As a former Film Studies student, I pride myself on my ability to correctly guess a plot twist. The Sixth Sense? Picked up on Bruce Willis’ lack of interaction with other characters and guessed it 45 minutes in. Fight Club? Called it at around the 60 minute mark. Old Boy? Shouted, “It’s his daughter!!” at the screen about five minutes before the reveal and was the victim of some pretty dirty looks for the remainder of the screening. Despite my dogged determination to spot any cinematic red herring thrown my way, there is something inherently wonderful about being surprised by a film’s ending. Here are a few films that managed to accomplish that:
1) Sleepaway Camp (1983) Dir. Robert Hiltzik
The Plot: The sole survivor of a horrific boating accident that claimed the lives of her parents and brother Peter, shy and introverted Angela is sent away to a summer camp by her eccentric Aunt Martha. Whilst there, Angela’s withdrawn personality makes her the target for bullies until her tormentors are murdered in increasingly gory ways by an unknown killer. Released around the same time as a slew of other eighties slasher horror flicks there is really nothing particularly outstanding about “Sleepaway Camp.” Following in the tradition of its peers, it has everything you would expect: bad acting, excessive violence, unrealistic storylines etc. The camera work is shoddy and the acting consistently straddles that line between laughable and depressing but the film’s ending has been referred to as one of the most shocking in cinematic history.
The first twist is basic film 101: the killer is Angela. It’s the twist within the twist that has earned this film its cult status. Angela is actually Peter, but has been raised as his dead sister due to his disturbed Aunt’s desire to have a girl. The film’s final shot is a naked “Angela” sporting a rather impressively sized dong, clutching the head of his last victim whilst grinning and growling at the camera. A truly disturbing and chilling final image that will haunt you for quite some time.
2) Snuff (1976) Dir. Michael and Roberta Findlay
The Plot: An all-female hippy cult trawl the streets of South America, wantonly killing and maiming innocent victims for sport. The plot was heavily influenced by the Charles Manson murders and the film’s limited success stems from a combination of strategic marketing and clever shock tactics. Capitalising on the nationwide revilement and intrigue sparked by Manson’s actions, husband and wife film directors Michael and Roberta Findlay released “Snuff,” using marketing that heavily hinted that the violence featured in the film was real. “Snuff” is a terrible film, with low budget production and cartoonish special effects. However, it featured a surprisingly sophisticated shock ending that ensured the film received a disproportionate amount of attention.
The Twist:Producer Alan Shackelton never intended to release the film. However, a rumour that the Manson cult had filmed their murder of Sharon Tate began to circulate and prompted a macabre interest in snuff films. Noticing this, Shackelton changed his mind and unbeknownst to anyone released the film with a different ending to the one originally filmed. In the new version, a jump cut interrupts the end credits and appears to show a film crew grooming and violently killing a young woman. The sequence is riddled with rough cuts and poor sound quality, ending abruptly so as to give the audience the impression that what they just saw was real. Despite numerous magazines unveiling the scene as a hoax, rumours began to spread that the film’s ending was the first genuine snuff film and Shackelton did little to discourage this notion. In spite of its terrible quality the film was a relative success, which speaks to the disturbing fascination with on screen violence that has spawned a wave of “torture porn” flicks such as “Saw” and “Hostel.”
The Plot: This slick crime thriller has everything : Suspense, Robert Deniro, a young and nubile Lisa Bonet, Robert Deniro, Mickey Rourke before he got weird and Robert Deniro. Rourke plays a New York detective Harry Angel who has been hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyphre to locate the whereabouts of New Orleans singer “Johnny Favourite.” Angel sets about trying to find him but is dismayed when everyone he encounters is murdered soon after he talks with them. As Angel furrows deeper and deeper into the case he unearths evermore unpleasant information on Favourite and wonders if he has bitten off more than he can chew.
The Twist: Harry Angel is Johnny Favourite. Favourite sold his soul to the devil in order to gain success only to renege on the deal by performing a ritual that transported his consciousness into the body of Harry Angel. As Angel has since developed amnesia and no longer remembers the deal he made, a vengeful Lucifer manipulates Angel into committing the murders ensuring he will be given the death sentence and will have to finally relinquish his soul. A highly original and dark conclusion that few will see coming.
4) Primal Fear (1996) Dir. Gregory Hoblit.
The Plot: Self – proclaimed big shot lawyer Martin Vail is charged with the difficult case of proving stuttering altar boy Aaron innocent of a high profile murder. This becomes problematic when it transpires that Aaron has multiple personality disorder, a fact which only becomes apparent halfway through the trial when he is confronted by traumatic events. His alter ego “Roy,” admits to the killing and Vail has to somehow prove that Aaron is innocent without having the case thrown out of court. This was Edward Norton’s acting debut and he is terribly compelling as the vulnerable Aaron. Richard Gere is also solid as Vail, initially using Aaron for the publicity but gradually becoming more and more invested in Aaron’s plight.
The Twist: There is no Roy. Aaron has been cleverly pretending to have a personality disorder knowing he will be sent to a mental institute and will never have to serve real time for his crimes. Watching Aaron seamlessly transition from a sweet stuttering buffoon into a mocking mastermind as Richard Gere walks away in shock knowing he effectively just freed a murderer, will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
5) Matchstick Men (2003) Dir. Ridley Scott.
The Plot: Can we take a moment just to talk about Nicholas Cage? He’s a strange one isn’t he? A cursory glance at his IMDB page reveals a long list of award nominations. He has also acted alongside countless actors of high calibre as well as worked with some of the most credible directors around. Had he chosen to combine the strength of these credits with a sense of discerning around the projects he chooses to attach himself to, he could easily have afforded himself the respect and admiration enjoyed by the Edward Nortons’ and the Sean Penns’ of the world. Instead, his career trajectory reads a little like the storyline arc for the entire six seasons of HBO’s “Lost.” It started off good if a little predictable, became rapidly more confusing with the odd glimmer of greatness and then just got a little…well…weird. Cage’s penchant for over earnest line delivery and high energy body language has earned him a reputation as a bit of a one trick pony. A one trick pony whose trick is to kill all the other ponies in the barn with its intense and manic acting style. The recent surfacing of a YouTube compilation video entitled, “Nicolas Cage losing his shit,” (which is exactly what it sounds like) has done nothing to dispel this image.
There are times when Cage gets it right however, and “Matchstick Men,” is one such example. You’d need a lot of crazy to play a con man with multiple disorders – obsessive compulsive disorder, physical tics and agoraphobia least among them – and luckily Cage has crazy in spades. There is something truly magical about watching Cage exorcise his veritable well of inner madness whilst turning in arguably one of the best performances of his career. Fed up with the severity of Roy’s disorders, his accomplice and protégé Frank (superbly played by acting powerhouse Sam Rockwell) advises him to seek help in the form of therapist Chuck. Over the course of several sessions, Roy establishes a relationship with the daughter he thought lost to him and gradually learns to appreciate the positivity she brings to his life. Deciding at the last minute to involve her in a con, things get messy when the con doesn’t go to plan and he is left fighting to ensure her survival.
The Twist: It’s rare to find a heist thriller without a pretty big twist and even rarer when the victim of the twist is the main protagonist himself. Chuck, Angela and the supposed victim of the con are all players in an elaborate plot weaved by Frank to trick Roy into giving them the fortune he has amassed. Ridley Scott’s careful capturing of the brotherly camaraderie shared between Roy and Frank coupled with the seeming tenderness of the burgeoning father –daughter relationship makes this twist all the more heart-breaking.
6) The Lady In The Water (2006) Dir. M. Night. Shyamalan.
The Plot: M. Night. Shyamalan’s take on a modern day fairy-tale. Resident handyman Cleveland (played by Paul Giamatti) discovers a nymph like creature in his pool and has to help her escape the clutches of an evil wolf creature that is intent on stopping her returning to her world.
The Twist: This is a really bad film. That’s it. That’s the twist.