[WARNING: This Article Contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for the movies listed.]
One of the most anxiety-inspiring notions in life is that someone we think we know and/or love could turn out to be someone we don’t know at all. We accept the idea that every person (ourselves included) has a dark side; however, when that side turns out to be so dark it’s evil, the revelation – that you could stare at someone so close, for so long, and yet not see the truth – can shake a person to his/her core.
The duality of human existence has been the root theme of some great stories – and subsequently, some great stories told on the screen. Shock, surprise, anger, fear, anxiety; when a movie does manage to fool us about who people really are, the effects can be powerful, and long-lasting.
In fact, looking over the list of our 10 Favorite Dark Side Reveals in Movies, it suddenly becomes apparent why we (and so many other people) have legitimate trust issues.
This is NOT a list of movie “twists” or “surprises”; this is a list of characters who do a 180° turn from sane, happy or good, to insane, tormented or evil. To qualify, a character had to display some sort of sudden – and drastic – personality switch during the events of the movie.
10. Prince Hans – Frozen (2013)
It’s funny to think that a Disney princess movie could earn a spot on a list of dark character reveals – but in this case, the example surely fits. Prince Hans was just mean, man!
At first appearing as a handsome and friendly suitor who is interested in the plucky young princess Anna (Kristen Bell), Hans is everything that we’ve come to expect from a Disney prince archetype; only in this modern tale, that cliché is simply sheep’s clothing to hide a wolf in the hen-house. In truth, Prince Hans was using Anna’s affections as political means to advance his own claim to a throne – a goal he was willing to sacrifice both princesses of Arendelle to achieve.
Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) ice powers made her a target of fear and hatred, but it was Hans (Santino Fontana) who had actual evil in his heart. As Frozen proves, ladies should think twice about that handsome popular guy everybody likes. He could turn out to be a murderous jerk.
9. Private Pyle – Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The U.S. Marines specialize in transforming average men into extraordinary warriors, but as Stanley Kubrick’s seminal war movie Full Metal Jacket suggests, the Marines can turn even the meekest of men into hardcore killers.
The movie follows a group of young servicemen in the Vietnam era from their boot camp training up through their deployment overseas. However, Full Metal Jacket is best remembered for showing just how harsh military training can be – as depicted through the example of one Leonard Lawrence, a.k.a. “Private Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio).
Fat, slow (mentally and physically), and lacking discipline in just about every area imaginable, Private Pyle was an easy target within the ranks. Easy for drill Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) to hammer on; easy for the other recruits to resent; and easy for the viewer to sympathize with, while watching the doomed kid’s slow descendent into despair, and then, madness.
When Private Joker (Matthew Modine) finally discovers Private Pyle in the barracks bathroom with a loaded rifle and a deranged stare, it is far too little compassion, offered far too late; in Pyle’s mind, everything was already “Sh*t”. By the time blood and brains were splattered all over those bathroom walls, the kindly, oafish Pvt. Pyle we knew was gone, and only his mangled corpse was left to sit in monument to war’s transformative power, on and off the battlefield.
8. Holly Jones – Prisoners (2013)
Prisoners is a movie that examines how people can become, well, prisoners of their own bad circumstances. But the film doesn’t just offer arthouse metaphor for how grief and tragedy can forever bind us – oh no, there’s a devil at the bottom of this dark tale.
At first glance, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) is just the frazzled-but-loving grandmother to oddball Alex Jones (Dano); however, nobody hires Oscar-winner Melissa Leo to just play some old fuddy-duddy. Holly Jones turned out to be a living nightmare.
Not only did Holly and her husband abduct/murder as many as sixteen children over the course of decades, they did so as “revenge against god,” because their son died of cancer. If THAT wasn’t evil enough, the first two children they abducted, they brainwashed into half-crazed prisoners of their own traumas and kept them hostage, shadows of the happy boys they once were.
Old silly Holly turned out to be so crazed that when detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally catches her red-handed with an abducted child, she chooses to give one last middle finger to god and inject the little girl with poison, rather than surrender and save her own life. That’s a whole new level of evil – type to make you lock your doors and check them twice at night.
7. “Rolo Tomassi” – L.A. Confidential (1997)
Sure, you may have known him as good old Captain Dudley Smith of the LAPD at first, but during the events of L.A. Confidential, the captain (James Cromwell) proves himself to be the personification of “Rollo Tomassi,” young Lieutenant Exley’s (Guy Pearce) term for crooks who get away with their crimes. In the aftermath of gangster Mickey Cohen’s fall (as told in the film Gangster Squad), Cpt. Smith used his position and police connections to take over organized crime in the Los Angeles area; but the actual reveal of the Captain’s insidious true nature is still one of the best in film.
Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) comes to Dudley’s home to talk about leads in the case and dots he cannot yet connect when, out of nowhere, Dudley turns and shoots Jack point-blank in the heart. You never see it coming, and the audience is as shocked as poor Jack, whose heart gives out in a single breath and a bloody dribble, betrayed by the very police force he was trying to once again honor.
The final third of L.A. Confidential would only further prove why Captain Dudley deserved the fatal shotgun wound he eventually got in his back.
6. Cassanova – Kiss the Girls (1997)
The Alex Cross character may not be as popular as he once was, but in the film Kiss the Girls audiences are treated to a twisted mystery that earns Cross the respect he deserves for being an equally brilliant and badass forensic psychologist. More than that, though, this B-movie adaptation of author James Patterson’s novel has a villain that is every bit the antitheses equal of the hero.
Throughout the film, the mystery of “Cassanova” – a serial killer who “collects” women as trophies – is a complex one that sets the case (and the film) apart from the usual murder mysteries. The killer is revealed to be two men working in competition – and even when Cross solves the case, the real Cassanova can’t accept surrender without first confronting the girl who got away from him, Kate (Ashley Judd).
Detective Nick Ruskin (Cary Elwes) does a good job blending into the scene – present but not conspicuous, never once sinister or unlikable – as Ruskin himself describes during his freaky final reveal. Having infiltrated Kate’s house by posing as the helpful cop, Ruskin’s smooth southern drawl slowly melts away in conversation, revealing his deep “Cassanova” voice tones and a murderous rage.
Kiss the Girls may have been a second-rate thriller, but this final dark reveal was first-rate work, with words that will forever make us fear the hearts of men:
Truth is looking at a beautiful woman, like our Kate here, and saying to yourself, ‘I gotta have that. I gotta break. Her. Down.’ It’s your basest animal self. Dig deep, Alex. You’ll recognize him. He’s ugly.
5. Tyler Durden – Fight Club (1999)
On some level we all wish we could be better people – but few of us take it to the level that Edward Norton’s nameless protagonist did, allowing an extreme alter-ego personality to seize control of our lives. Sure, many of us have alter-ego personas (our “work selves,” our “party selves,” etc.) – but those personas don’t start underground brawling clubs, anarchistic militias, or kinky sex flings with cancer patient impersonators named Marla (Helena Bonham Carter).
Oh, but Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) did all of these things – and he brought his meeker self along for the ride, kicking and screaming, as always. The real irony is that Norton’s character was far happier with himself when he didn’t truly know himself; makes you think, doesn’t it?
Truth be told, Fight Club is an entry that could arguably top this list, as its big dark side reveal established a blueprint that many films and TV shows have tried to copy afterward – with few successes.
4. “Roy” Stampler – Primal Fear (1996)
Edward Norton makes this list for a second time with his powerhouse performance in Primal Fear, playing a character so complicated that he keeps you guessing the whole time – only to still fool you in the end.
As “Aaron Stampler,” Norton’s character is a stuttering and meek victim, damaged by years of abuse within the church; however, as “Roy,” Norton’s character is a violent and volatile manifestation of repressed trauma and anger. Norton works the oscillation between his two personality types so well that hot-shot defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) – and subsequently the audience – never stops to question whether both personalities could be fake.
In one of the most memorable (and for Norton, star-making) final character reveals of all time, Stampler confesses to Vail that “Aaron” has always been a mask, but that “Roy” is no mere out-of-control madman. Stampler, it turns out, is a calculating, clever, manipulative sociopath who has successfully maneuvered his way out of prison and into a reduced sentence at a mental institution – and the one guy who knows the truth (Vail), can never confess it.
Primal Fear should pretty much be every defense lawyer’s worst nightmare, and that final reveal is a “bad guy wins” twist of the knife that you don’t often see in movies.
3. Leonard Shelby – Memento (2000)
It’s the mind-bending movie that firmly established Chris Nolan as a cinematic visionary of the 21st century; but when you lay the convoluted plot out in linear order, it’s basically the story of a man pretending to be on the hunt for a killer, in order to run from the fact that he IS the killer. If you’ve watched the film but never understood it, we just gave you the simple version of Memento.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) and his wife were attacked in their home, and Leonard was left with a head injury that prevented him from being able to make new memories. When doubt was cast on the validity of his condition, his wife “tested him” by having him repeat her daily insulin shot all in one sitting, until the dose was fatal. Leonard, confused and unable to remember, “coped” with this tragedy by then creating a fantasy puzzle to forever solve – looking for the men who attacked them and supposedly killed his wife, so that he never has to shoulder that blame.
You were lucky if you understood the full impact of the story upon first viewing, but Memento‘s final moments (which are actually the middle of the story) brought together the baffling two-pronged narrative into a twisted revelation that memory and observation are wholly unreliable without comprehension of context. The character we spend time sympathizing with and pitying turns out to be the only actual murderer in this sordid neo-Noir world. Typical.
2. Keyser Söze – The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Usual Suspects is a movie full of thieves, crooks, killers and liars – but it still manages to introduce a devil to outdo them all. The man known as Keyser Söze starts out as something larger than life within the film’s narrative – a criminal mastermind god feared for his unrelenting savagery – but as things progress, the image of Söze (literally) starts to come into clearer focus, culminating in one of the best dark side reveals of all time.
Of all the felons in the usual suspects crew, Roger “Verbal” Kint is definitely the meekest. As a crippled, two-bit con man, Verbal’s scheming mind is the only thing that makes him a worthy addition to the gang. However, it’s a mind that Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) sorely underestimates, when he eventually interrogated Verbal about the preceding events of the film.
Kujan never had a chance, dancing with the devil himself. Using nothing but lies prompted by random objects around the room, Verbal tells Kujan exactly what he wants to hear: that Kujan’s old nemesis Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) was most likely the mastermind behind the smokescreen of Keyser Söze. But as small-fish Verbal gets thrown back into the underworld ocean, his shuffling limp and crippled hand do that now-iconic mid-stride switch, as the con man pulls his final trick, revealing that he is the Devil himself, Keyser Söze, who has been hiding in plain sight all along.
….And just like that, he was gone.
1. Mrs. Bates – Psycho (1960)
The number one spot could be held by none other than this, the godfather of all movie dark side reveals. (In fact, it’s a reveal so good that they’ve manage to mine an entire modern TV series out it. What better proof could you ask for?)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho pulled so many twists – killing off its star Janet Leigh early in the film; abandoning its embezzlement plot MacGuffin halfway through – that it’s surprising that the final one managed to top them all. There was something off about the boyish face of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – and from what we overheard throughout the film, his cruel mother had a lot to do with that. However, the reveal that Norman had a psychotic split personality based on his mother was certainly a shocker for its time – and still holds up pretty good today.
No need to praise a legend too much. Just watch the final reveals for yourself (and try not to get goosebumps). Hitchcock’s work in cinematic terror stands the test time:
While these were our 10 favorite moments when movie characters revealed a hidden dark side, there have been many other films that also made us doubt our judgement in our fellow (wo)man. Below you’ll find some entries we wanted to include but didn’t put in the final list for one reason or another. As always, your suggestions and discussion are welcome in the comments section!
- Empire Strikes Back – Technically, the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker reveal is a “good side reveal,” so it didn’t quite make our list. Still a classic shocker, though.
- Alien – Ash being an Android that goes berserk was definitely a shocking reveal – but whether an android can have a “dark side” or just programming is debatable…
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – That final scene of Donald Sutherland’s character erupting into a horrible alien scream still gives us chills.
- Gothika – Charles S. Dutton’s serial killer doctor proved that the phrase “It’s good to be God,” should never be uttered by human lips.
- The Frighteners – A worst case scenario of what happens when a good girls falls for a bad boy.
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