping of the coffee mug in slow time with its own reveal on the bottom, and the innate rewatchability of a film jam-packed with details. It earns the number two spot, especially for that reason.

1. Fight Club: Everything and Then Some

Brad Pitt drinks soda and Edward Norton talk and sit. In the number one spot, Fight Club plays on every twist trope that the top ten has used and perfects them. Seeing a return of both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt from earlier entries, the film sees an unnamed man (Norton) meeting Tyler Durden (Pitt) on a plane, and then when the man’s apartment and belongings blow up, he moves in with Tyler. They start their own fight club and recruit men to battling it out to relieve stress from their consumer-driven lives until it goes out of control. This happens when Tyler takes over and starts Project Mayhem, a plan uniting men across the country to disestablish consumer America through explosives and murder. The man attempts to talk Tyler out of the planned chaos but is nowhere to be found until the movie’s end. In the chaos, the members of Project Mayhem begin referring to “The Narrator” as Mr. Durden, thus the mindblowing reveal. The Narrator and Tyler are one and the same as a series of flashbacks shows the Narrator alone in key scenes with Tyler during the film. Few twists make an audience want to rewatch a film more than this one. The merits include the perfect use of the unreliable narrator, the editing that, upon rewatch, places Tyler in key focus, and the acting from Norton and Pitt, who seem to have a knack for these sorts of reveals. Truly, any of these films deserve a watch, even knowing the twist but few more than Fight Club.

Fight Club (1999) Official 20th Century Trailer Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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I am a Film student at Stetson University in Florida. I am a screenplay writer and filmmaker with a heart for storytelling. I discovered a love for film at a young age and am working hard every day to expand my deeper knowledge of technique and detail. Currently, I am on the team in charge of Spooky Empire in Orlando in October, so I spend a lot of time around the horror genre.