Top 20 Greatest Movie Thriller Twists of All Time
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Color us shocked! For this list, we'll be looking at the most impactful, unexpected, or straight up darkest plot twists in thriller films! Our countdown includes "Fight Club", "Saw", "Shutter Island”, "Get Out", "Planet of the Apes", and more!
Top 20 Movie Thriller Twists
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 movie thriller twists.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most impactful, unexpected, or straight up darkest plot twists in thriller films! We’ll be using the term “thriller” loosely here - essentially, any story containing scary situations, thrills, and violence. Obviously, this comes with a MAJOR spoiler alert!
Can you think of any other twists that made a movie darker? Be sure to sound off in the comments below!
#20: Multiple Identities
This James Mangold thriller blends Agatha Christie with “Fight Club,” creating one of the most bizarre and unique thrillers of the 21st century. Loosely adapted from Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” “Identity” follows ten strangers who are picked off one by one at an isolated Nevada motel. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. It turns out that the strangers are all disparate “identities” of Malcolm Rivers, a mass murderer suffering from dissociative identity disorder. That’s certainly weird enough. But Ed, played by John Cusack, is later told to kill Rivers’ “homicidal” personality in an attempt to “cure” him of his violent tendencies. However, a fantastic twist ending sees Ed killing the wrong one - allowing the homicidal Timmy to completely take over.
#19: Leonard Is Essentially a Serial Killer
At the heart of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” is Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and hunting his wife’s killer. This premise is subverted in the horrific final moments of the movie, which portray a far darker reality. For one thing, we learn that Teddy, an undercover police officer, has been using Leonard’s condition to dispatch various criminals, tricking Leonard into believing that his victims are his wife’s killer. Worse, it’s revealed that Leonard himself killed his wife by accident! So he decides to manipulate himself into choosing Teddy as his next victim - leaving him still living a lie.
#18: Detective Vick’s Involvement
This “computer screen thriller” stars John Cho as David Kim, the father of a missing teenager named Margot. With the official investigation proceeding slowly, David decides to log in to his daughter’s laptop to look for clues. In the end, we learn that the truth has been covered up by the detective “assigned” to the case. In reality, Detective Vick volunteered, as she wanted to cover up her son’s involvement in the supposed death and disappearance of Margot. She also turned an ex-convict named Randy Cartoff into a fall guy and potentially murdered him. Luckily, everything turns out OK for David, as Margot is later found injured but alive at the bottom of a ravine.
#17: Jigsaw Was In the Room
The opening minutes of “Saw” certainly make an impression. Two men wake up chained to a dilapidated industrial bathroom with a bloody corpse lying between them. Fun stuff. We also learn that the Jigsaw Killer likes to watch his victims, and while we knew deep down that Zep wasn’t Jigsaw, we certainly weren’t expecting the corpse to be! At the end of the movie, the corpse rises from the floor and reveals himself to be Jigsaw right before locking Adam in the bathroom. It’s a massive shock that reinforces the true depravity and psychopathic methods of Jigsaw. While the “Saw” movies would decrease in quality, that final “game over” is legendary stuff.
#16: Fenton Is Adam
Serving as Bill Paxton’s directorial debut, “Frailty” stars Matthew McConaughey as Fenton Meiks. Fenton tells an FBI agent that his brother Adam is behind a slate of killings, having been brainwashed by his fanatically religious father, who claims that God has ordered him to kill demons disguised as humans. Flashbacks proceed to show audiences the killings and the deteriorating relationship between Fenton and Adam. However, a twist ending reveals that the adult “Fenton” is actually Adam and that he seems to actually sense demons! He proceeds to murder the FBI agent for being one, as the agent had killed his own mother. We don’t know what’s more shocking - the fact that “Fenton” is actually Adam, or that all the “demon” malarkey seems to be real!
#15: Teddy / Andrew Killed His Wife
“Shutter Island” (2010)
Movies love to utilize the “protagonist actually killed their wife” twist, don’t they? Throughout “Shutter Island,” we watch as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels investigates the disappearance of a mental patient. But when Teddy enters the lighthouse... everything changes. We learn that Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis, an institutionalized man who killed his wife after she murdered their children. As if filicide and uxoricide weren’t dark enough, we also learn that the girl Laeddis dreams about is his murdered daughter, proving that his mind has been irreparably damaged and wracked with guilt. Furthermore, Laeddis becomes aware and conscious enough to plan for his own lobotomy. “Shutter Island” is a bleak experience start to finish.
#14: John Envisions His Own Death
“Don’t Look Now” (1973)
In this psychological thriller, a grieving husband and wife travel to Venice following the tragic death of their daughter. While in Venice, they learn that their deceased daughter is attempting to contact them from “the other side.” John also begins experiencing visions of a young girl in a red coat, which is what his daughter was wearing when she died. However, this turns out to be a woman with dwarfism, who slashes John’s throat and leaves him to die. While dying, John realizes that the visions he was experiencing were actually haunting premonitions of his impending murder. This is one dark and depraved movie!
#13: Doyle Orchestrated the Kidnapping
“Gone Baby Gone” (2007)
This mystery thriller directed by Ben Affleck follows detective Patrick Kenzie as he searches for a missing three-year old, Amanda. Morgan Freeman plays Captain Jack Doyle, who goes into early retirement following a botched exchange in which it’s believed that Amanda was killed. But following later events, the detectives visit Doyle at his home and discover that it was he who kidnapped Amanda. He’d framed a drug lord in the kidnapping and argues that Amanda has a better home life with him than with her horribly neglectful mother. It’s perhaps the only kidnapping movie in history in which a child’s rescue turns out to be a tragedy! This is hammered home when it’s revealed that the girl’s mom doesn’t even know the name of her kid’s doll.
#12: The Military Was Right There!
“The Mist” (2007)
This adaptation of Stephen King’s novella sees David Drayton, his son, and various townsfolk trapped inside a supermarket while otherworldly creatures roam outside. In the climax, David and a group of friendly people say “screw this” and strike out on their own. However, they soon run out of gas, and rather than suffer painful deaths, they agree to commit group suicide. David kills them all, including his eight-year-old son Billy. When he leaves the truck to be eaten by the monsters, he makes an even scarier discovery - the military was literally right behind them. If they’d waited just two more minutes, they would have been saved. It’s one of the darkest twists in movie history.
#11: Amy Framed Her Husband
“Gone Girl” (2014)
“Gone Girl” isn’t your grandmother’s murder mystery. The first half of the movie plays out like a typical crime drama, as Nick Dunne searches for his missing wife and is falsely accused of her murder. However, the movie does a complete 180 halfway through when it reveals that a jealous Amy intricately framed her husband after learning of his affair. The twist not only works incredibly well as a dramatic story development, but it also strengthens the movie’s morose themes regarding manipulation and abusive relationships. “Gone Girl” goes from a relatively conventional murder mystery to a haunting firsthand account of a cunning sociopath. And you know what? That’s even scarier.
#10: Betty, Diane, Rita & Camilla
“Mulholland Drive” (2001)
This surreal David Lynch mystery film follows aspiring actress Betty Elms and car-crash survivor “Rita”, who suffers from amnesia. When Rita remembers the name Diane Selwyn, they try to find her … and the story then goes full David Lynch. Betty looks exactly like a struggling and depressed actress named Diane Selwyn. Diane had an affair with famous actress Camilla Rhodes, who looks exactly like Rita. At the end of the film, Diane hires a hitman to kill Camilla and commits suicide. Which means her body is the corpse that Betty and Rita discovered earlier in the film. People are still debating what it all means, but it’s definitely freaky!
#9: The Armitage Family Secret
“Get Out” (2017)
This movie is both horrifying and wickedly funny, serving up social commentary along with terror. When Chris meets his girlfriend’s family for the first time, they appear at first to be typical upper class white liberals. However, underneath all this lies something much darker - an extreme obsession with Black bodies, which they seek to possess and make their own. Turns out, Chris isn’t his girlfriend’s first Black boyfriend after all; just the latest in a long line of victims. The family has been transferring their brains into the bodies of Black people, leaving what remains of the original consciousnesses trapped helplessly inside!.
#8: Head In a Box
“Seven”’s twist may not be as iconic as “Psycho,”’s, but it’s arguably more depraved. After John Doe turns himself in and takes the two detectives to the final murder location, a delivery man brings them a mysterious box. After a few incredibly tense minutes, we learn that the box contains the head of David’s pregnant wife, representing the killer’s envy. David then becomes wrath by shooting Doe in an act of uninhibited rage. John Doe wins, David goes insane, and Somerset can only look on in defeat. While the movie is absurdly dark, this final twist somehow ratchets the depravity to 11, reinforcing the idea that humanity is inherently flawed.
#7: Soylent Green Is People
“Soylent Green” (1973)
Like Norman Bates being Mother, the fact that Soylent Green is made from people is not a surprise to modern audiences, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. In this dystopian society, a green wafer called Soylent Green is created, said to be a highly nutritious food source created from plankton. However, we later learn that Soylent Green is actually made from human remains, as humans are a great source of protein for a starving society. It’s a horrifying reveal, but it also fits perfectly with the movie’s themes of overpopulation, resource management, and climate control. It’s a much-needed slap in the face that remains relevant and disturbingly prophetic nearly half a century later.
#6: Keyser Soze Gets Away
“The Usual Suspects” (1995)
Containing one of the most famous twist endings in movie history, “The Usual Suspects” sees Verbal Kint telling the story of his criminal gang and their leader - the mysterious Keyser Soze. Soze is a near-mythical figure for the police, an elusive yet powerful crime lord who remains under mystery and shadow. Of course, what they don’t know is that he’s literally sitting right in front of them. In the famous twist ending, it’s revealed that Kint and Soze are one and the same, and Soze simply walks out of the police station after posting bail. He successfully toyed with and fooled the cops, remaining several steps ahead of them all the way.
#5: Malcolm Was Dead the Whole Time
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
At the beginning of the movie, child psychologist Malcolm Crowe is shot by a psychotic former patient. Since it appears as if he’s recovered, our minds are shattered when it’s revealed that he has been dead the whole time. It’s certainly a dark realization to find that the protagonist is a ghost, but it’s still an ultimately happy ending when Crowe is sent to Heaven after rectifying his failures. Two years later, “The Others” would provide another brilliant ghost-centric twist by revealing that the family are the actual ghosts haunting the house. Both movies successfully flipped the conventional ghost story on its head and provided some of the greatest twists in the horror genre.
#4: Oh Dae-su &... His Daughter
Murder and nuclear war may be scary topics, but nothing feels worse than learning that the protagonist copulated with his own daughter. The movie opens with Dae-su being kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years. After escaping and embarking on a campaign of revenge, he befriends a young chef named Mi-do, and the two become intimate. However, it’s later revealed that Dae-su was hypnotized into falling for Mi-do, who is revealed to be his now-adult daughter. It’s equal parts shocking and horrifying, eliciting a visceral bodily reaction of revulsion from most viewers. Incest is certainly a controversial subject, and “Oldboy” wields it in the most disturbingly effective of ways.
#3: Norman Is Mother / The Killer
“Psycho” has perhaps one of the greatest twists in cinematic history. Throughout the movie, we believe that Norman Bates is nothing but a repressed man-child who protects his domineering, psychotic mother. However, the famous ending reveals that his mother is long dead, and that Norman is the true psychopath. After killing his mother and her boyfriend out of jealousy, he took on the persona of his mother to alleviate his loneliness and guilt, and he uses this persona to murder those he feels attracted to. The twist made Norman one of cinema’s most iconic villains, and left ‘60s audience with the fear that danger could be lurking anywhere and behind any façade.
#2: Tyler Durden
“Fight Club” (1999)
This adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel sees the depressed, aimless Narrator finding purpose thanks to the unconventional philosophies of the enigmatic Tyler Durden. Tyler gathers an anti-consumerist, anti-corporate gang called Project Mayhem and makes a dastardly, James Bond villain-esque plan - destroy the nation’s credit card records to erase all consumer debt. Later, of course, we discover that Tyler Durden never existed - he was a figment of the Narrator’s imagination, used to enact his deepest desires. What’s scarier is that “Tyler” sort of wins - yes, he “dies” from the Narrator’s faux-suicide attempt, but he also succeeds in his plan to blow up buildings that house credit card records.
#1: Apes Have Taken Over Earth
“Planet of the Apes” (1968)
While “Planet of the Apes” is a long-running franchise, nothing beats the original’s twist. After landing on a planet ruled by sentient, talking apes, Taylor escapes from their grasp only to come upon a half-buried Statue of Liberty. He discovers that he was on Earth all along and that modern humanity had wiped itself out in some kind of nuclear war. It’s not only a devastating ending that caps the story in theatrical fashion, but also a dismaying comment on the Cold War and the possible future of humanity. It’s not as dramatically relevant as it once was, but it’s still a distressing ending that captures the fears of its time.