It Was All A Dream: A Brief History Of Movie Twist Endings

Now You See Me is just the latest in a long line of endings that yell, “Surprise!”

Now You See Me is just the latest in a long line of endings that yell, “Surprise!”

It may have had its release date pushed back on two separate occasions, but the Jesse Eisenberg-starring magician-heist epic Now You See Me finally materializes in theaters this weekend—and, seriously guys, it’s insane. We won’t spoil the plot before anybody’s even had a chance to see it, but let’s just say that this movie’s twists make Citizen Kane look like The Happening. In other words, this is a magic movie for people who thought the ending of The Prestige was a little too down-to-Earth. Really. This probably just goes to show that Hollywood has no faith in their restless audiences, whom they assume demand bigger and stupider twist endings with every passing summer. Everybody is too cynical and too savvy nowadays, and those tidy little “it was all a dream” or “he was dead all along” endings just don’t cut it anymore. The people want – nay, they need – things to get batshit crazy. If your movie is about a detective hunting a serial killer, the detective had damn well better turn out to have been the killer with a split personality. If your movie has more than one character, someone needs to be a figment of someone else’s imagination. The more ridiculous the better, right?

Twist endings used to be a huge surprise. There was a time when you could, say, make a silent German horror film called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and when you revealed that the narrator of the movie was actually a mental patient, you really blew some minds. So let’s take a look back through film history to see where our interest in twists became a stupid, stupid obsession. Warning: Half-century old spoilers follow!

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Movies had plot twists long before 1955, but that was the year French director Henri-Georges Clouzot completely changed the game. It was common practice in the early days of movie-going for audiences to waltz into the theater in the middle of a picture, but Clouzot, whose movie featured a shocking last-act revelation, forced places showing his Les Diaboliques to refuse entry to anybody after the lights went down. The end credits even featured a title card that warned people not to spoil the ending for anybody who hadn’t seen it, thus creating spoiler culture a good four decades before the Internet.

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock thought Clouzot was on to something with his no-late-admission policy, so he up and stole it wholesale for Psycho five years later. Everybody knows now that Norman Bates was dressing up as his mother and murdering guests with his split personality, but in 1960 the idea of killing off your lead actress halfway through the movie was as unthinkable as…well, showing a toilet flushing, actually, which also happened in Psycho for the first time in movie history. So not only was Hitchcock mastering the art of the twist ending, he was giving birth to toilet humor. Truly, a visionary.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

The Statue of Liberty! Broken up and floating on the beach! But that means…yes, it was earth all along, which is perhaps still the most memorable twist ending in movie history. The genius thing about this twist was that, while it sure did pull the rug out from under unsuspecting audiences, it wasn’t made to seem like a punchline or an unfair gag—it was a last-second way to recast the whole movie as completely depressing. Oh, you just spent two hours rooting for Heston to somehow escape and make it back home alive? Well, screw you: he’s already home! It was a classic Twilight Zone move, but it hadn’t really been done in a feature film before. This established a long, irritating precedent of twists meant solely to piss off an audience.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

If you could pinpoint the moment that fanboy culture transformed itself from a niche pastime to a rabid obsession, it was the day that The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters in 1980. The closely guarded secret that – uh, spoiler warning, we guess – Darth Vader was Luke’s father quickly passed into pop culture legend, and from that day forward the idea of going to a nerd movie like Star Wars became synonymous with finding out something mind-blowingly cool, from rushing to Blade Runner to learn that Harrison Ford was a robot all the way (or was he??) to today, when half the fun of seeing the new Star Trek is discovering the name of the main villain. It’s a totally idiotic tradition that nerds wouldn’t give up for the world. (P.S. the villain is Khan. Knowing this spoils – and adds – absolutely nothing.)

House of Games (1987)

If George Lucas made plot twists the purview of the proudly nerdy, David Mamet graced the style with some much-needed credibility. House of Games, his first directorial outing, made quite a show of its con-men games, and the last act’s big reveal was so densely plotted that even the most hardcore nitpickers couldn’t find a way to poke a hole in it. To Mamet’s credit, he made a career on his ability to write twist-heavy plots better than just about anybody in Hollywood, which reached its height with the Steve Martin comedy-thriller The Spanish Prisoner, a movie so insanely clever that the only appropriate response is to applaud the design. All of this high-art twisting had a strong influence on indie filmmakers in the years to come, whose Hollywood debuts were chock-full of such artfully crafted turnabouts.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

And here we have the beginnings of a long and annoying trend among Hollywood’s hippest movies: throw in a twist so crazy and unexpected that audiences who don’t know much better will call the writer a genius. The Usual Suspects is a much-beloved thriller, of course, but surely we can all admit now that it barely earns its last-second twist ending, which it hides throughout its running time with all the grace and subtlety of a kid making up the rules to a game as he goes along. Sure, most folks didn’t guess that Verbal Kint was Keyser Soze until the final moments of the movie, but that’s only because the movie hid all of the clues from plain sight. From here on out it seemed like fair game for twists to be written around rather than written carefully, all under the excuse that the story is related to us by a “reliable narrator,” one of the trendiest terms of the era.

Fight Club (1999)

The masterpiece of the “reliable narrator” movement was none other than David Fincher’s Fight Club, which delivered its twist ending from so far out of left field that the main reason nobody could have predicted it is that it seems too ridiculous to be possible. Fight Club marked the moment that twist endings became a practical calling card of indie cred, and after this you couldn’t find a remotely hip thriller or drama without some kind of completely ludicrous revelation made in the final moments. What was worse for films to come, though, was the fact that Fight Club had already raised the bar of sheer ridiculousness so high, making it next to impossible for each new film to up the ante even more – though lord knows they tried.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The one-two punch of Fight Club and The Sixth Sense in 1999 made mind-blowing twist endings the de facto trend to beat, especially because the particular twist at the end of this movie quickly became one of the most widely discussed in cinema history. Getting to a theater to see this thing before somebody up and spoiled it for you was like the world’s most irritating time trial, and, like Fight Club, it made it nearly impossible for film directors wanting to scare up some ticket sales to write anything without adding in a twist of their own (even that lousy, completely forgettable Robert De Niro thriller Godsend came packaged with a hype-mongering reveal as stupid as it was insignificant, a sure sign of the times). M Night Shyamalan became one of the worst offenders for writing in twist endings and trying desperately to outdo himself each time, until the release of a new Shyamalan movie simply meant going to hunt for clues.

Memento (2000)

By the year 2000, twist endings were going the way of disco – too much had come too soon and people were getting a bit tired of it. But that didn’t stop Christopher Nolan from capping his backwards-thriller with the grand daddy of twists, in which the hero is revealed to be a serious asshole with crime-solving issues. He’d go on to double-down with The Prestige and, in its own way, that audience-pantsing last shot in Inception, and he’s been one of the last holdouts of the early 2000s wunderkinds to keep carrying the torch for the gimmick. Well, until Now You See Me came along, of course.

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