Stories are wonderful things, and one of the things that make them so thrilling is how surprising they can be. Good plot twists are hard to pull off, but when they are well done, they can make a movie instantly iconic.
The flip side is that as time passes, if the plot twist is particularly shocking or memorable, it may become ingrained in pop culture to the point that it becomes common knowledge. It doesn’t make these twists any worse (quite the contrary: It proves their incredible quality), but it’s certainly interesting to look at what makes them so well known.
Esther Has a Dark Secret That’s Not So Secret Anymore — ‘Orphan’ (2009)
This horror thriller has a twist that makes it genuinely chilling. It’s the story of a couple who recently lost a baby, which leads them to adopt a 9-year-old girl that may not be nearly as innocent as she seems.
Near the end of the movie, it’s revealed that the girl is actually a serial killer in her ’30s, who suffers from a hormonal disorder that stunted her physical growth. Orphan may not be a particularly brilliant horror film, but the plot twist (which has become known to pretty much anyone familiar with the story) is definitely one of the most effective twist in all of horror.
Syndrome Is a Figure from Mr. Incredible’s Past — ‘The Incredibles’ (2004)
Disney and Pixar movies are so widely known that pretty much any twist villain in them is no longer surprising; but if there’s one Pixar twist villain so iconic that it’s easy to forget the “twist” part of him, it’s Syndrome from The Incredibles.
Thankfully for those who think that twist villains are a cheap narrative resource, the fact that Syndrome is Mr. Incredible’s old superfan Buddy is revealed pretty early into the movie. It doesn’t really matter anymore, though, since it would nowadays be pretty hard to find someone who found this reveal shocking.
Elijah Isn’t Who He Pretends to Be — ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan is kind of an inconsistent director, but when he delivers, he delivers big-time. Unbreakable is one of his best films, about a man who makes an astounding discovery after a train crash kills everyone on board except him.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a man with bones as fragile as glass, and he’s a fascinating character. At the end of the movie, it’s revealed that he caused the train crash in search of a hero, discovering himself as a villain in the process. It’s still a very powerful if not ludicrous plot twist, even if the sequel Glass spoiled it for everyone who didn’t know it already.
Tyler and the Narrator Have More In Common Than You’d Think — ‘Fight Club’ (1999)
David Fincher‘s action cult classic Fight Club is interesting, to say the least. Its fun, politically charged narrative covers a multitude of interesting themes, and it all blows up in an explosive third act.
The film’s biggest surprise comes with the reveal that Tyler Durden and the Narrator, the two main characters, are actually one and the same. It’s an expertly executed shocker with profound narrative meaning, but pretty much everyone who knows Fight Club and what it’s about would also know that the two protagonists share more in common than it initially seems.
John Doe’s Identity Has Lost Some of Its Shock Value — ‘Se7en’ (1995)
Leave it to David Fincher to deliver brilliant psychological thriller plot twists. In Se7en, one of his best pieces of work, two homicide detectives are hunting a serial killer who’s basing his murders on the seven deadly sins.
Everything is going down as you’d expect, and then suddenly, with two sins to go, the serial killer turns himself in. Aside from the event itself being unexpected, audiences in 1995 were shocked to find that the villain was played by Kevin Spacey, who hadn’t been promoted as part of the movie. Nowadays, though, with John Doe being remembered as one of the best thriller antagonists of all time, the twist isn’t quite as surprising.
The Wizard of Oz Might Not Be So Wonderful — ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)
Based on a 1900 children’s novel, this Technicolor classic is the story of Dorothy, a girl who’s transported to a magical world where she befriends a strange group that accompanies her to see a wish-granting wizard.
When Dorothy and her friends finally do arrive at the wizard’s dwelling, though, they are disappointed to find that he’s actually one big fraud, leaving the character as a complex man who’s not quite a villain but also definitely not a hero. The thing is that many decades have passed since The Wizard of Oz‘s release, and the man’s true nature has become common knowledge.
A Twist That Has Been Endlessly Referenced — ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995)
The Usual Suspects isn’t always talked about in the same conversation as the best crime mysteries, but it definitely should. Fun and mind-twisting, it’s about a criminal telling the feds a story about a mythical crime lord who supposedly led him and his men in a catastrophic heist.
There are a lot of things to love about the film, not least of which is its final twist. It may be quite shocking for those entirely unfamiliar with the story, but most people will likely know at least one of the many times it has been referenced in film and TV.
Marion Crane’s Fate Revolutionized Story Structure — ‘Psycho’ (1960)
There are plenty of good reasons why Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and psychological thrillers. Most of them are full of excellent twists, but none as revolutionary as that of Psycho.
Marion Crane, Psycho‘s protagonist, is killed by a mysterious figure halfway through the movie. One can only imagine how low audiences’ jaws must have dropped back in the ’60s seeing this unprecedented turn of events, but with the film having become such a seminal horror thriller, it’s a twist that any fan of the genre is entirely familiar with.
Cole Sear Can See Dead People — ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan is best known for his plot twists (both when they work and when they don’t). The Sixth Sense, about an 8-year-old who can see into the world of the dead, has what’s probably his most famous.
At the end of the movie, it’s revealed that child psychologist Michael Crowe has been dead all along. It’s often counted as one of the best movie plot twists of all time, which is the main reason why it has been endlessly parodied and referenced. Because of this, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know about it.
The Shocking Family Bond At the Heart of the Galaxy — ‘Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)
To no one’s surprise, the Star Wars franchise is a sprawling sci-fi drama full of twists and turns. The one in the fifth installment, The Empire Strikes Back, is perhaps the single most well-known plot twist in the history of cinema.
That’s right: Darth Vader, the intimidating and towering villain dressed in all-black, is the father of the courageous and kindhearted Luke Skywalker. Even if the twist has lost pretty much all of its shock factor, it’s still one of the most effective and memorable ever, and bound to go down in the history of the Seventh Art as the peak of surprises in storytelling.