No genre has more invested in the twist ending – in being able to pull the rug out from under you at the last possible second – than horror. The best are the films that truly sneak up on you, making you re-examine everything that preceded the surprise.
Andy Ussery of Black Cat’s Shadow podcast joins us and he has an entirely different list of movies – that’s how many there are!
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Is it a brilliant movie? Will George be happy it made the list? That’s a lot of no right there, but honestly, how do we not acknowledge this stroke of genius?
Poor Angela (Felissa Rose)! She witnesses the death of her beloved father and, while still apparently quite traumatized, is asked to just go along with weird Aunt Martha’s (Desiree Gould—amazing!) whim.
Well, it doesn’t work out well for Angela or any of the staff or youngsters at Camp Arawak. But the damage you can do with a curling iron is hardly our concern today. No, it’s that final shot. The money shot. That face! That hairy chest! That wang!!
Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker directed Pink Floyd: The Wall. That has literally nothing to do with this list, but still.
In Angel Heart, Parker develops a steamy, lurid atmosphere as we follow private dick Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) through the bowels of New Orleans in search of information on crooner Johnny Favorite.
Rourke’s performance is key to the film’s unseemly feel. A sinner – never a traditional hero – still, Angel’s sympathetic and full of a disheveled charm. You’re sorry for him even as you know he’s outmatched and probably undeserving of your pity. He knows it, too, and that’s what makes the performance so strong.
That, and the sheer diabolical presence of an unsettlingly understated Robert DeNiro. That hard boiled egg thing! Love!!
Bloodshed on the bayou – languid and unseemly.
In 2001, actor Bill “We’re toast! Game over!” Paxton took a stab at directing the quietly disturbing supernatural thriller Frailty.
Paxton stars as a widowed dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.
Whatever its flaws – too languid a pace, too trite an image of idyllic country life, Powers Boothe – Frailty manages to subvert every horror film expectation by playing right into them. We’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.
Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity over whether this man is insane, and his therefore good-hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys. Or could he really be chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God?
Brent Hanley’s sly screenplay evokes nostalgic familiarity, and Paxton’s direction makes you feel entirely comfortable in these common surroundings. Then the two of them upend everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if they’ve challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.
The Others (2001)
Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming. She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.
What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.
Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know), heighten the creepiness.
With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
h, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.
A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.
With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.
Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.