The foe, the adversary, the enemy – every film hero needs a film villain and every film protagonist needs a film antagonist. For many films, the antagonist is clear and defined from the start. For example, an audience introduced to a character called The Joker in a Batman film would immediately recognise who the villain was. Or an audience watching a character commit a crime would be able to identify that character as a villain.
However there are many times when heinous acts are committed off screen or characters’ motives are unclear. There are even times when our hero turns out not to be quite so heroic. In these cases the antagonist may not be as clear cut. Consequently a lot of movie villains come to be recognised or revealed by a plot twist or major reveal.
This reveal may be obvious or there may be clues leading us to this conclusion. But many other times the villain reveal is like a gut punch to the audience. This list looks at movie villain reveals which have surprised the audience. Please be aware that there are major spoilers throughout the article.
1. The killer – High Tension (2003)
High Tension has been a source of controversy ever since its release in 2003. Not only has it been derided for being incredibly violent and graphic. It has also been the subject of plagiarism concerns, with some audiences noting that the film has many similarities to Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity.
Koontz has since explained that he has no interest in pursuing a legal claim because he found the film to be “so puerile, so disgusting, and so intellectually bankrupt.” And pursuing legal action would create attention that would associate his novel with the film.
High Tension sees best friends Marie and Alex go on a trip to visit Alex’s parents. However their trip is soon interrupted by the arrival of a psychotic killer who turns up at the house and kills Alex’s family, leaving the friends in a desperate battle to fight for their lives. Eventually it is revealed that the killer is in fact a delusional and deadly Marie, who is in love with Alex.
High Tension has always been divisive amongst horror fans, and this is mostly due to the ending and the reveal of the villain. Whilst some enjoy the reveal, the majority have rallied against it. In spite of whether you love or loathe it, High Tension’s villain reveal is both surprising and impactful, thus making it worthy of inclusion in this list.
2. Leonard Shelby – Memento (2000)
Director Christopher Nolan made his feature length directorial debut with Following in 1998, but it was his second feature Memento which gained him considerable recognition. Memento had a wide impact, not only was it a commercial and critical success, it was also hailed by medical experts as featuring one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in the history of film.
Memento is a neo-noir psychological thriller film which sees Leonard trying to track down the man who raped and murdered his wide. However his search is made more difficult by the fact that Leonard is suffering from a rare and untreatable form of memory loss.
Eventually it is revealed that Leonard’s wife survived the attack against her, and Leonard actually killed her by over administering insulin shots to her after the attack. Now it may be entirely too simple to label Leonard as the villain.
Memento can be deconstructed into many different theories and conspiracies. However, regardless of the complexities of who truly is the protagonist and antagonist of Memento, the reveal of Leonard’s story is a surprising twist for the audience. Leonard perpetually creates the mystery of his wife’s death to solve, which is a unique and thought-provoking reveal for the audience.
3. Mrs Bates – Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror film Psycho is often cited as one as the greatest films of all time. It even went on to spawn three sequels, a remake, a television spin-off and a prequel television series. It also features one of film’s most famous villain reveals.
Psycho sees secretary Marion Crane on the run after stealing $40,000 from her boss. She ends up at Bates Motel where she meets strange young man Norman. As she showers that evening, she is stabbed to death by a shadowy figure.
As the film goes on, and more victims fall prey to the killer, the audience is led to believe that Norman’s unstable mother is the murderer. Thus when the killer’s true identity is revealed to be Norman, who has developed a murderous split personality based upon his deceased mother, it is a completely unexpected twist that the audience could never have imagined.
The Psycho twist and villain reveal is of course very well-known now. And perhaps it is not the best twist of all time, but what makes Psycho’s villain concept so brilliant is that it is one of the first real twist endings and unexpected reveals.
Twist endings are incredibly common in film now, but at the time they were very virtually unheard of. So much so that Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep the film from being spoiled. He even encouraged theatres to ban people from coming into screenings late, so they wouldn’t ruin the experience. The last thing Hitchcock wanted was loud whispers asking where Janet Leigh was.
4. Rollo Tomassi – L.A Confidential (1997)
L.A Confidential was ranked as one of the best films of 1997 and has gone on to be called one of the best films of the last thirty years. The film was produced, co-written and directed by Curtis Hansen and is based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. Hansen cast Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe in the film, who at the time were unknown in the U.S.
The film is set in fifties Los Angeles and follows three very different cops. Ed Exley is ambitious and incorruptible, Bud White takes pleasure in beating up wrong-doers and Jack Vicennes feeds classified information to a media magnate. Each with their own personal agendas, the three policemen tackle the corruption surrounding an unsolved murder in downtown Los Angeles.
As the corruption and bodies increase, eventually it is revealed that LAPD Captain Dudley Smith is the one behind it all. The corrupt police chief is actually a criminal mastermind. Smith’s reveal as the villain is a great cinematic moment. It is a major shock to the audience for several reasons within the actual story and film, but it also works so well because of the actors involved.
James Cromwell had recently become most familiar to audiences as the kind and nice farmer from Babe and Kevin Spacey who was one of the biggest names in the film, had recently been nominated for an Academy Award. Thus when Spacey’s character is killed with forty five minutes still to go and by the nice guy from Babe, audiences were even more shocked.
5. Aaron Stampler – Primal Fear (1996)
Based on William Diehl’s 1993 novel of the same name, Primal Fear is crime thriller film and is directed by Gregory Hoblit. Primal Fear was the film debut of Edward Norton who was highly praised for his role. He even earnt an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.
Primal Fear follows defense attorney Martin Vail who is more interested in taking on jobs for the prestige and money rather than for any sense of justice or the greater good. For his latest case he takes on the defence of an altar boy, Aaron Stampler, who is accused of murdering the archbishop of Chicago. Vail presumes that the case is relatively simple, but soon the case takes an unexpected, dark, and more dangerous aspect.
Stampler manages to fool Vail into thinking that he has multiple personality disorder thus escaping a prison sentence. The reveal of Stampler as the villain is multi-layered. The first reveal that the audience is shown is the reveal of Stampler’s other personality – the one responsible for the murder.
However that reveal goes on to be shown to be a false reveal, and it is not until the end that both the audience and Vail realise that Stampler has played them all. He doesn’t have multiple personality disorder, he is just evil. This use of multiple reveals keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and keeps them guessing throughout.