The Biggest Movie Shocks Ever

They made you jump. They made you wince. They made you question everything you’d seen on screen before that moment. Deathbyfilms braces itself for The 20 greatest shocks in movie history…

1 – The Empire Strikes Back (1981)

“I am your father”

For all his talk of how the STAR WARS trilogy was ‘planned’ from the beginning, George Lucas had no idea going into EMPIRE that there would be a big twist regarding Luke’s parentage. (He certainly didn’t bother to inform the writer of the first draft of this minor detail.) Which just shows that sometimes, making it up as you go can be far more effective than planning everything little thing in advance.

Another person Lucas didn’t bother to inform was blabbermouth David Prowse, the actor behind Vader’s mask, who ended up making expressive gestures as he told Luke that “You don’t know the truth: Obi-Wan killed your father!”.

As twists go, it’s one that usually only cheesy soaps employ; only STAR WARS could have got away with it. Finding out that your dad is a mass-murdering space Nazi is pretty hard to top.

2 – Scream (1996)

“I want to know who I’m looking at”

No one expected Alfred Hitchcock to off leading lady Janet Leigh halfway through PSYCHO, and Wes Craven follows the old master’s example when he has ‘name’ star Drew Barrymore butchered ahead of the opening credits. But there’s no real shock in that – by the time Barrymore suffers a knife to the gut, it’s long established that she’s a goner on the way to the big movie high school in the sky. The genuine scare is SCREAM’s bloody prologue actually comes much earlier, and it’s made more chilling by the fact you don’t see it coming. Indeed, when Barrymore answers her future killer’s phone call it just sounds like an innocuous (if strangely voiced) prank. That soon changes, however, when she asks why Ghostface is so desperate to know her name: “Because I want to know who I’m looking at,” he replies, instantaneously creating a threat that doesn’t relent until Barrymore’s bloody death.

3 – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Meet Bob

The nasty boogieman in the back of your head really does exist, though he’s actually your rapist father, possessed by murderous spirit Killer Bob. Laura Palmer comes home to find Bob/Leland rifling through her diary. Another nightmare moment from David Lynch, another good reason to leave the light on.

4 – The Exorcist (1973)

Jesus Loves You

The possessed Regan, or rather the demon inside of her, masterbates violently with a crucifix, screaming, “Let Jesus fuck you!” Apparently 12-year old Linda Blair, plunging the crucifix into a box, had no idea what she was doing. You see nothing, you hear everything and your head does the rest. Ewww.

5 – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Hanging around

After Pam discovers her boyfriend’s body, she also discovers the guy who killed him – who promptly deposits her on a meat hook. It’s the small jerk of the body (and look of absolute shock on Teri McMinn’s face, being supported by an unbelievably painful DIY stocking harness around the crotch) that totally sells the effect.
Audition 1999

6 – Audition (1999)

Irreconcilable differences

Hell hath no fury like a woman who, er, wants to stick pins down the back of your eyeballs and then saw off your feet with cheese wire. Sustained horror from Takeshi Miike (who could fill this list up on his own), it’s a pinnacle of fingernail/blackboard filmmaking.
deliverance 1972

7 – Deliverance (1972)

Squeal, piggy, squeal!

Bound to make any grown man wince, a terrified, screaming Ned Beatty gets raped by hillbilly Bill McKinney. Burt Reynolds once claimed, “McKinney, I swear to God, really wanted to hump Ned. He had it up and he was going to bang him.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

8 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

I, pod

It may seem impossible to contemplate now after years of Lucas, Spielberg and big sci-fi movies, but sci-fi films didn’t always have happy endings with the heroes triumphant. And Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of BOD SNATCHERS is a doozy. After having witnessed his friends one by one falling victim to the pods and being replaced by emotionless duplicates, and the alien seeds themselves being loaded up and shipped off around the world to infect other countries, shabby health inspector Donal Sutherland walks the silent streets of San Francisco, until unexpectedly running into presumed-dead fellow survivor Veronica Cartwright. Delighted to find another actual human, she runs towards him – only to have him point at her and let out the chilling, unearthly shriek that the pods use to warn of genuine humans in their midst. They got him after all! They’re here! You’re next!
Night of the Living Dead (1968)

9 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A Hero’s Welcome

How to shock late sixties middle America, Part 1: make a black guy the hero. How to shock late Sixties middle America, Part 2: having established the hero as a damn cool guy and survivor, senselessly kill him off by having rednecks gun him down by mistake. That sound, by the way, is the empty thud in your stomach.
American History X (1998)

10 – American History X (1998)

Kerb your enthusiasm

Neo-Nazi Derek Vineyard doesn’t like them black folks trying to rob his car. So he grabs one of them and places his mouth on the kerb. And then he stomps on it. It’s the hideous sound of enamel on concrete that’ll set your own pearly whites on edge whenever you think of it.
The Shining (1980)

11 – The Shining (1980)

Room 237

Jack Torrance finally checks out room 237, where his son claims to have been attacked by a mysterious old woman. Inside he finds a beautiful naked woman who starts to caress him but then turns into a horrifying old bitch corpse who starts attacking him. The worst case of cinematic beer goggles ever.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

12 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The Taming of McMurphy

Jack Nicholson’s Randle P McMurphy is not a proper nut – he’s just playing crazy to avoid a stint in prison – and his stimulated madness is, therefore, way too over-the-top to be entirely convincing. There is, however, one occasion when he goes genuinely psycho and ends up paying the ultimate price for it. When the profoundly unpleasant Nurse Ratched catches the naive Billy in bed with a girl, she cruelly threatens to tell his mother what he’s done and pushes him to suicide. It’s the final straw for McMurphy, who tries to strangle his nemesis before the orderlies can pull him off- fade to black. Cutting back to the ward, everything looks normal until an apparently sedated McMurphy reappears. His friend, the chief, goes over to talk, but he doesn’t stir. When the camera pans up, we see why, as fresh scars on Nicholson’s not-insubstantial forehead reveal brain surgery that’s turned him into a vegetable.
Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects

13 – The Usual Suspects (1995)

Keyser Soze Revealed

If you reckon you saw the twist coming, you’re a more convincing liar than Verbal Kint because even after repeat viewings, the clues aren’t really there. That might have to do with the whole story’s been made up by a criminal mastermind eager to make himself look like the least likely suspect. Or maybe it’s because no one expects the cripple/narrator to be the Devil himself. Either way, the perfect delivery of the outcome is more important than the revelation itself. As Verbal departs, Agent Kujan’s disappointment at losing his man turns to despair (and a broken coffee cup) when he notices the similarities between the noticeboard and Kint’s story.
The way his awakening is cut together with flashback dialogue and the fax of a policeman’s sketch is positively inspired. Then, there’s the piéce de résistance, as Verbal’s awkward limp segues seamlessly into a confident walk. “And like that… he’s gone.”

Psycho (1960) shocking turn

14 – Psycho (1960)

Mother’s ruin

“Mother’s not quite feeling herself today.” That’s because she’s locked in the basement and quite dead, as Vera Miles finds out when she stumbles upon the rather crumbly Mrs Bates. But hang on, if she’s not the killer, that means it’s’ really…
Soylent Green (1973) shock

15 – Soylent Green (1973)


Having uncovered suspicious doings by the corporations who lead and feed the starving masses of 2022, Chuck Heston follows his friend’s body into the off-limits factory outside of town. There he discovers that all the bodies get processed into the latest culinary smash hit, Soylent Green.
freaks 1932

16 – Freaks (1932)

One of us! One of us!

Having seduced poor little circus midget Hans for his money, beautiful ‘normal’ Cleopatra is foiled in her attempts to kill her new husband by his loyal pals. They then turn her into a chicken, in the sticking finale that would help end Tod Browning’s career. Hans was one freak they both regretted clucking with.
get carter 1971 shock

17 – Get Carter (1971)

Out of the blue!

GET CARTER is a relentlessly grim tale of revenge that’s as powerful and compelling today as it was on its release over 50 years ago. The film tells the story of cockney gangster Jack Carter as he travels to Newcastle to dish out some severe retribution for the death of his brother. Now Carter is a very bad man, but it becomes clear that the gangland criminals he’s rubbing out are even worse. It’s hard not to root for him. And guess what. – he does it. Carter avenges his brother’s death and completes his mission. Then, suddenly, there’s a bang, a bullet flies through the air and in a flash, one of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes is killed stone dead. It’s a shot that comes out of the blue without warning, but that final image stays with you long after the film ends.
The Wicker Man (1973)

18 – The Wicker Man (1973)

Burn, baby, burn!

“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shock is so much better absorbed with the knees bent.” So Lord Summarise tells the intrepid Neil Howie during THE WICKER MAN, and that’s good advice for the audience too. From the folk music to the hairstyles to Britt Ekland’s terrifying body double. THE WICKER MAN has more than its fair share of shocking moments, most of which would be enough to have any audience member’s legs buckling. However, nothing can prepare you for the film’s final bombshell. The moment that we, along with Howie, spy the titular Wicker Man for the first time and realise what our virginal hero’s fate is to be is, without doubt, one of the most frightening in movie history. Howie is to be burned alive, and we are going to watch it happen. As he himself puts it: “oh God! Oh, Christ no no dear God!”
Planet of the Apes (1968) ending

19 – Planet of the Apes (1968)

It was Earth all along.

While Chuck Heston copes admirably with the concept of a planet where apes are the masters, he loses that steely Republican resolve when a sunny beach vista is interrupted by the sight of a derelict Statue of Liberty. Suddenly it’s not enough that he hates every ape, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee – he’s now got it in for those “bastards” who “Finally did it”. Damn them! Damn them all to hell!
Misery (1990) hobbling

20 – Misery (1990)


“Trust me… It’s for the best.” Not an entirely true statement from Nurse Annie Wilkes, who is unhappy with captive writer Paul Sheldon for trying to sneak out. So she punishes him by taking a sledgehammer to both his ankles. You’d think that, being a nurse, she’d know that ankles aren’t supposed to bend that way. Screenwriter William Goldman had initially planned the scene the way Stephen King originally wrote it: by having Wilkes lop off his foot with an axe and then cauterising the wound with a blowtorch. It was his favourite scene in the whole book. When he discovered that director Rob Reiner had ‘lightened’ the scene – arguing that the axe/blowtorch ensemble would turn audiences off – to its now more familiar state, Goldman threw a screaming hissy fit. He’s since recanted, having decided that it may have gone too far.