One of the things that we love about cinema is its inherent ability to shock you in ways that are exhilarating, violent. It’s always fun when a filmmaker brilliantly manages to subvert your expectation and then comes up with mind-blowing twist towards the end that leaves you gasping for breath. Movies where you don’t know who the villain is till the end are often very exciting in that there’s a lot of tension and suspense built around the story that challenges and engages you in a number of ways.
It’s incredibly hard to conceal the identity of a villain in a story as it demands some shrewd writing and clinical direction and this is something American cinema in particular has done really well over the years with master filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan shocking audiences in ways they had never experienced before. So with all that said now, let’s take a look at the list of best movies where you don’t know who the villain is till the end.
12. High Tension (2003)
Alejandro Aja’s explosive slasher flick is a brutally powerful thriller that shocks and disturbs you in a distinctively provocative way that leaves you utterly baffled. Many people found the film to be provocative for the sake of being provocative and excessively shocking to the point of no real emotional impact and whilst these claims have truth, I certainly can’t deny the impact it has and really loved its in-your-face approach. The twist, however, does come off as a disappointment in that it clearly lacks logic but it managed to keep us guessing and held our nerves right till the end which was satisfying enough to overlook the glaring illogicality of the climax.
11. Saw (2004)
‘Saw’ has become one of my favorite guilty pleasures. It’s overly contrived, blatantly manipulative and annoyingly convoluted but I can’t overlook the fact that it is ridiculously entertaining. So we’ve got two men chained in a large messy bathroom. One man has to kill the other or his family would die. There’s a corpse lying between them with a gun in hand. There’s a serial killer outside and cops set out for the hunt. One thing that ‘Saw’ manages to achieve is fooling its audience with that final twist. Now whilst it may come off as annoying and convoluted to some, it clearly accomplishes what it set out to do which is to shock its viewers.
10. Scream (1996)
‘Scream’ parodies many horror flicks and mocks the cliches of classic Hollywood horror and whodunit movies. The film is about a girl, Sidney, who is being targeted by a serial killer who she believes could also be her mother’s killer. The film takes various twists and turns, subverting our expectations before it reveals its twist at the end which shows us that Sidney’s boyfriend Billy had been the villain all along with one their friends being an accomplice. It’s a genuinely shocking twist that is surprisingly effective and frightening in its execution.
9. Primal Fear (1996)
One of the issues I find with ‘Primal Fear’ is that the twist hugely loses its impact on repeat viewings and comes off as silly and lame the more you think about it. The film follows Aaron Stampler, a young, stuttering altar boy who is accused of murdering a priest. A big shot lawyer comes to his rescue and begins to study the case which gets increasingly complex the deeper he delves into it. He manages to get him off the hook but in the climax, Stampler reveals that he’s been plotting the entire thing throughout and was faking multiple personality disorder so that he could escape the sentence. It’s a twist that heavily relies on the genius acting abilities of Edward Norton but nevertheless is quite shocking on the first viewing.
8. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Featuring one of the most memorable plot-twists in cinema history, ‘The Usual Suspects’ is a film that brilliantly managed to subvert, manipulate and shock its viewers in ways they had never experienced before. The film centers around an FBI agent and a cripple who recounts incidents involving him and his four other friends that took place after they met at a random police lineup. The film crafts an aura of suspense, mystery and tension using the name Keyser Soze and the cripple’s story gets increasingly complex and convoluted, heightening tension in the atmosphere. Having a relatively unknown cast proved to be a masterstroke in ‘The Usual Suspects’ as it kept the audience from guessing the real villain.
7. Transsiberian (2008)
One of the most underrated thrillers of the past decade, ‘Transsiberian’ tells the story of a married couple who come across another strange couple on a train while returning home from China. The film isn’t a conventional whodunit flick but it masterfully subverts your expectations with a twist that does justice to its plot in terms of the tone and plausibility. I wouldn’t give away much details of the plot here since the film remains vastly unexplored among movie buffs but I can certainly guarantee that it’s a genuinely affecting piece of thriller that resonates for days after watching it.
6. Following (1998)
One of modern cinema’s most famed directors Christopher Nolan broke his way on to the scene with this low-budget black-and-white thriller. The film follows a lonely Londoner who begins to follow random strangers and comes across a charismatic burglar with whom he partners and breaks into various people’s house. The film is a testament to Nolan’s raw skills and ability to create suspense and tension as he keeps us on the edge throughout right till that final revelation which blows you off your seats. It’s a cleverly written thriller controlled with remarkable precision and shrewdness and is one of the most assured film debuts of all time.
5. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan’s enticing game of morality, sacrifice and identity has two magicians pitting themselves against each other ever since they broke out after a horrible mishap that caused the death of one of the two men’s wife. Nolan lets us invest in the characters while driving the narrative forward using sharp twists that stay well in line with the story. There are no heroes and villains in the story. In fact, it asks you who the real hero/villain of the story is. Whilst it may seem convoluted and unstructured at places, the pay off at the end makes up for everything as it ties everything up whilst still managing to maintain layers of ambiguity.
4. Shutter Island (2010)
Set in a creepy island where two young detectives arrive to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a mental asylum, ‘Shutter Island’ follows a deceptively straightforward narrative that takes a stunning turn towards the final act where a slight change of perspective begins to unveil the mystery behind the entire plot. We are revealed that one of the two detectives is in fact a patient of the asylum and he made up the whole story to suppress his guilt for having killed his depressive wife who drowned his children. It’s a brilliantly directed thriller told with precision, insight and intelligence as Scorsese subverts our expectations in ways we could never have imagined.
3. L.A. Confidential (1997)
This taut cop thriller starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce is set in the 50s in L.A where a team of three policeman set out to investigate a series of murders. The film takes a lot of time building and developing the characters before the plot unfolds and that shocking revelation towards the end blows you off completely. There’s a sense of lurking dread in the atmosphere and we’re never really given a clue as to who the villain is. The twist comes off as incredibly smart, believable and genuinely shocking.
2. Se7en (1995)
David Fincher has made a lot of thrillers and whilst many of them remain solidly crafted genre classics, nothing came close to being as disturbingly effective as ‘Se7en’. The film follows two detectives who are on the hunt for a serial killer who murders his victims according to the seven deadly sins. Fincher brilliantly builds tension and creates an aura of suspense which keeps you guessing right till the end when a blood soaked Kevin Spacey makes his entry into the office and surrenders himself. It’s a brilliant scene where the impact truly remains shocking as Fincher presents the killer in a way that leaves us just as baffled and disturbed as the two detectives.
1. Psycho (1960)
What could possibly be said more about this stone cold classic that hasn’t been said already? Alfred Hitchcock’s game changing masterpiece changed the way thrillers were made and is regarded by many as the Holy Grail of genre filmmaking. I wouldn’t give away much of the details of the plot but let’s just say that no other film, and I repeat, no other film has managed to accomplish the major goal of a thriller with the clinical brilliance and raw emotional power of ‘Psycho.
Read More: Best Serial Killer Movies