[Remember This?] When Being Dead The Whole Time Was A Twist?

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I didn’t have enough room in the headline for this article’s subtitle, which is And Remember When “They Were All The Same Person” Was A Twist? This whole thing has been buzzing around in my head since a recent argument regarding the ending to Haute Tension, which I found sort of ridiculous. It’s the standard “The Protagonist Is Insane And Actually The Killer” (aka “The Split Personality” twist). But I have to say it got me thinking that this trope actually doesn’t bug me as much as the other two, since it usually says more about the characters at hand.

Still, I’m not sure what happened to our brains over the past 14 years, but you can’t call something a twist if everyone knows it’s coming. I feel like horror needs to widen its bag of tricks beyond the “they were dead”, the “split personality” and “the protag is crazy” tropes which seem to be the only three ploys in regular use for filmmakers seeking to pull the rug out from under their audience.

The “dead” thing worked for The Sixth Sense, and it sort of worked two years later with The Others. It also worked in 1962′s Carnival Of Souls. But we’ve seen it employed at least twice more recently in Passengers and The Devil’s Ground. I’m not denigrating those films necessarily, but it should probably end there. Similarly the “split ” angle didn’t even quite work in Identity and it certainly didn’t work in The Ward. It was sort of used in Shutter Island as well, but it worked there because it was actually source of catharsis for its character.

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Around the time The Ward came out I made a point to ask five people, people who hadn’t seen the movie, the following question, “If a movie takes place in an insane asylum and there are five leads, what’s the twist?” Every single person answered, “they’re the same person.”

Now, I don’t want to go on a pissy rant that denigrates anybody, few things displease me more than articles that call into question the ability and/or intelligence of a filmmaker without having all of the facts. For all I know, a lot of these scripts had been around for a while and were the passion projects of their directors. If you’ve been working on something forever, you’re not gonna just stop when something similar comes along. I get it. It’s just that we’ve reached a saturation point with this stuff. Twists aren’t necessary to a good story, but if you’re going to have one make sure it actually twists.

One recent horror film where the twist actually worked for me was A Horrible Way To Die. I feel like its ending is very much a twist, it’s just that it doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s a revelation of its characters’ true nature (both AJ Bowen’s and Joe Swanberg’s, though I find Bowen’s revelation more compelling), not an upending of the film’s reality. I’d like to see more films embrace that route and realize that “shocking” doesn’t necessarily mean “showy.”

What about you? Any pet peeve twists out there that I missed?

  • Primeus

    Session 9 tried to do the same thing but it turned out to be a complete mess.

    All the tropes are hard to pull off because it’s so easy to see them coming. In Sixth Sense no one saw that coming. The Others was so well acted that even though close to the end you kind of saw it coming it didn’t matter. I also found that Nicole Kidman’s talk to the kids when it was all over about “This is our house” was chilling.

    Bad movies are bad movies. It doesn’t matter what horror cliches they use..if the movie is bad nothing will save it…That is what happen to Idenity and The Ward.

    • dr.lamb

      I guessed the ending of “Identity” the moment the plot of the killer was brought into the equation.

    • doomas10

      Session 9 was epic! It scared the hell out of me.Didn’t see that twist coming and I really liked the slow-burn horror. I would have prefer though a supernatural aspect as mental asylums are so much creepier than any haunted house

    • ThunderDragoon

      Finally somebody else here on BD who doesn’t like Session 9! Thank you! Thought I was the only one.

      • cmwright1981

        Well hell. It appears we are forming a gang. Make that three people who weren’t impressed. Outside of the extremely dramatic, and I’m guessing unintentionally funny, “F*** youuuuuu” from David Caruso the whole thing felt like it was building toward a potential that never actually existed in the first place. Maybe that was the twist…

  • WalkingDeadGuy

    Great article, Evan. The “we were really ghosts all along” trope really goes back to the Twilight Zone, numerous episodes, including season one’s “the hitch-hiker” perfected this twist. I don’t mind it, but by now it’s played out for feature films.

    I’m not sure if this is necessarily a “twist”, but I hate it when a film ends with the realization that the rest of the movie was a dream/hallucination/fake. I don’t want to feel like what I watched didn’t really happen; it really makes the viewer feel like they wasted their time.

    • dr.lamb

      A lot of supposedly original twists were already played out in “Star Trek: TNG” episodes. They often cannot sustain a feature-length movie.

    • cmwright1981

      Amen to that!! Nothing pisses me off more than to have two hours of heart-wrenching tragedy, at the end of which everything is ruined beyond repair, only to find out it was a dream. It’s like filmmakers are afraid to have anyone walk out the theater until everything is happy again.

      Some of my favorite movies are the ones that say, “Screw you. The bad guy wins. The heroine is dead. Now get the hell out of my theater.”

  • Zombie-Killa

    Oh, Evan WHY did you have to mention The Ward????? lol. Ugh, I actually LOVED that movie…..until the fucking twist. The “it’s all in your head” twist for Amber Heard’s character was So fucking stupid, and it destroyed the entire movie for me. I just sat here for over an hour to see that? REALLY??? And they had the right man behind the camera in John Carpenter. Such a tremendous letdown.

    As far as the dead people being dead the whole time concpet, it’s really hit-and-miss, and RARELY works, IMO. One prime example of a disaster would be Haunting At The Beacon (or The Beacon). The “OMG EVERYONE WAS DEAD THE ENTIRE TIME!!!!” revelation at the end was so LAME. Teri Polo tried her best to save that film, but it’s still a heaping pile of dogshit.

  • Grayceon

    The whole “it was all just a dream, then the person wakes up to find it all really happened” twist. That and I just watched Haute Tension last night. It was going great until around the end of it, when it twisted to the “they’re the same person and she’s insane” outcome. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t left so many gaping holes like “where the fuck did she get the truck then?” and “if they’re the same person, the movie implied that one half of her is watching the entire thing go down, committed by the other half of her”, when it can’t really happen that way. The only movie I’ve ever seen where the twist actually worked so well was Fight Club, because everything the main character did as Tyler Durden was completely believable, and there was nothing in there to fuck it up and ask us to suspend our disbelief.

    • dr.lamb

      “Haute Tension” is contender for “worst twist ever”.

    • doomas10

      I agree on Haute Tension. It would have been more epic if this despicable killer was a real threat to our heroines and Cecile De France’s character trying to overcome him. But the twist being insane makes no sense not only while you are watching the film but because the plot holes are so gigantic! How did she get out of the house and ring the door bell and kill the father? Why she snapped while she was there but not before? Oh god I can carry on forever. Nevertheless, the 2/3 of the films till the twist are terrifying!

    • DeadInHell

      I’m not in love with the twist ending of Haute Tension, but I have to disagree that it introduces “gaping plot holes” into the film.

      We aren’t seeing what really happened, obviously. The majority of the film is shown to us as described by Marie (Cecile). At the point that the twist is revealed, we switch over to her friend Alex’s POV (hence the finale being accurate to reality). You must take into account the fact that the killer’s mind molds these events into something that makes sense with her delusion. Her delusion is that she must save her friend from a murderous psychopath and become a hero, and so naturally the story she tells follows suit. What we are seeing here is not necessarily an accurate representation of the real events (unlike Fight Club, which was framed in a very different way). You can’t just switch out Cecile for “the Killer” and say “hey! now this scene doesn’t make sense!”. Of course it doesn’t make sense, it’s the delusion of a psychopath being relayed back to us in her words. You simply can’t take the film at its word during the first 2/3rds or so. For example, she does find the truck on the farm (explained in commentary, filmed but not included in the final cut), there is no second car, etc.

      This explanation may seem like a cop out and I would understand you feeling that way, but no matter how much you hate the twist…it does still work.

      And while we’re at it, her character’s bizarre motivations are not a plot hole either. It’s clearly explained in the film that she’s in love with Alex. She didn’t just “snap” apropos of nothing, she is profoundly disturbed and was compelled by displays of love/affection/closeness between Alex and her family to unleash “the Killer” to create a scenario that brought her and Alex closer together. She saw Alex’s family as a threat to her relationship with Alex, hence the repeated line “nothing will ever come between us again”. The film really does hold up to scrutiny if you care to look at it. The ending is just so divisive that people want to have more reasons to hate it, and so they don’t really consider their own criticisms.

  • dr.lamb

    I hope this kind of plot device is…DEAD ! Hahaha !

  • ttop33

    The Sixth Sense only works the first time you see it, after that you realize Willis is in several situations where he would have had to have had some kind of interaction with the living. I don’t mind the multiple personality or insane angle if they establish it upfront and without a twist. For instance Secret Window could have been a whole lot better if they established Depp had two personalities right from the get go.

  • dr.lamb

    I like twists, but I hate movies that are built around twists and failed to include other memorable scenes than the final revelation. Its all about the journey man !
    Btw: Hate the twist when the final girl/survivor escapes in the end, meets people who help her/him, only to find out they belong to the bad guys. Booo !

  • dirtyghettok

    Great article, and agree with (well, 95%) of everything above. But don’t forget that the foreign market is busting with incredible, unique horror films with a twist.

    And just because, well, because. I hope more movies are made like ‘Tucker and Dale vs. Evil’ sooner then later. That twist of a horror film has got that as one of my favorites.

  • dirtyghettok

    Oh, and if your curiosity is bored, check out ‘Angel Heart’ with Rourke and De Niro. Its a 1987 film thats got some twists. And if you don’t like it you can verbally kick me in the balls later.

    • dr.lamb

      One of the best twists EVER.

    • doomas10

      Angel Heart is a classic man!

  • dr.lamb

    What happened to the reverse “crazy” twist ? (SPOILER)Like in “Vertigo”, when the protagonist is supposed to think he is crazy, but in fact it is a big conspiracy ?
    I would love to see that again.

  • Hicks

    What kind of twist would you call the one at the end of The Orphan. I liked that twist.

    • dr.lamb

      What was the twist ? “All of your parents are dead !” ? ;)

      • dr.lamb

        Ah, now I remember the movie !

  • c-s-a78

    what about dead end!

  • evilfairydust

    It has been done to death, but sometimes it still works. I probably should have seen it coming, but the “he’s been the killer the whole time” in Frailty completely had me fooled. Partly because the story was so good all along…I wasn’t looking for anything else. Of course, it’s also a little different, because technically there are TWO killers in that movie.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jimathomas Jim Thomas

      Absolutely!

    • cmwright1981

      Truth!! I am surprised I don’t hear more about this movie in horror circles. Most people I talk about it with have never seen it, which usually results in me pulling out the VHS, letting it blow their minds, and then making them apologize to me afterward for being such a lame friend.

    • Darkness69

      Man, Frailty is a great movie! That was truly something innovative!

  • Aaron Emery

    I really loved IDENTITY but it definitely would have been stronger as a straight-forward slasher/whodunit story. I’m really conflicted on the ending to HAUTE TENSION because when I first saw it in the theater I absolutely hated it, over time I have come around to it and it is one of my favorite movies. SHUTTER ISLAND worked because A. Scorsese is a master and B. the twist was the source of the movie, not something tacked on.
    The “they were dead all along” twist was played out in the early 2000′s, in fact that particular one pissed me off since it was unnecessarily used in CAMPFIRE TALES (remember that one, guys??!!)

    I really don’t mind the idea of a twist ending, horror has just gotten to the point where a major twist is so common that we expect it, they only work when we don’t see it coming.

    **The idea that really gets to me is the selling a movie based on the concept of a twist alone, like the recent HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET (#HATES lol).

    • Zombie-Killa

      Aaron, remember the beginning of House At The End Of The Street? When the crazy guy’s “sister” jumped out of nowhere and tried to tackle him? Lol, that was the best part of the movie, everything after that was shit.

    • c-s-a78

      i forgot all about that movie campfire tales.that is a good movie!thanx for reminding me.im gana got hire it out if its on dvd now.

    • cmwright1981

      “B. the twist was the source of the movie, not something tacked on.”

      Aaron, this is an awesome point that is so often overlooked by filmmakers. Everyone thinks they have to have a twist to make their movie edgy and cool, but they fail to make the bombshell the vital part of the story. It is, as you said, just tacked on as a cheap way to make the ending interesting and to try to save the rest of the movie from being a boring piece of rubbish.

      • Aaron Emery

        There’s so many movies with twists that not only hold up on a second viewing but also reward for it. JACOB’S LADDER is another good example, again the “twist” actually turns out to be the plot of the movie.

  • anthonyd1

    I love The Sixth Sense and The Others. I remember seeing both those films in the theater and going what the fuck. The Others is the one reason why I love Nicole Kidman as an actress. She was awesome in that movie. The reason why those twists worked so well was because there was a story provided and not just cheap thrills, they were actual movies. Identity and The Ward are both guilty pleasures for me, I enjoy them for the entertainment value and Session 9 scared the hell out of me when I watched it alone one night. Shutter Island is a great movie because of the awesome storytelling of Martin Scorsese. He is a master of art. I do believe that the genre needs to come up with something fresh for a twist but I will always love and appreciate the twists and turns of The Others and The Sixth Sense.

    • Falk

      Both the others and the sixth sense are overrated. I saw the ending coming for both of them. Plus they were boring.

  • KittysReaper

    I thought the ending for dead end was awesome the first time i saw it…. but i guess i might be alone on that.

    • c-s-a78

      nar ur not!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1477012388 Rob Curtis

    Im a sucker for a twist ending, love em if its done well, one of my faves is Dead Man’s Curve!

  • viking1983

    whats with the hate on haute tension? it’s one of the best horror films ever made and the ending is perfect

  • Mr.Mirage

    Session 9 and Identity were well made, good solid films with fine performances and above average filmmaking. What’s to bitch about?
    Apparently nothing worth reading or listening to… if you like it, like it, if you don’t c’est la vie, vive la difference!

    My issue is with the whole “twist” concept in general. Of course there is a TWIST, it is called a plot point, the one in which everything changes. Some do it better than others, others have mastered it, and a sad majority seem to think it is the only way to be scary.

  • buta

    May annoy but it’s seems to be a good working trope regardless:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MovieTwistList
    See: Tomato in the Mirror: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TomatoInTheMirror

    I think what matters more is how you get to the twist or what clues are used to show it; some situations would naturally prompt a confident prediction from the audience and in those cases I suppose that would suggest a poorly portrayed story rather than an issue with the twist use itself.

  • Kinga Paine

    For me, the problem with ‘Haute Tension’ or ‘Switchblade Romance’ (wherever you come from) was the fact that when you back through the film, there were some parts that suddenly did not work with the ‘two girls being one’ plot line.

    I like the film and I did enjoy the ending but it ruined it for a repeat viewing.

    The others on the ‘other’ hand was very good and even with the twist, you could watch it again.

    It was better crafted than Switchblade Romance but both were different films in their own right.