Red herrings have always been a great tool for keeping audiences on their toes. Elements of the story introduced to mislead or distract viewers for a later reveal, red herrings serve to add to the mystery and increase the unpredictability of a story.
Though some red herrings can ultimately feel predictable due to predictable set-ups, they can also lead to truly shocking and unexpected reveals. Whether they be R-rated thrillers or family friendly animated films, many recent films have made use of red herrings in some truly surprising ways. Spoilers ahead!
10 Marta Killed Harlan? – Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s hit murder-mystery Knives Out involves detective Benoit Blanc as he investigates the Thrombey family after their world-famous patriarch is found dead. Eventually, it is revealed that his caregiver Marta, played by Ana de Armas, accidentally gave him a fatal dosage of his medications.
Later in the film, it’s revealed that Thrombey grandson Ransom, played by Chris Evans, purposefully switched out the medications and hid the antidote so that Marta would accidentally inject Harlan with a fatal dosage and would be unable to save him with the antidote.
9 John Kramer’s Reveal – Saw
James Wan’s 2004 thriller Saw focuses on photographer Adam Stanheight and renowned doctor Lawrence Gordon as they try to escape from a bathroom in which they mysteriously wake up. After they realize that they are in a trap designed by the Jigsaw killer, Gordon starts to believe that the Jigsaw killer is an orderly named Zepp Hindle who works at the hospital.
In one of the most shocking horror movie twists, the Jigsaw killer is revealed to be John Kramer, a man who Dr. Gordon previously diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Thinking that the lifeless body in the room throughout the film has been a dead man, it’s revealed that this person is actually a very much alive John Kramer.
8 Coco’s Father – Coco
In Pixar’s 2017 animated film Coco, the protagonist Miguel idolizes the man he believes to be his grandmother’s long-lost father, deceased famous singer Ernesto de la Cruz. When Miguel plays Coco’s father’s guitar, he finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead and face to face with Ernesto.
In a classic unforgettably sad Pixar moment, Miguel realizes that Ernesto isn’t actually Coco’s father but instead is the musician that killed Coco’s father and stole his song. Miguel eventually realizes that Coco’s father is Hector, the skeleton that has been helping him escape back to the living.
7 Ares – Wonder Woman
After Wonder Woman finds herself transported to England during World War I, she comes across a German army general by the name of Erich Ludendorff. Convinced that he is the physical manifestation of the god Ares, Diana sets out to stop him in whatever way she can.
After Diana kills Ludendorff, she is confused when this does not stop the war. Suddenly, the British politician named Sir Patrick who has been helping her out throughout the film appears and reveals himself to be Ares, the god of war.
6 Keyser Soze’s True Identity – The Usual Suspects
This classic detective film follows the investigation of a deadly massacre, focusing on the story of the mysterious criminal mastermind Keyser Soze as told by Verbal Kint. As the investigation deepens, the five main suspects all emerge as possible candidates for being Keyser Soze.
In one of the most famous twists in modern cinema history, the entire story is revealed to have been made up by Verbal Kint after he is released by the cops. Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze, and escapes justice just before the police can reach him.
5 O’Brien’s Involvement – Spiral: From The Book Of Saw
Spiral, the newest entry in the Saw franchise, concerns Detective Ezekiel Banks (played by Chris Rock) as he investigates a series of murders of corrupt cops which seem to have been inspired by the Jigsaw killer. Along the way, he suspects that Detective O’Brien may be behind the killings due to Banks having turned in Officer Dunleavy in the past for using unlawful force.
In a twist many saw coming, it’s revealed that the killer is actually Banks’ partner Detective Schenk, who joined the police force in order to get revenge on the killing of his father by Officer Dunleavy because he was offering to testify against a corrupt cop.
4 The Mandarin – Iron Man 3
Shane Black’s film Iron Man 3 details Tony Stark’s battle with his inner demons as he goes up against his greatest foe yet: the Mandarin, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. After destroying Tony’s house, the Mandarin makes a name for himself as someone who could take everything that Tony has.
The Mandarin is actually revealed to be an actor named Trevor Slattery. Instead of being an actual bad guy, he was hired by Aldrich Killian to distract Tony while Killian develops his super soldier serum, Extremis.
3 The Basement Sequence – Zodiac
David Fincher’s 2007 thriller Zodiac deals with the investigations into the real-life Zodiac killings. One of the suspects is Bob Vaughn, whose basement Robert Graysmith investigates in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
A viscerally intense sequence, Graysmith investigates the basement as Vaughn watches due to a call from an unknown caller, convinced that he is being watched by the Zodiac killer. However, this all turns out to be for naught as Vaughn is found not to be the Zodiac killer.
2 Sirius Black, The Murderer – Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Alfonso Cuaron’s beloved entry into the Harry Potter franchise introduces fan-favorite character Sirius Black. Initially presented as someone who was involved in the murder of Harry’s parents, the tension in the story heightens when Harry learns that Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban.
In a major twist, it’s revealed that Sirius Black isn’t out to hurt Harry but is actually seeking to protect Harry from the real evil hiding under his nose. Peter Pettigrew, the person truly responsible for the death of Harry’s parents, transformed himself into a rat and became the Weasley family’s pet rat, Scabbers.
1 Rey Nobody – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Throughout Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey’s parents and her Force sensitivity are the main mysteries surrounding her backstory. After many fan theories about her parentage began to spout up online, Star Wars: The Last Jedi instead revealed that her parents were no one important.
In the final main twist for her character arc, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker instead reveals that Rey is the granddaughter of the evil Emperor Palpatine. While not dismissing the fact that her parents were nobodies, this revelation provides an explanation as for her Force sensitivity.