25 finest psychological thrillers of all time
You could say that for the thrill, we primarily go to the movies. The desire to experience new stories, to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, to experience exciting events that might otherwise never be possible. We long to escape.
But that's not what psychological thrillers are about. Psychological thrillers focus less on external adventures and threats than on the inner worlds of heroes and villains, whose understanding of reality is dangerously close to failure. They are stories of paranoia, deception, phobias, and abuse. They take advantage of the audience's fears, provide the much needed catharsis, expose our fears and show that they can either be defeated or at least have real validity.
However, it can be difficult to figure out which films are psychological thrillers and which are just thrillers in which the characters – as in any other genre – are motivated by their own personal psychology. As with many genres of storytelling, the criteria can be a little nebulous and we won't get into that. Instead, we'll just focus on the movies that we find absolutely 100% exciting and 100% rooted in psychological fears.
These are our picks for the greatest psychological thrillers ever made with just one caveat: there is only one film from each director as some filmmakers create a home industry of the genre and it is important to make as many brilliant films as possible from so many different perspectives to share as possible.
Gas light (1944)
Image via Loew & # 39; s, Inc.
George Cukor’S Gas light is not just a psychological thriller, but officially a synonym for manipulation and horror. The title of this film was literally added to the popular dictionary to describe some form of psychological abuse. Ingrid Bergman Stars as a young opera singer who meets the love of her life, a handsome older man played by Charles Boyer. But as soon as they are married and move into the London townhouse – where their mother was mysteriously murdered many years ago – the relationship turns into a nightmare. Our heroine seems to be losing her mind. Or is she?
Gaslight is a remake of a 1940 British thriller (which nearly got lost in history after MGM bought the remake rights and tried to destroy the original negatives). And while there are twists and turns that seem to be wired today, the film's bleak and angry heart still pumps blood after we all know what "gas light" is. Bergman's Oscar-winning performance as a marginalized woman is vulnerable and raw, trapped and scratchy, engrossingly real, and Boyer's twisted villainy will always give you goosebumps.
Rear window (1954)
Image via Paramount
No catalog of the great thrillers – psychological or otherwise – would be complete without it Alfred Hitchcockwhose films transformed and often illustrate the genre. rope, Banned, Breath of a doubt and dizziness All of them deserve their own entry here, but if we have to limit Hitchcock's oeuvre to a timeless classic, rear window deserves this honor.
Rear window stars James Stewart Stars as an exciting photographer who is now trapped in his apartment and going a little crazy after breaking his leg in an accident at work. So, he enjoys himself by spying on his neighbors, each with their own unique personalities and weaknesses. It's an obsession that makes his girlfriend angry, played by Grace Kellyand that could be going too far as he's pretty sure he just saw one of his neighbors murder his wife. Could be. Somehow.
Hitchcock films this entire movie from inside Stewart's apartment, limiting the freedom of movement we'd expect from a movie, creating a claustrophobic environment and turning everyone into voyeurs. By only seeing what our hero sees, we don't even think about questioning his interpretation of the crime. So if any of the other characters are pointing out how thin the actual evidence is (and it is, in fact, thin), we must either deny logic and fall into our hero's paranoid mentality or, reluctantly, admit that we have been deftly deceived .
Les Diaboliques (1955)
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Henri-Georges ClouzotIngenious and sultry thriller Les Diaboliques Stars Véra Clouzot as the long-suffering wife of an abusive husband played by Paul Merisse. She is so isolated that her only friend is her husband's lover, played by Simone Signoretbecause she's the only other person who understands what a monster he is. What a twisted and unexpected situation to find yourself in; It's exactly the kind of pressure cooker relationship that's likely to lead to murder.
Which of course it does. At first it is only possible to swim. And then … the body disappears.
The appeal of Les Diaboliques extends well beyond its curvaceous plot (which is curvy like the hell). Clouzot and Signoret are an icon as dual femme fatales, one sensitive and guilty, the other imperturbable and icy, thrown together in increasingly bizarre circumstances and rethinking all their unthinkable decisions. Les Diaboliques immerses you in a pool of tension and suspicion, forcing you to drown.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Image via Warner Bros.
Everyone likes to think that their child is perfect even if they do bad things sometimes. But in the seemingly idyllic suburban world of The bad seedRhoda, an eight year old girl played by Patty McCormack Not just a little naughty at times She's a serial killer who knows how to get adults to think of themselves as precious little angels.
A child serial killer is scary enough abstractly, but The Bad Seed true horror show is watching Nancy KellyPlaying Rhoda's mother, resisting and finally arriving at the shocking realization that her little girl is an unrepentant murderer. Both McCormack and Kelly were Oscar-nominated for their roles – just as they were Eileen Heckart as the mother of one of the victims – but Kelly steals this show, peeling off the bits of sanity when she realizes how evil her precious angel really is, and exposing a tangle of raw nerves underneath.
What ever happened to baby jane (1962)
Image via Warner Bros.
In the bizarre and grotesque What ever happened to baby jane, Filmmakers Robert Aldrich reveals what appears to be a deep-seated loathing for the entertainment industry, especially the lifelong burden of young artists. The film tells the story of "Baby" Jane Hudson, a child star of the 1920s, whose career eventually took a back seat to her sister Blanche, the superior actress. After a tragic accident, Blanche was paralyzed and Jane was blamed for the tragedy and she reluctantly accepted a role as her sister's unwilling caretaker.
Decades later, the Hudson House is a rat's nest of festering resentment. Blanche, played by Joan Crawford, lives above as Jane's grace, played by Bed Davis. The abuse Blanche suffers is shocking and the decay of Jane's psyche is disgusting, but both Crawford and Davis are fully committed to making this bizarre, mutually destructive life seem plausible. These, the film argues, are the larger-than-life consequences of larger-than-life life, and the cruel fate that befell these sisters plays out as if it had been torn from particularly violent headlines, a tabloid story that couldn't and shouldn't exist . t be but feels completely true. You can expect riveting performances and intrusive fear.
Shock Corridor (1963)
Picture over pictures of the allied artists
As a filmmaker Samuel Fuller reveled in pushing narrative boundaries and in his all-electric psychological thriller Shock corridor he practically burst right through her. Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a journalist obsessed with winning the Pulitzer Prize and who embarks on a daring plot to make headlines. He will be undercover in a mental hospital, live among the inmates and investigate an unsolved murder.
This idea sounds smart on paper, but it puts Barrett in a harrowing position. Without support, without confidants, without a chance for rest or escape, he throws himself into an environment of abuse, paranoia and deception and repeatedly falls under the spell of his fellow inmates. Whether or not he solves the murder becomes a secondary issue. He is caught in an endless battle for his own health. Outstanding achievements, disturbing writing and daring images make the shock corridor shock 60 years later.
Image via Compton Films
The almost worn out simplicity of rejection can be harrowing. Catherine Deneuve Stars like Carol, a young woman living with her sister Helen who is rejected by her sister's boyfriend, her own potential suitors, and lower elements of her life that would, under normal circumstances, be minor nuisances. When Helen suddenly leaves town for a romantic getaway, Carol is left on her own and suddenly finds herself immersed in her own fears, phobias, and gradually hallucinations.
The majority of the repulsion is just Catherine Deneuve fraying nerves in an apartment and yet she only makes her descent into psychotropic horror seem universal. Devoid of fiction and narrative tricks, Repulsion highlights the unconscious associations Carol has, revealing a web of untested, undiagnosed trauma that has finally been given an opportunity to fester, free from seemingly unwanted distractions from other people.
Image via American International Pictures
Brian De Palma designed most of his career with acrobatically photographed, labyrinthine psychological and often sexual thrillers. But still Dressed to kill, obsession, Body double and Raise Cain are all outstanding cyclone shockers. It's his first foray into the Hitchcock tension that gets noticed. Sisters is a twisted, grotesque, unexpected joy.
The story of the sisters takes many sharp turns, starting with an amusing anecdote of voyeurism that turns into young love and jealousy, turns into murder, and then returns to voyeurism. From then on we are brave young reporters in the Nancy Drew area, played by Jennifer SaltShe is investigating a murder she is certain was committed by an aspiring actress, played by Superman’S Margot Kidderor possibly their identical twin sister. That is, until the climax of De Palma's Grand Guignol, where the rules go out the window and the mystery too, as if the filmmaker can't wait to show you how disturbing and fascinating his imagination is.
The Baby (1973)
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One of the strangest psychological thrillers you'll ever see, and in a bizarre way, one of the best Ted PostThe disturbing grindhouse cult classic The baby. This awkward story tells the story of a social worker named Anne played by Anjanette Comerwhose final job is the Wadsworth family. An abusive mother, two abusive sisters, and a grown man named "Baby" who lives in a crib, wears a diaper, cannot speak, and whose disability controls keep the family afloat.
The horrors Baby endures on a daily basis are terrifying, but Anne also discovers that Baby's condition is entirely due to Wadsworth's abuse and that he may be able to live a typical, self-sufficient life. It is only when Anne decides to save Baby that we realize how ready the Wadsworths are to preserve their lifestyle and how ready Anne is to protect it. The baby is extremely strange, brave, and scary, and it's not going where you'd expect it to.
The Conversation (1974)
Image via Paramount Pictures
In the early 1970s make between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola Directed by one of the best psychological thrillers of all time. The conversation Stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who records a conversation between two young lovers and obsessively examines and re-examines the tone for believing he has uncovered a murderous conspiracy.
Inspired by Michael AntonioniIs similar explosion – about a photographer who keeps improving a picture and believes it is evidence of murder – Coppola's film adds government paranoia to the mix and highlights the lonely existence of a man who knows how little privacy there is in the modern world, especially because he's so good at penetrating. It's a deep character piece with one of the most nuanced performances of Hackman's career and an intelligent and unexpected thriller about how little we know, no matter how much we hear.
Image via De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
The first film adaptation of Thomas HarrisHannibal Lecter novels, based on the Red Dragon novel, delve deeper into psychological terror than any other (at least until the TV show came on). Michael Mann’S Manhunter Stars William Peterson as Will Graham, an FBI profiler who is so talented at bringing up a murderer's mind that he loses his own personality and drowns in the dark. Tracking down The Tooth Fairy, a serial killer intruder with a unique M.O., Will begins to lose himself in his work at the expense of his own soul.
Hannibal Lecter appears, inexplicably called "Hannibal Lecktor", and plays with a disarming casualness of Brian Cox, whose attitude towards character is more insidious and less polite than that of the other actors who have taken on the role. That gives him the ability to nimble his way into Will's head until they're on the phone like teenagers. While highlighting the madness of his protagonist, Mann explores the humanity of his killer Francis Dollarhyde, played by an incredibly frightening and incredibly tragic Tom Noonan. Stylish and insightful and terrifying and in some ways perhaps the best adaptation of Harris' work to date.
The Stepfather (1987)
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"Wait a minute," Jerry Blake asks his wife. "Who am I here?" He really means it. Terry O’Quinn plays Jerry, a serial killer who fits into single mothers' lives, marries them and tries to live the perfect American suburban life. When they fail to live up to his conservative Reagan-era values, he begins to charm the next single mother, live two lives at a time, and eventually murder the family who offends him.
Joseph RubenThe exquisite and frightening psychological thriller covers all aspects: the suspicion of a new father figure, the hypocrisy of the nuclear family, the perverse logistics of living several lives at the same time. And at the center of it all is O & # 39; Quinn, who as one of the most fascinating monsters in cinema shows an all-timer performance who really seems to be looking for what American culture has promised him and who is absolutely unable to understand seems he lied to it.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Image via 20th Century Fox
David Cronenberg spent most of his career exploring the horrors of the human body and our pesky psychological obsessions with our own organics. Our various organs, including the brain, are literally and thematically inextricably linked and all too easily deformed by its protagonists and villains. And although he's made several classic films along these lines, maybe it is Dead wrestlers that is his crowning achievement.
Jeremy Irons plays the leading role alongside Jeremy Irons as identical twin gynecologists who share each other's work, life and – without telling them – the same women. Elliot is confident and dominant, Beverly is shy and empathetic, and when she begins a romantic relationship with one of her patients, she is played by Geneviève Bujoldthe burden becomes too much to bear. Beverly sinks into depression and delusions and imagines his patients as bizarre mutations. Elliot soon disappears with him and chooses to live with his brother, even on the verge of madness, no matter what the cost.
Irons gives two devastating performances with subtle, impeccable editing that uses old-fashioned techniques to create the unmistakable illusion that he has somehow cloned himself. Dead Ringers is a technical marvel and a sublime weird, twisted psychological thriller.
The Disappearance (1988)
Image via Argos Films
George SluizerIs an exciting Dutch thriller Spoorloos (aka The Vanishing) tells the story of a young couple on a road trip. During a rest, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) apologizes to get something to drink. Hours later, she hasn't returned and Rex (Gene Vervoets) can't find her. Years later, with the puzzle still unsolved, Rex remains obsessed with solving the mystery of her disappearance and will do anything to find the answer.
It's easy to understand Rex's obsession. It is less clear what Saskia's kidnapper Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), did with her, let alone why. The disappearing flits back and forth between cat and mouse, teasing the answers and revealing everyday villains. It's absolutely fascinating how factual the grotesque imagination and humble rehearsals of a terrible crime can be, and by the end of Sluizer's film, we too want to know the solution to this insidious riddle. And like Rex, we may very well regret asking.
(George Sluizer made his own film in America with Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges in 1993. It's a textbook example of how Hollywood can ruin a brilliant story by focusing on enjoying a crowd rather than enjoying its agony Whatever you do, see the original instead!)
Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Image via TriStar Pictures
Jacob Singer is a gentle postal worker recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a bloody tour in the Vietnam War. His family is no longer with him, his son died years ago and he is just putting the parts of his life together with his new girlfriend … when he sees a tentacle in the subway. And mysterious men with blurry faces. All of the demons in hell seem to get Jacob Singer, but is it his PTSD that affects him or something much, much more sinister?
Adrian Lyne is a director best known for sensual cinema, films like Disastrous attraction, Unfaithful, and 9 1/2 weeks, but in Jacobs ladderhe seems to be anxious to explore the opposite of attraction. The repulsion Jacob played from an impressively vulnerable Tim Robbins, has visions for his present and his ugly past permeates the dirty cityscapes around him. They represent a hell that he himself created, and when we see his story we are trapped in hell with him. Jacobs Leiter is a surreal and fascinating vision of psychological horror. No wonder this had a direct impact on the Silent Hill franchise.
301, 302 (1995)
in the Park Chul-sooIs the exciting, rough thriller 301, 302 We meet a couple of neighbors. Song-hee (Bang Eun-jin) lives in apartment 301 and is an aspiring cook. Yoon-hee (Hwang Shin-hye) lives in apartment 302 and is a writer with a debilitating phobia of food. She, when Song-hee tries to make delicious meals by cooking Yoon-hee, is offended to the point of obsession when she realizes that her neighbor has thrown her away uneaten.
Why, oh why, is Yoon-hee afraid of food? Song-hee will get the answers by any means necessary, and her story takes wild and unexpected turns. The answers we get are not the answers anyone could wish for, and as the neighbors begin to form a unique relationship we begin to realize that, for reasons of reason and propriety, these two people probably should never have met . But for the audience it is an unusual and absolutely exciting story of cruelty and pain.
Image via Daiei Film
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’S Heal may very well be the most hypnotic psychological thriller ever made, in the truest sense of the word. Cure tells the story of a detective, played by Kōji Yakusho, who is tasked with solving an impossible series of murders. In either case, one person has been murdered, the killer is found nearby, with no memory of what happened or why. And the only connection between them is a mysterious drifter named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) who doesn't even know who he is or where he is.
What he knows, and what both Mamiya and Kurosawa use all too well, are the techniques of hypnosis. Mamiya cradles everyone on their way into a mentally pliable state under which they are impressionable enough to do almost anything. Kurosawa lets the technique play for the audience and gives Cure a unique feeling of cinematic thrall. His horrors are calm. Its evils are under your skin and deep within you. It's one of the best films of its kind and one of the pinnacles of the psychological horror genre.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Image via Rex Entertainment
Japanese animator Satoshi KonThe short directing career included only four feature films before his death, all of which were brilliant, as well as the incredibly brilliant miniseries Paranoia agent. The psychotropic and inventive thriller Perfect blue was his debut, and it remains a turning point for the genre that cleverly anticipates techno horror, exposes the dangers of modern celebrity culture, and harbors the dangers of getting lost in their work.
Perfect Blue tells the story of a teenage music icon, Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) who decides to quit her hugely popular band and pursue a career as an actress. For her fans who refuse to allow her to change or live her own life, this is personal betrayal. For Mima, it's a danger of insecurity and an identity crisis. Who is she really Is she who she thinks she is, who everyone else thinks she is, or who she plays on television? And how is it that a blog is online that knows everything she's doing and even what she's thinking while she's doing it, if she doesn't publish it herself?
Perfect Blue was energetic, creative, influential, and really scary. He shaped the thriller genre and made Koa a filmmaker with directors like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan both were directly inspired by his unmistakable imagery and narrative style.
American Psycho (2000)
Image via Lions Gate Films
American psycho is a serial killer story on the surface. Christian BalHe plays Patrick Bateman, a handsome 1980s yuppie who works in finance, takes very good care of his body, and leads a life of absurd luxury. He's also homicidal and murderous co-workers and sex workers throughout the course of the film, and even tries to feed a cat into an ATM.
But Mary HarronThe film is not a mere saga of violence and brutality. It is a bitter and deep comedy in which the horrors of Bateman are offset by the absurdity of his fragile ego. Here's a muscular hunk, an industry titan whose psyche can be shattered by the appearance of a business card more stylish than his own. The horrors of American Psycho are clear and menacing, but the real nightmare is the possibility that even Bateman's most violent, powerful fantasies are nothing more than an immature macho fantasy. Or worse, that the world exists explicitly to live up to immature macho fantasies and to facilitate the worst and most pathetic kind of toxic masculinity.
Either way you read it, American Psycho is an exhilarating psychological thriller and a bitter indictment of the mentalities that go into the so-called "American Dream," especially masculinity and success.
Image via Newmarket Films
Christopher NolanThe second and groundbreaking feature star Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia who cannot create new memories. As a result, he has to reorient himself every few minutes and ask where he is and what he is doing. To put this man in the middle of a crime thriller is a brilliant conspiracy. Editing the film from its point of view – d. H. Telling the story in reverse order, scene by scene, so that the audience is constantly reorienting itself – is more than brilliant.
Memento can't help but feel like a "gimmick movie" because of course it is. The unique gimmick of storytelling is undoubtedly part of the movie's appeal. But Memento isn't resting on its laurels and letting the gimmick do all the work. It is a tragic drama of cycles and reversals, of betrayal and futility. The hero's unique psychological state propels the film in unusual directions, but the story would hold up if told in chronological order, a clever piece of script that Nolan presents impeccably. Memento is perhaps still the filmmaker's greatest wonder.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
David Lynch tells stories on the edge of reason and usually leans the other way. Sometimes there is only a weak connection to reality of any kind, but there are just enough threads connecting the filmmaker's hallucinatory images and dream-logic events to our universal fears to make them seem powerful, rather than just strange. Blue velvet, eraser, Abandoned highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are all-seen films for enthusiasts of the psychological thriller genre, but his masterpiece can be very good Mulholland Dr..
And frankly, it's a bit of a miracle the film works at all, as it was repurposed by a failed TV pilot who got a new and completely different ending to get all issues done quickly. Naomi Watts Stars as a young and idealistic genius who moves to Hollywood and quickly deals with an amnesia child, played by Laura Harringwho may be on the run from murderers. Together they navigate the twisted world of behind-the-scenes studio conspiracies, the subterranean dream world of independent theater, and, most shockingly, a revelation that will destroy them.
Mulholland Dr. is perhaps Lynch's most successful thriller, whether it's his best movie or not, as the new finale ends it all satisfactorily without explaining what the nightmare behind the diner really was. It offers the thrill we seek, the depth we crave, and the inexplicable puzzles that we couldn't possibly solve without ruining the mystique.
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About the author
(9 articles published)
William Bibbiani is a professional critic who has written for publications such as The Wrap, Fangoria, Collider and Bloody Disgusting and who hosts multiple podcasts each week on The Critically Acclaimed Network. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a connoisseur of esoteric pop culture, cult film enthusiast and horror film fanatic. Most importantly, he just loves movies, damn it.
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