With the release of a new M. Night Shyamalan movie, it's time to ponder an important question: Are twist endings still necessary? Sure, the first hundred or so stories to ingeniously reverse audience expectations were exciting, but does the device have a future? The A.V. Club surveys the evidence (with spoilers aplenty), trusting its readers to draw their own conclusions… Or will it turn out that the conclusions have actually been drawing the readers all along?!?
Plot: Janet Leigh robs her boss, spends the night at a virtually deserted motel, listens to its owner's son (Anthony Perkins) talk about his overbearing mother, then falls victim to her in a shower knife-attack.
The big twist: Perkins killed his mother years ago; unable to cope with his crime, he kept her personality alive as a murderous aspect of himself.
Does it work? Oh yes. Perkins' condition doesn't make psychological sense, no matter how detailed Simon Oakland's psychiatric description gets. But Hitchcock sets it up brilliantly, and Perkins' twitchy performance assures it makes perfect dramatic sense.
Could it work today? Ask Gus Van Sant.
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
Plot: Three astronauts crash-land on a planet where mute humans are slaves to intelligent apes.
The big twist: The planet of the apes is actually Earth many years after a nuclear war, because they blew it up, those maniacs! Goddamn them all to hell!
Does it work? Sure does. Even without the big twist, Planet Of The Apes works as a brilliant, vague metaphor for the way the privileged of the world exploit what they can without considering the consequences. The twist is just a big, fat exclamation point.
Could it work today? Ask Tim Burton.
Soylent Green (1973)
Plot: Charlton Heston plays a future cop investigating a murder tied to Soylent Green, a foodstuff regularly released to the starving, overcrowded masses of the 21st century.
The big twist: It's people! Soylent Green is people!
Does it work? Totally, assuming you're the one person on the planet who doesn't already know the twist. The film spends more time on its grungy surroundings, slowly establishing the negligible value of human life in a world where even air has become a commodity.
Could it work today? No. Awakened to the precariousness of the environment by early-'70s activism and films like Soylent Green, the world put the brakes on overpopulation and the exhaustion of natural resources. The air has never been cleaner, the climate's never been healthier, and corporations never put profits over people.
Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
Plot: Famed detective Hercule Poirot attempts to solve a murder on a train, but it looks like everyone on the train is guilty.
The big twist: Everyone is guilty; the entire cast ganged up to stab the victim.
Does it work? Yes. Agatha Christie's scenario ratchets up the tension slowly, as the creepy Poirot (played by Albert Finney) uncovers so many motives and connections that it seems like only one solution is possible. Christie's decision to go with that solution makes the ending not so much a twist as a case of Occam's razor in action, and while the scripting and characterization is complex, the resolution works because it's so flawlessly simple.
Could it work today? It'd be a harder sell without such a terrific name cast. (Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Michael York, Richard Widmark…) It's hard to imagine a comparably sophisticated collection of old screen warhorses assembling today, and the version with Luke and Owen Wilson, Ashton Kutcher, and Drew Barrymore just wouldn't be the same.
Eddie And The Cruisers (1983)
Plot: Soulful blue-collar rocker Michael Paré dies mysteriously in 1964 after recording an unreleased album (A Season In Hell) so progressive that it makes Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band look like a collection of Archies covers. But if Paré is really dead, then why is his gal seemingly receiving mysterious signals from him? And what's up with creepy manager Joe Pantoliano and his unconvincing old-man makeup?
The big twist: It turns out all the mysterious signals are coming from Pantoliano, who wants to trick Paré's gal into giving him the lucrative Season In Hell tapes. Also, Paré is still alive, and he now sports some unconvincing old-man makeup of his own to prove it.
Does it work? No, but that didn't prevent this particularly shitty twist ending from spawning an unnecessary sequel, 1989's Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!
Could it work today? This twist ending is as timeless and relevant as the soundtrack music by John Cafferty And The Beaver Brown Band. Which is to say, no.
Fight Club (1999)
Plot: Frustrated, spiritually vacant yuppie Edward Norton meets a devious soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a plane. Together, they and other buttoned-down men work out their aggression through an underground fight club that expands into an anarchic movement bent on upending civilization.
The big twist: Tyler Durden isn't a real person, he's a manifestation of Norton's subconscious.
Does it work? Yes. Though such a metaphysical twist seems like a cheat—after all, no one could really see it coming—director David Fincher suggests throughout the film that something is amiss, with touches like Durden's presence in subliminal flash frames before he and Norton "meet."
Could it work today? A French horror-thriller released in theaters last year—hint: it owed more than a little to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—tried out the exact same twist, to head-slappingly ridiculous effect. See also: Identity. Speaking of which…
Plot: A group of strangers are stranded in a remote motel, where a killer starts picking them off one by one. Eventually, they learn that they're all linked, and that their arrival at the motel was no accident.
The big twist: They're actually all characters in the head of a killer with multiple-personality syndrome, and he's "killing" them as part of a psychiatric treatment designed to leave him with just the one relatively sane personality. In a secondary twist, it turns out that the small-child personality who disappears early on in the movie is the psycho-killer identity, and he "kills" the sane identity and takes over the body.
Does it work? Uh, try reading all that again and conceiving of a universe in which it isn't flat-out ridiculous.
Could it work today? It was a punchline when Donald Kaufman came up with a similar idea in Adaptation in 2002, and it's still a punchline today. Multiple personalities in a killer's head! Haw!
Plot: Since his wife's murder, insurance adjuster Guy Pearce has suffered from a condition called anterograde amnesia, which keeps him from retaining new memories. In an effort to track down her killer, Pearce relies on a system of tattoos, notes, and Polaroids to retain crucial information.
The big twist: Pearce's shifty associate Joe Pantoliano has been using his condition to manipulate him. Pantoliano also suggests—and there's no reason not to believe him—that Pearce is responsible for killing his wife with an insulin overdose. But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that Pearce has been lying to himself all along, recasting reality in a way that best suits him.
Does it work? Absolutely. Not only does the film offer a fresh take on the classic "unreliable narrator" character, but its twist also comments on the nature of memory, and how we all manipulate ourselves to some extent in how we process reality.
Could it work today? Probably not. Memories are fleeting, but DVDs last a long time, and it would be difficult for another film to try the same tricks without viewers crying foul.
The Life Of David Gale (2002)
Plot: Irony of ironies, vocal anti-capital-punishment crusader Kevin Spacey ends up on death row for the rape and murder of fellow activist Laura Linney. Before his execution date, he confides in investigative journalist Kate Winslet, and his story unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
The big twist: Spacey neither raped nor killed Linney; they staged the event as a form of radical protest. Turns out Linney was terminally ill anyway, so by making her inevitable death look like murder—and filming their stunt for future exoneration—they could make the point that innocent people reside on death row.
Does it work? If you're pro-death-penalty, maybe. If you're anti-death-penalty, as the filmmakers claim to be, then clearly not. How in the world could such a ridiculous deception win people over to a cause? If this happened in real life, both sides would tar Spacey for his unscrupulous actions, and he'd be thrown back in jail on fresh charges.
Could it work today? Only if the deception was reversed. For example, you could present vague photographic evidence of something for official review, then later reveal that that it never existed, after which it's too late for anyone to take action anyway. Worked for Colin Powell.
Plot: Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes unexpectedly wake up in a dingy basement with a bloodied corpse, some clues, and a deathtrap. They have a limited amount of time to solve a series of ghastly puzzles designed by a serial killer who enjoys challenging his victims' determination to survive.
The big twist: The "corpse" is actually the killer in gory makeup; he's hanging out in the room to watch Whannell and Elwes go through their paces. Ultimately, he leaves them both to die.
Does it work? Good Lord, no. As an out-of-the-blue shock, it's fairly effective, but it raises a ludicrous number of questions, starting either with "Why didn't they notice him breathing?" or "Exactly how stupid do the filmmakers think we are?"
Could it work today? No. Perhaps some day, super-advanced medical technology will enable industrious serial killers to stop breathing for 90 minutes and watch their victims through closed eyelids, but that day has not yet arrived.
The Village (2004)
Plot: The inhabitants of an old-timey village never leave proscribed boundaries so as not to run afoul of terrifying beasties that take their fashion cues from Little Red Riding Hood.
The big twist: Oh my God! It isn't an old-timey village at all! The movie is actually set in the present! (Cue melodramatic organ music.) The beasties are just villagers in silly costumes, and the senior villagers are modern-day folks who, perhaps horrified by the ubiquity of cheesy plot twists, chose to opt out of contemporary society.
Does it work? Put it this way: If you freeze-frame the moment when the climactic twist is revealed, you can actually see a leather-jacketed villager on water-skis leaping over a shark in the distance.
Could it work today? Unlikely.
Hide And Seek (2005)
Plot: A spooky little girl (Dakota Fanning) forms a dark bond with a sinister imaginary friend following her mother's death. As the bodies pile up, Fanning's uptight headshrinker dad (Robert De Niro) tries to uncover the dark secret of his daughter's demonic imaginary chum before it's too late.
The big twist: Oh my God! The schizophrenic De Niro is actually the murderous imaginary friend! And he's willing to spend an interminable amount of time trying to kill Fanning to prove it!
Does it work? Not really, although it could be argued that spending too much time with an especially goth Dakota Fanning would drive anyone insane.
Could it work today? No. Hide And Seek's twist ending fooled gullible 2005 audiences, but today's moviegoers, raised on challenging, mind-expanding fare like Little Man and Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties, are far too savvy to fall for such convoluted nonsense.