Psychological thrillers focus less on external adventure and threat and more on the interior worlds of heroes and villains whose grasp on reality is dangerously close to failing. They are stories of paranoia, delusion, phobias, and abuse. They exploit the anxieties of the audience while providing much-needed catharsis, putting our fears out in the open and revealing that they can either be conquered or, at the very least, have genuine validity.
However, it can be difficult to pin down which films are psychological thrillers and which ones are just thrillers in which the characters - like they would in any other genre - are motivated by their own, personal psychology. Like many genres of storytelling, the criteria can be a little nebulous and we’re not going to get hung up on that. We are, instead, just going to focus on the films we think are absolutely, 100% thrilling, and absolutely, 100% rooted in psychological anxiety.
The first film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, based on the novel Red Dragon, goes deeper into psychological terror than any of the others (at least until the TV show came along). Michael Mann’s Manhunter stars William Peterson as Will Graham, an FBI profiler who’s so talented at getting into the mind of a killer that he loses his own personality and drowns in the darkness. Will is on the trail of “The Tooth Fairy,” a serial killer home invader with a unique M.O., and once again starts to lose himself in his work, at the cost of his own soul.
Hannibal Lecter appears, inexplicably named “Hannibal Lecktor,” and played with a disarming casualness by Brian Cox, whose take on the character is more insidious and less mannered than the other actors who have taken on the role. That gives him the power to worm his way into Will’s mind more nimbly until they’re chatting on the phone like teenagers. Meanwhile, as Mann brings out the madness in his protagonist, he’s exploring the humanity of his murderer, Francis Dollarhyde, played by an impossibly frightening, and impossibly tragic Tom Noonan. Stylish and insightful and terrifying, and in some respects, perhaps the best adaptation of Harris’s work to date.
The Stepfather (1987)
“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 insinuates himself into the life of single moms, marries them, and tries to live the perfect American suburban life. When they fail to live up to his Reagan Era conservative values, he starts charming the next single mom, living two lives simultaneously, and eventually murdering the family that offends him.
Joseph Ruben’s exquisite and frightening psychological thriller covers all the angles: the suspicion of a new father figure, the hypocrisy of the nuclear family, the perverse logistics of living multiple lives simultaneously. And at the center of it all is O’Quinn, giving an all-time performance as one of cinema’s most fascinating monsters, who really does seem to be searching for what American culture promised him, and who seems utterly incapable of understanding that he was lied to.
Dead Ringers (1988)
David Cronenberg spent the majority of his career exploring the terrors of the human body, and our unnerving psychological obsessions with our own organics. Our various organs, including the brain, are inextricably linked - literally and thematically - and are all too easily malformed by his protagonists and villains. And while he’s made several classic films along these lines, it is perhaps Dead Ringers that stands out as his crowning accomplishment.
Jeremy Irons co-stars alongside Jeremy Irons, as identical twin gynecologists who share each other’s work, each other’s lives, and - without telling them - the same women. Elliot is confident and domineering, Beverly is shy and sensitive, and when they begin a romantic relationship with one of their patients, played by Geneviève Bujold, the strain becomes too much to bear. Beverly sinks into depression and delusion, imagining his patients as bizarre mutations, and Elliot soon sinks right in with him, choosing to live with his brother, even on the brink of madness, no matter what the cost.
Irons gives two devastating performances, with subtle, impeccable editing creating the unmistakable illusion, using old-fashioned techniques, that he’s somehow cloned himself. Dead Ringers is a technical marvel, and a sublimely weird, twisted psychological thriller.
The Vanishing (1988)
George Sluizer’s absorbing Dutch thriller Spoorloos (aka The Vanishing) tells the story of a young couple on a road trip. In the middle of a rest stop, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) excuses herself to get drinks. Hours later she has not returned, and Rex (Gene Vervoets) cannot find her. Years later, the mystery still unsolved, Rex remains obsessed with solving the mystery of her disappearance and will do anything for the answer.
It’s easy to understand Rex’s obsession. It’s less clear what Saskia’s kidnapper, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), has done with her, let alone why. The Vanishing flits back and forth between cat and mouse, teasing the answers and unveiling everyday villainy. It’s absolutely captivating how matter-of-fact the grotesque imagination and humdrum rehearsals of a terrible crime can be, and by the end of Sluizer’s film, we too are dying to know the solution to this insidious puzzle. And like Rex, we may very well regret that we asked.
(George Sluizer remade his own film in America in 1993, with Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges, and it’s a textbook example of how Hollywood can ruin a brilliant story by focusing on pleasing a crowd instead of reveling in their torment. Whatever you do, see the original instead!)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Jacob Singer is a mild-mannered 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’s just barely putting the pieces of his life together with his new girlfriend… when he sees a tentacle on the subway. And mysterious men with blurry faces. All the demons of hell seem out to get Jacob Singer, but is it his PTSD affecting him, or something far, far more sinister?
Adrian Lyne is a director best-known for sensual cinema, films like Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, and 9 1/2 Weeks, but in Jacob’s Ladder, he seems eager to explore the opposite of attraction. The repulsion that Jacob, played by an impressively vulnerable Tim Robbins, has for his present visions and his ugly past permeates into the grimy cityscapes around him. They represent a Hell of his mind’s own making, and by watching his story we are trapped in Hell with him. Jacob’s Ladder is a surreal and captivating vision of psychological horror; it should come as no surprise that it was a direct influence on the Silent Hill franchise.
301, 302 (1995)
In Park Chul-soo’s engrossingly gross thriller 301, 302 we meet a pair of neighbors. Song-hee (Bang Eun-jin) lives in apartment 301, and she’s an aspiring chef. Yoon-hee (Hwang Shin-Hye) lives in apartment 302, and she’s a writer with a debilitating phobia of food. She when Song-hee tries to make nice by cooking Yoon-hee delicious meals, she’s offended to the point of obsession when she realizes her neighbor has been throwing them away uneaten.
Why, oh why, is Yoon-hee terrified of food? Song-hee will get the answers by any means necessary, and their story takes wild and unexpected turns. The answers we receive are not the answers anybody could possibly want, and as the neighbors gradually form a unique relationship, we begin to realize that these two people should probably never have met, for the sake of sanity, for the sake of decency. But for the sake of the audience, it’s an unusual and absolutely riveting tale of cruelty and pain.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure may very well be the most hypnotic psychological thriller ever made, and quite literally. Cure tells the story of a detective, played on by Kōji Yakusho, tasked with solving an impossible series of murders. In each case a person was murdered, the murderer 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 does know, and what both Mamiya and Kurosawa employ all too well, are the techniques of hypnosis. Mamiya lulls everyone in his path into a psychologically pliable state, under they are impressionable enough to do almost anything. Kurosawa lets the technique playout for the audience as well, giving Cure a unique sense of cinematic thrill. Its horrors are tranquil. Its evils are under the skin and deep inside of you. It’s one of the very finest films of its kind, and one of the pinnacles of the psychological horror genre.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Japanese animator Satoshi Kon’s too-short directorial career comprised only four feature films before his death, all of them brilliant, as well as the unbelievably ingenious mini-series Paranoia Agent. The psychotropic and inventive thriller Perfect Blue was his debut, and it remains a watershed for the genre, cleverly foreshadowing techno horror, cracking open the perils of modern celebrity culture, and the dangers of losing oneself in their work.
Perfect Blue tells the story of a teen music icon, Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao), who decides to give up her extremely popular band and pursue a career in acting. To her fans, who refuse to allow her to change or live her own life, it’s a personal betrayal. To Mima it’s a pitfall into insecurity and a crisis of identity; who is she really? Is she who she thinks she is, who everyone else says she is, or who she plays on TV? And how is it that there’s a blog online that knows everything she’s doing, and even what she thinks while she’s doing it, if she’s not posting it herself?
Energized, creative and influential, and genuinely frightening, Perfect Blue made a mark on the thriller genre and turned Koa into a filmmaker’s filmmaker, with directors like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan both taking direct inspiration from his distinctive imagery and storytelling style.
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is, on the surface, a serial killer story. Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a handsome yuppie in the 1980s who works in finance, takes extremely good care of his body, and lives a life of absurd luxury. He’s also homicidal, and over the course of the film murders co-workers, sex workers, and even tries to feed a cat into an ATM.
But Mary Harron’s film isn’t a mere saga of violence and brutality. It’s a bitter and incisive comedy, in which the horrors committed by Bateman are balanced by the absurdity of his fragile ego. Here is a muscular Adonis, a titan of industry, 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 threatening, 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 cater to immature, macho fantasies, and enable the worst and most pathetic brand of toxic masculinity.
However you read it, American Psycho is a gripping psychological thriller, and a bitter indictment of the mentalities that feed into the so-called “American Dream,” specifically of manliness and success.
Christopher Nolan’s second and breakthrough feature stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia, who cannot make new memories. As a result, every few minutes he has to reorient himself and ask where he is and what he is doing. Placing that man in the middle of a murder mystery is an ingenious bit of plotting. Editing the film around his point of view - i.e. telling the story in reverse order scene-by-scene so the audience is constantly re-orienting themselves too - is beyond brilliant.
Memento can’t help but feel like a “gimmick movie,” because of course, that’s what it is. The unique storytelling gimmick is undeniably part of the film’s appeal. But Memento doesn’t rest on its laurels and let the gimmick do all the work. It’s a tragic drama of cycles and reversals, of betrayal and futility. The unique psychological state of the hero propels the film in unusual directions but the story would hold up if told in chronological order, a canny bit of screenwriting that Nolan presents impeccably. Memento is still, perhaps, the filmmaker’s greatest marvel.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
David Lynch tells stories on the edge of reason, usually leaning in the other direction. Sometimes there’s only a tenuous connection to reality of any kind, but there are just enough threads connecting the filmmaker’s hallucinatory imagery and dream-logic events to our universal anxieties to make them seem powerful instead of merely weird. Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are all must-see films for enthusiasts of the psychological thriller genre, but his masterpiece may very well be Mulholland Dr.
And frankly, it’s a minor miracle that the film works at all since it’s been repurposed from a failed TV pilot, which was given a new and completely different ending to quickly wrap up all the threads. Naomi Watts stars as a young and idealistic ingenue who moves to Hollywood and quickly takes up with an amnesiac, played by Laura Harring, who may be on the run from murderers. Together they navigate the twisted world of behind the scenes studio conspiracies, the underground dream world of independent theater, and most shockingly, a revelation that will destroy them.
Mulholland Dr. is perhaps Lynch’s most successful thriller, whether or not it’s his best film, because the new finale wraps everything up satisfactorily, while still never quite explaining what the nightmare behind the diner really was. It provides the thrills we seek, the depth we crave, and the inexplicable mysteries we couldn’t possibly solve without ruining the mystique.
Imagine it: You’re kidnapped, you’re placed in a motel with nothing but a TV for company and dumplings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You’re never allowed outside, you never have anybody to talk to, and you never know why you’ve been imprisoned. And fifteen years later you’re inexplicably freed and told you have to solve the mystery of why you were punished.
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a hell of a set-up, simultaneously specific and soaked in the unknown. As the protagonist, Oh Dae-Su, actor Choi Min-Sik rides the fine line between tragic victim and propulsive hero, forcing his way into his own past to determine what egregious wrong he could have possibly committed to deserve such a fate. And when the movie finally reveals its hand, it presents a concept so simple and radical it blows the mind: what if you destroyed someone’s life without having any idea you did it?
Oldboy features dynamic action and absolutely jaw-dropping plotting, and the climax is one for the ages. The remake, directed by Spike Lee, comes across like a pale imitation, right down to the comparatively happy, Hollywoodized finale. The original is a classic. Stick to it.
Georges and Anne are an unremarkable, upper-class French couple, who discover - to their horror - that they are being watched. Every day a video arrives on their doorstep, with footage of the front of their house. No threats, no message, just one person’s clear obsession with observing them.
What Georges, played by Daniel Auteuil, and Anne, played by Juliette Binoche, decide to do with this information says a lot about them. The assumption is that they should feel guilty, that the past has come back to haunt them, but which sin? Without any clue, they decide to dig into the past on their own, and what they find is the wretched refuse of a life filled with mistakes, not unlike any other, where pettiness and selfishness had consequences they could not possibly have fathomed.
Michael Haneke’s Caché is elusive and mysterious, and the only solution it provides, in the end, is so subtle it’s easy to miss the first time around. But it’s a fabulous and paranoid puzzle of a film, one that speaks to anyone with the capacity for guilt and shame.
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher’s Gone Girl plays like a lurid airplane novel, but hiding beneath the salacious storyline and the borderline campy violence is one of the filmmaker’s most bitterly observant motion pictures. Ben Affleck stars as a teacher, Nick, who’s married to Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, who famously inspired a series of children’s books. It’s not a happy marriage, so when Amy goes suddenly missing under suspicious circumstances, the media blitz quickly turns on Nick and makes him the prime suspect, ensnaring him in exactly the sort of oppressive high profile web that trapped Amy for many, many years.
Where Gone Girl goes from there would be a crime to reveal, but let’s just say there’s more to the story, and Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, adapting her own best-selling novel, have bigger ideas beyond mere murders and mysteries. Gone Girl explores the idea of marriage, of living in public, of being perceived as an object or an icon. Rosamund Pike is next-level fantastic in a multifaceted role, at once harrowing and hilarious and tragic, and Affleck gives one of his finest performances as a man endlessly manipulated.
The debut feature of Aneesh Chaganty takes place entirely on computer screens and cell phone screens, a gimmick Chaganty did not prevent but may very well have perfected. Searching stars John Cho as a single father whose teenaged daughter goes missing, and who must pour through all her private chats, contacts, and social media accounts to investigate her disappearance.
It’s a clever set-up for a thriller, implemented to perfection with canny editing and careful visual storytelling. But perhaps most notably, because of the position of the cameras, Searching relies almost entirely on John Cho’s face to convey the emotional core of its seemingly simple narrative. Watching this man seek out his daughter in desperation, and then gradually come to terms that he lost his daughter long ago, and never really knew her in the first place, only makes an impact because Cho sells the story with his every glance, his subtle realizations, and his mounting desperation.