Films With Surprise Endings


It’s not enough for the twists in mystery novels to be unguessable – after all, there’s a frisson that accompanies the feeling that you may be able to name the murderer – the solutions to mysteries need to feel natural and unforced. Left-field answers are fun, but organically arrived-at solutions are more satisfying.

This rules out an awful lot of novels and short stories by famous Golden Age writers who have come up with ludicrously impossible murders and then need to force the method upon their poor stooges. This is where John Dickson Carr frequently falls down, because when you get to the denouement it’s often so staggeringly implausible that you ask yourself why would anyone go to so much trouble with springs, ladders, cables and trick keys.

Novels can get away with certain vagaries of plot – there exists a pact between the reader and the author about information received – but in films all is seen. Here’s a selection of films with twists at the end, the genuine surprises and the ones that look obvious to most authors.

Knives Out

A pitch-perfect murder mystery that manages to pastiche while remaining refreshingly unironic, it’s worth counting the phenomenal number of traditional elements the director tick-boxes into the plot. The convolutions are a little exhausting by the end but aren’t most mysteries? Georges Simenon famously said that he didn’t care who the killer turned out to be. If this film’s solution is not genuinely surprising, it proves that the journey is more important than the arrival.

The Others

An elegant period creeper, especially clever because its house rules (close one door before opening another etc) misdirect you away from the family’s real surprise, and like the other truly great supernatural films it leaves you feeling bereft.

Similarly, The Skeleton Key performed a perfect (and perfectly horrendous) rug-pull in the antebellum South involving servitude, race and class, prefiguring Get Out. Speaking of which, both Get Out and Us somehow manage to be terrific films with logic-defying endings that don’t especially detract from what’s gone before.

Big Deal At Dodge City

It’s a forgotten gem with an interesting pulp premise; Joanne Woodward’s husband drops dead in the middle of his biggest poker game. She has never sat at a card table in her life, and must play his cards to save herself. I saw this when I was young and was floored – maybe now, after a lifetime of reading twists, it wouldn’t be so surprising.

The Orphanage

A young mother returns to the orphanage where she spent a lonely childhood, determined to exorcise her ghosts. Instead she disturbs new ones. I didn’t see the climax coming, or its references to a certain children’s book, or that it would all be so overwhelmingly heartbreaking. Trashier but no less surprising is The Orphan. I honestly don’t think anyone could guess the twist in this ‘adopted bad little girl’ puzzler, which reads like a newspaper article someone cut out and saved.

Fight Club has the same last minute twist as my own so-very-nearly-filmed thriller Spanky. But probably the best twist of all comes from The Hidden Face, which pulls a double turn and shreds the nerves without bloodshed. In this, a young woman starts to believe that a ghost exists in her husband’s house – but the truth is entirely unexpected. I’ve written on this before and warned about the US title, which gives away the entire plot.

As for the less successful surprises, I and a friend saw The Sixth Sense at the cinema, looked at each other after the opening 30 seconds and mouthed the same phrase, leaving us to sit through the rest of Shamalyan’s not-very-puzzling puzzler waiting for confirmation of our verdict. How did we know the answer to the film’s ‘I see dead people’ conundrum? Bruce Willis’s wig.

Nor did the ‘surprises’ in Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder or The List of Adrian Messenger work – the first because ‘Louis Cypher’ is the dumbest pun-name ever, the second because ‘It’s all a dream’ is an appalling cheat, third because the celebrity suspects are supposed to have all been wearing rubber masks(!). Most recently, the supposed big twist of the stylish but empty Ready Or Not is cast aside within moments; it seems even the writers didn’t believe in it.

All other suggestions for surprise endings welcome!


5 comments on “Films With Surprise Endings”

  1. Rob C says:

    Sparky, now there’s a book crying out for the big(ish) screen!
    Surely Amazon or Netflix should be offering $$$$$$ to do this (along with Roofworld).

  2. Richard Burton says:

    I used to pride myself on predicting trick endings, until I saw Angel Heart.
    I didn’t get it, despite my friend (during the egg scene, I think) snarling ‘he’s called Louis Cypher, Louis Cypher, think about it, Louis Cypher. It’s obvious. Why can’t you get it? You’re usually such a smug twat about this sort of thing.’
    Humiliated. Since then I’ve kept my predictions to myself.
    Donnie Darko had a surprise ending I didn’t work out ahead of time, or completely understand after watching it. I’ve only recently found out what it was meant to mean. Bladerunner fits into the same category I think. Marvellous film, amazing Syd Meade, but the trick ending got edited out and needed later explaining by those involved.

  3. Susanna says:

    I’d worked out the twist in ‘The Sixth Sense’ from the trailer and the film just confirmed it. I used to belong to a writer’s group and that same twist regularly came up in stories and scripts (and the writers got very upset if you mentioned that you’d seen it coming).

  4. Ian Luck says:

    ‘The Sixth Sense’ has a useless poker face. There are ‘Tells’ littered everywhere. Like…
    After Bruce Willis’ character Dr Crowe, is shot, you never see him from behind (SPOILERS; There’s a gaping exit wound in his back). He never is seen eating or drinking, or interacting with physical objects. He never changes his clothes, and cannot enter rooms in his house that he hadn’t entered immediately before he was shot – the glass doorknobs glow red if he tries. He is never seen talking to Cole Sear’s mother, and if he is with other people, they don’t notice him, even if he talks. When Cole Sear sees dead people, the temperature drops, and his breath can be seen. As the movie progresses, when Cole talks to Crowe, his breath becomes visible. A good movie, but it gives too much away by trying to be clever.
    ‘The Wicker Man’ has an unexpected ending – for the hero, at least. I’ve always wondered if killing him really brought back their apples?
    The ending of ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ is pretty damn unexpected; from hard-boiled film noir to atom age horror in one mighty bound – if that’s Pandora’s box, then she’s welcome to it.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    And then There Were None is still my favourite Christie twist, Rene Claire’s version of film is my favourite.

    Psycho is still a favourite twist, the {SPOILER} main star dies half way through, remember mum’s the word.

    I quite like Identity (2003) there are so many twists, not all of them impossible to guess, but a nice take on bumping of an assorted group.


Comments are closed.