Surprise has always been key element of good drama. Having your expectations subverted, inverted, reverted, or just plain thrown in your face is how a good story pays off our attention and emotional investment. When done well, this tickles our pleasure centers in a way that can perhaps best be described as delight. When done poorly, (or worse, unintentionally) it can lead to a sense of betrayal and disengagement.
Here is the list of my favorite (and least favorite) times we got tricked by the movies.
It should go without saying that the rest of this article is HEAVILY-LADEN WITH SPOILERS OF (mostly) GOOD MOVIES. Proceed at your own risk.
It would feel dishonest if I didn’t include the one movie that many people consider to contain the biggest twist they’ve ever seen in a film. In fact, this twist was so powerful that over the rest of his career, audiences went in with the expectation that M. Night Shyamalan’s films would contain a similar world-shattering twist. Which leads us to…
2) THE VILLAGE (2004)
After a couple disappointing films that failed to live up to their premise, The Village appeared to be a promising return to form for the director. A mysterious colonial town plagued by horrible monsters in the woods seems to resonate poetically with the supernatural tension of The Sixth Sense. Which is probably why when it was revealed that the great mystery behind it all was that a millionaire businessman decided to play a social experiment on his friends and family by having them raise their children in a nature preserve and pretending it’s the 1700s felt like a slap in the face to all the good faith audiences had managed to hold onto going in.
How do I even begin to explain Tyler Durden? In the second film on our list from 1999, high school and college boys everywhere were blown away by this film and its mind-bending twist. The wild, anarcho-sexual force of manliness and liposuction soap Tyler Durden turns out to be nothing but a psychic projection of the soft spoken cum cynical protagonist.
As Tyler explains, he’s everything the protagonist wishes he could be, and all he has to do is embrace the chaos he has created to transcend the shitty world in which he feels imprisoned. However, that’s not why this film is on the list. You see, Fight Club (both the film and the book) are a satire on the way that toxic masculinity has become so pervasive in American culture. The character of Tyler Durden is a walking contradiction of philosophies, a paragon of pseudo-profundity, masquerading as an icon of masculine emancipation. At one point, Brad Pitt — at the time considered by many to be the Sexiest Man Alive(tm) — points to a Calvin Klein underwear ad and asks the protagonist if “that’s what men are supposed to look like?” The protagonist smirks and nods, as if agreeing that the hunky model in the photo is an insultingly unrealistic portrayal of true masculinity. An entire generation of man-boys grew up (or failed to) with this film as a major philosophical influence, without ever realizing that the film was making fun of them the entire time.
4) SCREAM (1996)
By 1995, the teen-slasher genre had been done to death. It got so bad that even Freddy Krueger got a sequel in which he comes to life and kills the filmmakers for making so many shitty films. It’s only fitting then that his creator, Wes Craven, would be the one to resurrect the genre in a way that paid homage to its origins and used its own tropes against it. Scream instantly became a new horror classic, and it’s not hard to see why. The trope of the Final Girl, in which the first Strong Female Character we meet is the last to survive against the horrible monster/killer was turned on its head when Drew Barrymore, the top-billed actress and supposed star of the film, was poked to death with a kitchen knife in the opening sequence. As if that wasn’t enough, her body is hung from a tree in the front yard for her parents to find. Audiences went wild. Sadly, the sequels proved to be nothing but more of the same.
Hitchcock was a man who knew how to play an audience. He knew what you were expecting, what you were wanting, and what you were fearing all at the same time. Lucky is the viewer who gets to go into this film completely unspoiled. Most films, nay most stories, have a single protagonist overcoming a single flaw while pursuing a single goal. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is on the run from her boss and her old life in Phoenix, AZ with $40,000 in stolen cash. Will she get away? If you’ve seen the film, you already know the answer. The real twist here isn’t what happens to her, it’s what happens to the audience. As soon as Norman Bates finds Marion, he struggles to make everything right — and when he nearly fails, we’re ON HIS SIDE. Hitchcock completely rewrote the rules of audience empathy, demonstrating that even misguided (or evil) characters can hold the audience’s care and concern.
As any good April Fools prankster knows, keeping the details secret is a critical part of a good trick. To this end, Hitchcock also rewrote the rules of film exhibition. Prior to the release of Psycho, theaters exhibited films on a constant loop: newsreel, cartoon, serial short, feature. Repeat. Searching for a convenient showtime is a modern invention. The English language even retains a little nugget from this obsolete business model. Whenever a conversation or meeting or argument gets repetitive, as you mutter, “This is where I came in,” you are referring to audiences who would stay for one cycle of film, then leave at whatever point they entered.
But Hitchcock didn’t want his big secret given away. To the shock and dismay of theater-owners across America, Psycho prints arrived with specific instructions. And signs went up on box offices everywhere: NO AUDIENCE MEMBERS WILL BE SEATED AFTER THE BEGINNING OF THE FEATURE.
6) GREMLINS (1984)
The year is 1984. Steven Spielberg is a name that has become synonymous with wonder, joy, and cinematic awe. With films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and even the Toby-Hooper-directed Poltergeist, he has shown us the love and tender affection of a family can overcome the most terrifying and wondrous obstacles. So when Joe Dante’s Gremlins, released under the flag and fanfare of Spielberg’s Amblin’ Entertainment, came to theaters, it’s safe to say that many audience members did not get what they were expecting. The trailers and advertisements, which heavily capitalized on Spielberg’s name, presented the film as a family fantasy in which cuddly creatures can become scary monsters. That was NOT what the audience received. In fact, the film was so shocking that the MPAA was pressured into creating a new film ratings category: PG-13.* In particular, the scene in which a mogwai is trapped in a microwave that is then turned on, thereby causing the mogwai to explode, is often cited as a defining moment in their decision.
*You probably already know about the other film that influenced this decision, Spielberg/Lucas’ Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Adam Sandler has long been known for his funny, if sophomoric, films in which a charming loser becomes a charming loser who wins big and gets the girl. He started branching out into more dramatic roles like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) but it was the 2006 film Click that really delivered something strange and beautiful to the audience. Advertised as a light but crude comedy about a family man who gets a magical remote control for his entire life, most moviegoers expected a funny if grownup affair about the difficulties of managing a family. What they did not expect was that the humorous prospect of being able to fast forward and rewind your own life would soon turn dark — and I mean dark. Like, uncontrollably weeping in a room full of strangers dark. At the lowest part of the movie, it’s revealed that the man who gave Sandler the remote (played delightfully by Christopher Walken in my favorite cameo role since he stuffed a watch in his ass) is actually the Angel of Death, and he’s been sent to teach Sandler a lesson about paying attention to the little moments in life.
8) DRIVE (2011)
In October of 2011, Michigan resident Sarah Deming filed a lawsuit against the distributor of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish pseudo-noir film Drive. The claim? False advertising. In her suit, Deming claims that the trailers and promotions for the film featured racing cars, high octane thrills, and slow motion money-shots of exploding heads — but what she got instead was roughly two hours of Ryan Gosling wordlessly staring into Carey Mulligan’s cow eyes.
Apparently she wasn’t the only one who felt that way, even if not so litigiously. Banking on the success of such films as The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, etc., the advertising campaign for Drive certainly did its best to market the film according to the demands of the audience. What they did not expect, I assume, was how outraged people would become when they bought a ticket for an action-packed vroom-fest and were instead delivered a slow-burn drama of epically deliberate proportions.
Since Scream, it had become popular to subvert the expectations of the horror genre, adding twist upon twist upon twist. After a certain point, the line between horror parody and the genuine article became so blurred that they stopped making the former altogether. That’s why Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard’s 2009/2012 film The Cabin in the Woods was so refreshing and brilliant. They knew that the audience was tired of seeing the same movie again and again, but that the hunger for good horror never truly goes away. They created a film that not only poked gentle fun at horror movie conventions, but was also genuinely horrifying in a lot of respects. Not in a cynical, “I know the rules so this is how I’m going to survive” sort of way, either. In Cabin, the audience is shown that our horror movies and nightmares are inspired by real things, and that the fate of the world is held in a fragile balance by sacrifices made to ancient gods who live under the earth and feed off of our fear. What audiences expected: a clever and stylish sendup of traditional horror conventions. What they got: an object lesson on the function and power of fear, stereotypes, and storytelling in general.
10) THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
If you were young in the late 90’s, you probably saw your share of quippy and fun horror films, cashing in on the aforementioned slasher revival craze. 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was a different box of nightmares altogether. In what might be considered one of the first and most successful viral campaigns, The Blair Witch Project kicked off its marketing with a documentary about the supposed subject of the film. Featuring interviews with Real Live Locals, grainy Bigfoot-esque footage, and a convincing narrative concept, The Blair Witch was executed in the ultimate kayfabe tradition.
The actors in the film did not appear in press or public prior to the film’s release, and even the website purported the veracity of the events contained within the film. Even today, you can still find web threads initiated by people trying to assuage their own fears that the movie might have been real and the legend true.
In 2011, nobody expected that the Spanish language Cuban film with a title that rhymed with Shawn of the Dead would be anything more than an ethnic remake of an endearing film about love in the zombie apocalypse. Not even the extremely strict, government run Cuban film board, which not only helped to fund the film but also distributed it. Harkening back to the seminal zombie film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Juan resurrects not only grotesque corpses, but also the rich tradition of political satire and subtext it began. Subversive and sharp-witted, the film features many criticisms of the Cuban government, policies, prejudices, and culture at large. It makes you wonder, did the censors watch the film and understand the message? Or was it the result of the powerfully unironic administrative mind that allowed this wonderful gem to be made and released to the public? When the government finally DID pay attention to the film, they began to crack down. Unfortunately, the sequel in development has faced several delays due to government censorship. According to my research, all advertisements, posters, and footage of the film have been requisitioned by the film board and further production has been indefinitely delayed. I guess they didn’t like getting tricked.