Just as an awful film can be saved by an awesome twist that you never saw coming, an awesome film can squander all of its carefully constructed build-up with an awful twist that defies both logic and belief. Many a time, cinemagoers have sat glued to their seats in anticipation of a finale which will wrap everything up in style, only to leave the screen wishing that they could have got both the price of their ticket and the last two hours of their life back (or at least the last 40 minutes or so).
Of course, M. Night Shyamalan has built a career on getting audiences’ hopes up before pulling the rug out from under them in largely nonsensical fashion. But he’s far from the only name who appears to enjoy sabotaging his own films with plot points dumber than a box of rocks. From creepy teen horrors and superhero blockbusters to sci-fi epics and airborne thrillers, here’s a look at 15 twist endings which killed a potential classic stone dead.
Needless to say, SPOILERS lie ahead!
The first two thirds of Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi epic provided a visually spectacular odyssey which deserved the comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that it received. Charting the journey of a spacecraft crew on a mission to reignite the dying Sun with a nuclear bomb, thus saving the planet, Sunshine boasted an impressive ensemble cast (Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne), a dazzling production design and an intelligent screenplay (courtesy of Alex Garland) which posed several questions about the importance of mankind.
Unfortunately, the final third undid nearly all of its good work, with a shift in tone which felt both ridiculous and completely unnecessary. Indeed, Mark Strong’s heavily disfigured Pinbacker, the murderous captain of a previous failed mission who attempts to derail the crew’s plans by killing them all off, felt like he’d wandered in from a Freddy Kreueger knock-off, and ultimately turned Sunshine from a nuanced psychological study into a hackneyed bogeyman horror.
14 Kill List
As anyone who’s seen High-Rise or A Field in England will already know, Ben Wheatley isn’t particularly keen on tying up his films in a big red bow. But even so, his 2011 second film Kill List worked so hard at building up an overwhelming sense of dread that it was hard not to feel frustrated at its absolutely baffling conclusion.
The tale of an ex-soldier-turned-contract killer named Jay who, alongside his deranged best friend Gal, is hired to take out a priest, an archivist and a politician for reasons unknown, Kill List brilliantly combines the mundane with the utterly surreal for the majority of its taut 95-minute running time. However, just when you’re preparing to discover what the whole nightmarish trip is about, along comes a Wicker Man-esque cult and a brutal knife fight in which Jay is forced to fight a hunchback who turns out to be his wife and son. WTF indeed!
It would be impossible to make this list without mentioning M. Night Shyamalan. Synonymous with surprise endings, the Indian-American may have got everyone’s jaws dropping in a good way with the finales of The Sixth Sense, and to a lesser extent, Unbreakable. But seemingly unprepared to showcase his merits as a director without such twists, he’s since rigidly stuck to the gimmick, whether it benefits the film or not.
While his later works had already descended into awfulness long before their final act (see The Lady in the Water, The Happening), 2002’s Signs looked like a continuation of his early winning streak until the big reveal. Yes, turns out that the apparently advanced alien race that had terrorized Mel Gibson’s former priest and his family had a rather lame form of Kryptonite: water, and yet for reasons unknown, still decided to a travel to a planet largely consisting of nothing but the stuff.
12 The Village
As we all know, Shyamalan didn’t learn from his mistakes, and just two years after Signs he delivered another laughable twist. However, at least his previous surprise ending was an actual surprise. This time round, most viewers saw it coming a mile off. It’s a shame, as the first hour of The Village, a psychological thriller in which inhabitants of a 19th Century settlement live in fear of the deadly creatures that lurk in its woods, is some of Shyamalan’s finest work.
But that all becomes a moot point when it’s revealed that (shock! horror!), there aren’t any actual monsters – it’s just the elders in the community playing dress up – and in fact it’s not even the 19th Century. Yes, in another elaborate trick, the village in question is actually a modern-day social experiment conducted by an American history professor. To be fair, it’s not the most groan-worthy twist Shyamalan has come up with (see The Happening's "those pesky plants did it") but it’s the last time he ruined a decent film with one.
11 Source Code
Duncan Jones’ follow-up to the excellent 2009 drama Moon looked like a step towards cementing his reputation as the new master of smart but accessible sci-fi. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a comatose veteran whose brain is (sort of) transported into the body of a train passenger in an attempt to thwart a terrorist plot, Source Code was initially an enthralling take on the time-travel adventure which resembled a cross between Murder on the Orient Express and Groundhog Day.
Sadly, the film fails to land its intriguing concept, with a retrofitted ending which went completely against the rules that had previously been explicitly stated. Indeed, while it initially looked as though Gyllenhaal was going to heroically sacrifice his life to save the day, he instead managed to get a happy ever after ending by continuing to inhabit a body that isn’t actually his, essentially asking the audience to celebrate the murder of an innocent man. At least that's what we think happened. We're still not entirely sure.
10 Jeepers Creepers
The first and far superior Jeepers Creepers is the only film on the list which fails to even make it to the halfway point without falling apart. In the first half hour, director Victor Salva brilliantly ramps up the tension as Justin Long and Gina Philips find themselves terrorized by a road-hogging maniac who is then discovered to be something of a depraved serial killer fond of hiding bodies underneath an abandoned church.
But while its opening act suggested a thrilling hybrid of Dune, The Hitcher and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its second soon revealed itself to be a cheesy monster movie. Indeed, proving that what you can’t see is often more frightening than what you can, Jeepers Creepers was genuinely creepy when you believed that the siblings’ mysterious stalker was an unhinged human, less so when you found out that it was in fact a comical, winged, ancient creature with a mullet.
Perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t bother reading more than a few pages of the script before agreeing to a role. Just two years after Source Code, the actor ended up starring in another divisive headscratcher which hopelessly screwed up its final act. Hopes were initially high when it was announced that Gyllenhaal would be reuniting with Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve for a psychological thriller based on Jose Saramago’s award-winning novel, The Double.
And the film -- which sees a college history professor become increasingly paranoid when he discovers a bit-part actor who is his exact doppelganger -- looked like living up to its promise with its alluring yellowish cinematography, haunting soundtrack and slow-burning but engaging story. But audiences were left wondering what they’d just witnessed when in the final scene, one of the two characters Gyllenhaal plays goes into the bedroom and watches the other’s wife turn into a giant tarantula. It's of course all meant as some kind of metaphor, but what exactly, even Villeneuve doesn't seem to know.
8 High Tension
The French horror with almost as many names (Haute Tension, Switchblade Romance) as it has killings, High Tension launched Alexandre Aja as the face of the New French Extremist scene with its copious amounts of blood and gore. Making your average slasher film look like a family-friendly caper, this visceral 2003 movie was lapped up by horror fans desperate for something a little more hardcore, but inevitably risked the wrath of critics, who described it as "brutish, nasty and distasteful."
However, you could argue that the ludicrous twist was far more worthy of such disdain than its graphic violence. Indeed, having watched our two protagonists, Alex and Marie, spend most of the film attempting to seek vengeance on the psycho killer who murdered the former’s entire family, it comes as a bit of an insult when it’s revealed that the culprit was actually the latter all along. With enough plot holes to drive a bus through, High Tension is a prime example of using a shock tactic just for the sake of it.
The increasingly repugnant and ridiculous chapters of the Saw series have made it easy to forget that the 2004 original (well, most of it anyway) was an evocative and inventive horror which pretty much revolutionized the genre, for better or for worse (largely for worse). Yes, unlike its numerous other installments, and virtually every other torture porn movie that followed in its wake, Saw had a coherent storyline, extremely tense atmosphere, and a bunch of relatively solid performances to go all along with all its twisted set pieces.
Unfortunately, it was also saddled with an ending that stretched the limits of credulity when final victim Adam discovers that the man responsible for putting him and all the characters through such gruesome terror is in fact the ‘corpse’ who he’s been sharing the grisly public bathroom with all along. Why Jigsaw decided to pose as a dead man as his plan was kicked into action remains a mystery, especially when his two captives could have prodded him or spotted him breathing at any given moment.
But then, this was just the first of many convoluted WTF twists which turned the franchise into a laughing stock. Why the series is being allowed to continue is a bit baffling, to be honest.
6 Iron Man 3
You almost have to admire writer/director Shane Black’s chutzpah. Iron Man aficionados had been hoping to see his archenemy The Mandarin in action ever since Marvel launched the franchise onto the big screen in 2008, so excitement was at fever pitch when it was announced that the character would be appearing in the 2013 third installment. The buzz surrounding the film only continued to build when it was revealed that none other than Sir Ben Kingsley would be taking on the role.
But all that excitement dissipated when it turned out that Tony Stark’s number one adversary was in fact little more than a drunken, washed-up actor serving as a cover for the real villain, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. Black attempted to justify this cheap trick, claiming that it was a very interesting and layered path to take the Mandarin on, and that he may have done his job a little too well in springing a surprise in a movie no one really expected one from. But unsurprisingly, the fanboys were having none of it, and Black is still being asked to defend the decision 3 years later.
5 The Mist
Few endings have divided audiences more than that of The Mist. For some, it’s a brave, if staggeringly bleak, conclusion which eschews the open-ended optimism of the Stephen King novella it’s based on for something far more gut-punching and, ultimately, finite. For others, it’s an unnecessarily cruel shock tactic which undermines all the deftly-handled drama that had come before it.
If you haven’t yet seen the 2007 apocalyptic horror, then you can decide for yourself. Trapped in a supermarket by a mysterious fog filled with deadly otherworldly creatures which appear to have destroyed all civilization, Thomas Jane's David and a bunch of fellow survivors run out of gas on a journey to find supplies. After deciding that death is inevitable, David fatally shoots the small group, which includes his wife and eight-year-old son. But just moments after putting everyone out of their misery, he howls in horror when the mist recedes and an order-restoring U.S. Army truck comes to a belated rescue.
4 Swimming Pool
Bobby Ewing’s shower in Dallas. The last few seasons of Roseanne. The finale of The Human Centipede 2. The ‘it was all a dream’ trope is one of Hollywood’s most groanworthy, but as Francois Ozon’s 2003 bilingual drama showed, the French can also be guilty of using such a lazy get-out clause.
Swimming Pool centers on a British author (Charlotte Rampling) who travels to her publisher’s house in Southern France, where she meets his sexually-charged younger daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). What follows is an intriguing tale involving a love triangle, murder and identity crisis which would have accomplished that rare feat – a watchable erotic thriller – had it not been for its cop-out of an ending. There's still some debate as to what it actually means when Rampling’s writer returns home to discover that the girl she’s shared her getaway with wasn’t who she said she was, but the general consensus is that, yes, she was all in her imagination.
Okay, so it was never exactly going to be a masterpiece, but there was still plenty of fun to be had in watching Will Smith play a superpowered drunken mess in an entertaining subversion of his usual good guy vehicles. Indeed, forget the rather stuffy reviews – long before the likes of Kick-Ass, Super and Deadpool subverted the genre, the first hour of Hancock proved that not all superheroes have to be po-faced dullards.
However, the box-office hit derailed completely in the third act, when out of nowhere, it’s revealed that the wife of the PR guru whose life Hancock saves is a 3000-year-old superhero who also used to be married to the titular character. Cue a needless city-destroying battle, a convoluted storyline about the pair needing to be apart to preserve their powers, and a relatively happy Hollywood ending which betrays all the anarchism of the first half. No wonder a sequel hasn’t been greenlit.
Flightplan sees Jodie Foster play Kyle, a grieving aircraft designer who embarks on a business trip to Berlin with her six-year-old daughter Julia, only to find after a quick nap that the little one's gone missing mid-flight. Things get really strange when Peter Sarsgaard and Sean Bean’s sky marshals insist that there’s no record of her daughter ever boarding the plane and later explain to her that Julia actually died alongside her father.
Has Kyle’s imagination got the better of her? Is she slowly losing her mind? Or is there something otherworldly going on? Sadly, the answer proved to be entirely underwhelming. Her daughter is being held captive in the plane’s Avionics section as part of an extortionist plot conducted by Sarsgaard, an air hostess and a mortuary director. How the culprits managed to kidnap Julia in front of view of everyone remains a mystery, as does why they decided on such a needlessly elaborate and impossible-to-execute scheme in the first place.
1 The Prestige
Seven years before Now You See Me revealed that Mark Ruffalo was somehow in on the scam, another far superior tale of illusionists was also spoiled by an absurd ending. The majority of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is a complete joy to watch, as Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman’s warring magicians do battle over both their careers and love lives in increasingly entertaining fashion.
But having spent nearly two hours establishing that the impressive trickery on offer is, of course, rooted firmly in logic, viewers are then asked to suspend their disbelief with the introduction of a clone machine invented by David Bowie’s madman scientist, a plot point which appears to have wandered in from a different movie altogether. Responsible for the brilliant mindbenders Memento and Inception, Nolan has shown time and time again that he can warp reality with aplomb, but with The Prestige, he completely dropped the magic ball.
What's your favorite movie that was spoiled by a lacking twist ending? Let us know in the comments.