The big reveal or the twist ending, if it’s successfully handled, is a movie classic. It turns everything you thought you knew about the story on its head, usually during the last minutes of the story. The effect can be surprising or shocking, but sometimes, the ending of a movie ends on a note so disturbing that it stays with you for days. It’s more than your standard horror-movie shock ending.
Even when a movie has had its disturbing moments, somehow, we always hope for some kind of resolution at the end. These flicks, however, want to leave you with something other than a happy glow. They want to shake you up and leave you questioning everything you thought about… life.
Some of them leave us contemplating the truly awful state of human nature and the pointlessness of existence. Or of trying to do anything good in the world. Let’s just say, you wouldn’t watch any of these movies if you were looking for upbeat escapism or motivation for trying to make a difference. We’ve compiled a list for those of us who like it dark – just be sure to have some friends around when you chill to watch these flicks. Plenty of spoilers ahead!
15. The Thing (1982)
This movie by John Carpenter stars Kurt Russell as a R.J. MacReady, an American scientist at a station in Antarctica. The movie would also qualify for the list of most disturbing opening shots, too, as it begins with a helicopter chasing a poor doggo over the snow. Things get hairy, the helicopter is shot down, and the Norwegian researchers in it end up dead, too. But the doggo is saved, yay! Except, he’s not a doggo; he’s a vicious alien thing that can take the form of anything it touches. And so it goes, working its murderous way through the increasingly paranoid and terrified members of the Antarctic base. The story builds to a climax where MacReady, in pursuit by the Thing and afraid it will simply lie dormant until a rescue team arrives to take it to the rest of the world, manages to blow up the base with dynamite. Then, as he watches the camp burn, one of the other crew members mysteriously reappears, claiming to have been lost in a snow storm. MacReady knows he’s probably infected, but with no way to fight or even survive in the harsh cold, the movie ends with the two of them having a drink and watching the fire in silence.
14. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
You know this movie isn’t going happy places from the very start. The story begins just after a school massacre by a 15-year-old kid named “Kevin.” Kevin’s mom, Eva Khatchadourian, (played by Tilda Swinton) relates the story from her point of view in a series of letters to her husband, Franklin. Eva gave up a freedom-loving career as a travel writer and publisher to have a baby, and it doesn’t go well. She can’t bond with the child, and he grows into an angry, sociopathic teenager with no sense of love or affection for anyone and a special hatred for his mother. His behavior progresses from cruel to violent. While Eva knows something is wrong, Franklin keeps insisting that the boy is perfectly normal and healthy. It’s destroying their marriage, and Kevin has possibly also blinded his sister, among other heinous acts. By the time the narration catches up to the massacre, it’s the big reveal; in fact, Franklin and sister Celia are both dead. Kevin killed them first with a bow and arrow before heading off to school. The movie ends two years later as Eva visits him in prison and asks him why. He says he doesn’t know. The feel-bad ending of 2011.
13. Oldboy (2003)
This Korean thriller is about as twisted a story as you’re ever likely to see on screen, based on a manga with the same title. Oh Dae-su, a seemingly innocuous, bland businessman, is kidnapped one day and imprisoned for a numbing 15 years in what looks like a generic hotel room. He never knows who his captor is and cannot guess why he’s being punished. While he’s in there, he learns that his wife has been murdered and that he’s been framed in absentia for the killing. He plots revenge and figures out a way to dig his way out. But, just then, he wakes up outside. His troubles getting back into the world are many, but he’s eventually befriended by pretty young Mi-do, a chef at a restaurant. He learns that his daughter has been adopted by a Swedish couple and stops looking for her. Woo-jin, his captor, calls him to torment him. He tells him that if Dae-su can figure out the reason for his kidnapping within five days, he’ll kill himself. If he can’t, Woo-jin will kill Mi-do, with whom Dae-su has started a sexual relationship. The kicker comes at the very end. It turns out that years ago, Dae-su caused Woo-jin’s sister to commit suicide… and Mi-do is Dae-su’s long lost daughter. Woo-jin threatens to tell her the truth, but then Dae-su cuts out his own tongue as proof of his penance. Woo-jin commits suicide. Dae-su then goes to a hypnotist to make him forget it all so he can still have a relationship with Mi-do. Just without a tongue. You need a shower after seeing this movie.
12. Shutter Island (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio earned lots of kudos for his portrayal of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels in this period drama by Martin Scorsese. Daniels is sent to Shutter Island, a small, rocky island that’s home to Ashecliffe Hospital for the mentally ill. He’s there with his new partner, played by Mark Ruffalo, to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy woman, a patient at the hospital who had committed murder. Daniels quickly becomes involved in a disturbing and convoluted mystery. Soon, he’s having odd dreams and visions of his army service. He also dreams of his wife, Dolores, who was killed in a fire set by an arsonist by the name of “Andrew Laeddis.” There are suggestions of nefarious experiments being performed by the doctors and lobotomies in the lighthouse. The investigation ramps up until Taylor bursts into the office of the head doc to confront him, only to discover that he is, in reality, not a detective but a patient who murdered his depressive wife after she drowned their children. At the end, the doctor gives Daniel/Laeddis the chance to either embrace reality or face a lobotomy to treat his violent tendencies. Daniels seems okay for a few minutes but then lapses back into his delusion – making him surgery bound.
11. Memento (2000)
This film by Christopher Nolan was hailed for an innovative approach to storytelling in a mainstream release. It starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man with no short-term memory after an attack that left him disabled and his wife dead. His wife was raped and murdered, and he’s out for revenge. He’s developed a technique to overcome his lack of memory using tattoos and Polaroid pics that document his train of thought from one day to the next. The great thing about this movie is that we, as viewers, become very sympathetic to Leonard and his righteous quest for revenge. He finally tracks down the dude he thinks murdered his wife and kills him. Then, he learns that he got the wrong guy — and that he actually killed the real murderer a year earlier. Worse yet, his wife didn’t die from the attack. She died later when he bungled her insulin dosage. He can’t deal with the truth, and neither can we.
10. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The original Planet of the Apes movie, co-written by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), differs from the reboot series in setting the story far into the future. A spaceship crashes with four astronauts, including Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, who wake from cryo-sleep. The year is 3978. The astronauts eventually encounter primitive humans who can’t speak and also fearsome gorillas on horseback who capture the humans to use as slaves. Welcome to the Planet of the Apes! As the only human capable of speech, Taylor attracts the attention of scientists, but it all goes awry. The chimps who befriend him are charged with heresy, and the ruling gorillas destroy any evidence of advanced human civilization. As Taylor escapes from the city with one of the human women, he comes upon the Statue of Liberty, neck deep in sand on the beach. He falls to his knees, destroyed by the realization that it was man’s ruination of the earth that led to humankind’s defeat. There really is no going home. The movie was hugely successful when it was released in 1968 and spawned four sequels, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes.
9. Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson looking his down-and-out best as P.I. Jake Gittes in this period noir flick. He’s hired by a socialite named Evelyn Mulwray, ostensibly to tail her wandering husband. He shoots a photograph of the man with a young woman that ends up in the newspaper. Then, he meets the real Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway). Gittes soon finds himself in over his head in a tangled conspiracy involving crooked land speculation that was inspired by the real-life California Water Wars. Mr. Mulwray ends up dead, the first of a string of bodies. Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross, emerges as the villain behind it all, including the fact that the girl in the photograph, Katherine, is Evelyn’s daughter and her sister, the product of incest. Now, Noah wants to get his hooks into Katherine, too. Gittes tries to help Evelyn and Katherine out of town, but Cross’s goons get in the way, and Evelyn ends up shot dead by police. The last scene we see is Katherine driving away with Noah as Jake watches helplessly. “Forget it, Jake,” the cops tell him. “It’s Chinatown.” Roman Polanski directed the movie. Just sayin’.
8. Buried (2010)
Ryan Reynolds put aside his usual glamorous leading-man roles when he took on the character of Paul, an American truck driver working in Iraq. He wakes up after an attack by insurgents to find himself in just about everyone’s worst nightmare – buried alive in a coffin. All he’s got is a lighter, a cell phone, and a claustrophobic 95 minutes to try and get himself out of there before the wooden box fills with sand. Calls to the State Department lead him not to ransom money but to a guy named “Dan Brenner,” who tells Paul they’re trying to find him with a rescue team. Dan is encouraging and tells him that they’ve rescued another guy in the same situation. The terrorists execute his surviving colleagues, and the company he works for tells him that he’s fired and that his family won’t be getting any benefits. He hallucinates a rescue, but then, as the sand gets dangerously close to suffocating him, Brenner calls to tell him they’re close and are digging their way to him. The downer reveal is that the coffin they discover belongs to a guy called “Mark White” – the same guy Brenner claimed to have already rescued. As Brenner apologizes over the phone, the sand engulfs our hero. The end.
7. The Mist (2007)
Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden starred in this movie based on a Stephen King short story about the spooky mist that takes over a town with vicious, murderous monsters after a violent storm. Jane is an artist by the name of “David Drayton,” and the movie essentially consists of the usual heroics of a father trying to keep his young son and other random survivors alive as they hole up in a supermarket. They’re stranded, and then David, his son, and three other survivors manage to make it to a car. But they eventually run out of gas, with the creatures and the mist surrounding them. They have a horrible decision to make. Die a horrible death or check out on their own terms? Drayton only has a few bullets left, so he kills his son and the others one by one. Then he goes to kill himself, and whoops, there are no bullets left. Just as he’s agonizing over that, he steps out of the car, expecting to be slaughtered by one of the creatures. Then, the mist clears and reveals that the army was just a few moments away from rescuing them all. Double whoops. Sorry guys. Screaming, he falls to his knees.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Mia Farrow plays Rosemary Woodhouse, a pregnant woman who begins to suspect that her husband Guy and the too-friendly middle-aged couple in their apartment building are conspiring to have her spawn the child of a demon. She’s right, of course – the dream of being raped by a demon was a good clue. The tension ramps up in the creepy old New York City apartment building where, apparently, pretty much all of the tenants belong to the sinister satanist cult. When she gives birth, they initially tell her the child has died, but Rosemary finds a secret door to the older couple’s apartment, where the coven is raising the son of Satan. Initially horrified, Rosemary, in the end, is rocking the cradle with a smile on her face. It’s not really surprising that two Roman Polanski movies ended up on this list. It was his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, who was viciously murdered by the Manson Family in 1968, an eerie footnote to this movie.
5. Donnie Darko (2001)
This Richard Kelly flick puzzled and disturbed many viewers throughout the story – not just at the end. Jake Gyllenhaal plays troubled teen Donnie Darko. One night, he sleepwalks and meets Frank, the guy (or whatever) in a weird rabbit suit and who’ll be stalking him regularly. Frank tells him the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. He goes back home to find out a plane has crashed into his bedroom. Because he was with Frank, though, he survives… We could write a dissertation on the different theories of time travel opened up by the often-confusing plot that ensues, but we don’t have that kind of space. Trust us when we tell you the plane crash has opened up a kind of loop in time, with two realities that are about to collide. In one, Donnie dies when the plane crashes into his bedroom. In the other, his girlfriend and a slew of others die. Oh, and the world ends. After some adventures where Frank leads Donnie into flooding the school and other juvenile delinquency, the day of doom approaches, and yes, our hero is squashed by the plane.
4. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Jon Voight is Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman is “Ratso” Rizzo in this classic 1960s flick. Joe is a dishwasher in Texas who decides to head to New York City and find work as a prostitute to rich older women. That doesn’t work out so well, but he does run into Ratso, an older con man in bad health. He rips Jack off. Jack has a run of bad luck and bad encounters with potential tricks both male and female. Then, he runs into Ratso again, and despite an angry beginning, the two agree to partner up as street hustlers. There’s a lot of backstory about bad parenting and hellish childhoods and a trippy Andy Warholesque party scene with actual Warhol stars like Ultra Violet, and Paul Morrissey in cameo roles. Just as Joe finally starts getting some action from rich women, Ratso’s health takes a turn for the worse, and he begs Jack to put him on a bus to Miami. Jack rips off a male trick to get the money for bus fare and some new clothes. They board the bus, and Ratso dies right there beside him. The bus driver tells him that he can’t stop, so Joe has to make the trip with his dead buddy at his side.
3. House of Sand and Fog (2003)
This drama stars Jennifer Connelly as a down-on-her-luck wife, abandoned by her husband. She’s evicted from her house as a result of a misunderstanding about taxes. While she’s penniless and about to be evicted from her motel room, too, she finds out the house has been sold for the tax monies to an Iranian-American family. Ben Kingsley plays Esmail, the father of the struggling family, a man who’s living above his means and has demons of his own. Jennifer’s Kathy becomes determined to regain her home, but Esmail wants more money now that he’s put some work into renovating it. The matter escalates and gets crazy, until a scene where Kathy attempts suicide and her boyfriend tries to force Esmail into giving up the house. In the ensuing confusion, Esmail’s son is shot, and he’s arrested. Esmail is released, but when he finds out his son has died, he poisons his wife in her sleep so she’ll never find out and then kills himself by asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag. No happy endings here.
2. The Wicker Man (1973)
The 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage was laughably bad, but the original British 1973 horror flick was atmospheric and well received in its day. A cop is sent to the boonies, an island in the remote Hebrides region, to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named “Rowan.” Once he gets there, he’s alarmed to find the villagers practicing rituals to pagan Celtic gods. What’s more, they all deny that Rowan even existed — including Rowan’s mother. Christopher Lee plays the island’s leader and Britt Ekland, the sexy landlord’s daughter, who tries to seduce the honest cop. The cop eventually discovers that whenever there’s a bad harvest, the villagers make a human sacrifice and concludes, to his horror, that it will be Rowan. He comes upon where Rowan is apparently about to be sacrificed and saves her, but they run into a gang of villagers. Surprise! Rowan runs up to her family — it was all a ruse, and the cop was the target all along. The villagers tie him up and put him inside a wicker effigy and then proceed to burn him alive as they sing an old folk song.
1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
This highly successful remake of a 1956 horror classic starred Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy. Sutherland plays Jack, a San Francisco health inspector who, to his horror, discovers that his friends and neighbors are gradually being replaced by alien replicas. The aliens have abandoned their own world, and once on earth, they form small pods with pink flowers. People take them home, and next thing you know, they’ve been replaced by an emotionless pod facsimile. One way you can tell the pods from humans is, when the pods realize a human is in their midst, they emit a shriek. Eventually, Matthew and Nancy are the only humans left, until one morning, when we see Matthew leading his everyday life, going to work – where his pod colleagues ignore him – then meeting up with Nancy and… shrieking, because he’s now a pod, too. Aaah… The protagonist-turned-monster ending has been used many times, but seldom as effectively as when we see Nancy screaming in terror because she’s the only human left in town.
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