Top 15 Psychological Thrillers
Psychological thrillers are my favorite types of film. They hold the majority of positions in my DVD collection and are the ones I watch most often. Nothing can beat the heart racing as you anticipate the next move and better yet, these films don’t need to be filled with gore and blood to shock and frighten. These are films that involve the brain – not just the senses. So here are my pick of the ten best psychological thrillers ever. As usual, if you don’t agree – or simply think of others that would be great for an extended list, mention it in the comments. Competition: this list includes a competition. More information is given at the bottom of the article.
The 1950s. Manhattan lavatory attendant, Tom Ripley, borrows a Princeton jacket to play piano at a garden party. When the wealthy father of a recent Princeton grad chats Tom up, Tom pretends to know the son and is soon offered $1,000 to go to Italy to convince Dickie Greenleaf to return home. In Italy, Tom attaches himself to Dickie and to Marge, Dickie’s cultured fiancée, pretending to love jazz and harboring homoerotic hopes as he soaks in luxury. Besides lying, Tom’s talents include impressions and forgery, so when the handsome and confident Dickie tires of Tom, dismissing him as a bore, Tom goes to extreme lengths to make Greenleaf’s privileges his own. This was the first film I saw Matt Damon in, and I was extremely impressed by the way he managed to make me feel so uncomfortable in every scene. To top it off, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a cameo appearance in the film.
Happily married New York lawyer Dan Callagher has an affair with his colleague Alex, and the two enjoy a love weekend while Dan’s wife and kid are away. But Alex will not let go of him, and she will stop at nothing to have him for herself. Just how far will she go to get what she wants? This film has prevented me from ever seeing Glenn Close as anything but evil – watch this for some good old 80s frights.
When workaholic businessman Nicholas Van Orton turns 48, his long absent drug-addicted brother turns up and gives him a special gift for his birthday – membership of an exclusive game. Nicholas, against his better judgement signs the waiver form and his life is turned upside down. This film is a lesser known work by the director of Se7en – and while it is not as popular, it is an excellent film which really draws you in to the suspense and intrigue. I guarantee you will love it. From a perspective of the twisted psychological aspects of the film, this probably tops the list.
Sam Bowden is a small-town corporate attorney/”Leave It to Beaver”-esque family-man. Max Cady is a tattooed, cigar-smoking, bible-quoting, psychotic rapist. What do they have in common? Fourteen years, ago Sam was a public defender assigned to Max Cady’s rape trial, and he made a serious error: he hid a document from his illiterate client that could have gotten him acquitted. Now, the cagey, bibliophile Cady has been released, and he intends to teach Sam Bowden and his family a thing or two about loss. It was a toss up between this film and the Departed – and I chose Cape Fear because the Departed is a fairly new film and is a remake of an Asian film. Having said that, if you haven’t seen the new Departed – you should see that too.
Patrick Bateman is handsome, well educated and intelligent. He is twenty-seven and living his own American dream. He works by day on Wall Street, earning a fortune to complement the one he was born with. At night he descends into madness, as he experiments with fear and violence. This film has more cringe moments than any other I have seen. This is probably the most gruesome of the films on the list – but it does manage to keep it as “tasteful” as possible. The worst scene for me is one involving a drawer full of medical implements. If you have seen the film you will know what I mean.
The wife and mistress of a sadistic boarding school headmaster plot to kill him. They drown him in the bathtub and dump the body in the school’s filthy swimming pool… but when the pool is drained, the body has disappeared – and subsequent reported sightings of the headmaster slowly drive his ‘killers’ (and the audience) up the wall with almost unbearable suspense. This film was remade under the title Diabolique in 1996 starring Sharon Stone. The original is so much better – avoid the new one.
Upon moving to Britain to get away from American violence, astrophysicist David Sumner and his wife Amy are bullied and taken advantage of by the locals hired to do construction. When David finally takes a stand it escalates quickly into a bloody battle as the locals assault his house. This is Dustin Hoffman as you have never seen him. This is one of my favorite psychological thriller cum revenge movies – it is definitely worth the purchase/download. Be warned: some of the scenes in this film are quite disturbing.
Disc jockey Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) attracts the amorous attentions of a demented fan named Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter). Evelyn lets Dave pick her up at a bar; later at her apartment, Evelyn admits that she is the cooing caller who repeatedly asks Dave to play the Erroll Garner classic “Misty.” From then on, the film is a lesson in how one casual date can turn your whole life around. Evelyn stalks Dave everywhere, ruins his business lunch, assaults his maid, mutilates his house and all of his belongings, and finally threatens to butcher his girlfriend Tobie Williams (Donna Mills). You’ll never be able to hear that song again without looking over your shoulder. This was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, and what a debut it is!
After a waterfront explosion, Verbal, an eye-witness and participant tells the story of events leading up to the conflagration. The story begins when five men are rounded up for a line-up, and grilled about a truck hijacking (the usual suspects). Least pleased is Keaton a crooked cop – exposed, indicted, but now desperately trying to go straight. The cops won’t leave him alone, however, and as they wait for their lawyers to post bail, he is talked into doing one more job with the other four. All goes tolerably well until the influence of the legendary, seemingly omnipotent “Keyser Soze” is felt. Although set in the modern day, it has much of the texture of the forties, plus suspense, intrigue (a fairly high body count), and lots of twists in the plot. This movie ranks #20 on the IMDB top 250 – and for a very good reason: it has a star studded cast, excellent direction, and excellent cinematography.
Memento chronicles two separate stories of Leonard, an ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories, as he attempts to find the murderer of his wife, which is the last thing he remembers. One story line movies forward in time while the other tells the story backwards revealing more each time. This is not just a thrilling film – it is a clever film that really does leave you guessing all the way through. Guy Pearce is fantastic in this must-see movie.
This thriller portrays the exploits of a deranged serial-killer. His twisted agenda involves choosing seven victims who represent egregious examples of transgressions of each of the Seven Deadly Sins. He then views himself as akin to the Sword of God, handing out horrific punishment to these sinners. Two cops, an experienced veteran of the streets who is about to retire and the ambitious young homicide detective hired to replace him, team up to capture the perpetrator of these gruesome killings. Unfortunately, they too become ensnared in his diabolical plan. Anyone who has seen this film can not deny the psychological thrill of waiting to see what nasty thing the serial killer has lined up for the next sin! This is a brilliant film and if you haven’t seen it – you must.
New York City cab driver Travis Bickle constantly, almost obsessively, reflects on the ugly corruption of life around him, and becomes increasingly disturbed over his own loneliness and alienation. In nearly every phase of his life, Bickle remains a complete outsider, failing to make emotional contact with anyone. Unable to sleep night after night, Travis haunts the local pornography emporiums to find diversion, and begins desperately thinking about an escape from his depressing existence. The superb acting of Robert De Niro gives this film a constant chill. Every minute he is on the screen – the viewer is nervous. This is a masterful thriller by one of the modern greats – Scorsese.
After Raymond returns from the Korean War as a decorated hero, the other members of his platoon can’t really remember what he did to win his medal. Two of the soldiers start having recurring nightmares, and one of them decides to investigate Raymond’s current activities. What dark and sinister secrets are being withheld by the Government and the Army? This film was so good that it spawned a remake (a far inferior one, I should add) starring Denzel Washington. This original version includes excellent performances from Janet Leigh, Frank Sinatra, and the indomitable Angela Lansbury.
Professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries breaks his leg while getting an action shot at an auto race. Confined to his New York apartment, he spends his time looking out of the rear window observing the neighbours. He begins to suspect that the man opposite may have murdered his wife. Jeff enlists the help of his society model girlfriend Lisa Freemont and his nurse Stella to investigate. I could only select one Hitchcock film for this list (otherwise it would be a top 10 Hitchcock list) and Rear Window seemed the obvious choice. It has brilliant acting, excellent film work, and plenty of suspense.
Clarice Starling, a young intelligent FBI trainee, has been sent to the Batlimore state hospital for the Criminally insane to interview an inmate Dr. Hannibal – the cannibal – Lecter. A brilliant and renowned psychiatrist turned serial killer. She must match wits with Lecter to gain clues in the search for “Buffalo Bill” – an unknown psychopathic serial killer. Silence of the Lambs has to take number one spot – not only is it clearly the best of the genre, it introduced to the world one of the most scary, intelligent, and vile characters in film history: Dr Hannibal Lecter. I think it is also fair to say that it was one of the best performances of Jodie Foster.
I have added this as a bonus rather than putting it in the list because it seems to me to be more suited to the surrealist genre. Having said that, it does certainly contain many elements of a psychological thriller so I want to give it a mention at least. This atmospheric film takes you on a bizarre ride through Los Angeles and the life of a budding film star – and ultimately takes you nowhere. It is typical of Lynch in that the film simply can not be explained – watch out for the surrealist film list – it will certainly feature there.
At 1pm GMT tomorrow, I will select one commenter from this list to win a prize of the great recently published book Top 10 For Men – a book of over 250 lists of interest to men (though women will no doubt love it also). Topics include What’s the most common murder weapon? What is the hottest variety of chilli? Who is the most searched for woman on the internet? To read an official excerpt of the book, go here.
The prize winner will be one randomly selected commenter – as usual you can enter more than one comment to improve your chances, but your comments must add value to this list – that means no comments designed just to have a better chance at winning. The winner must be a registered user of the List Universe. You can click here to register.
Finally, many thanks to Octopus Books for donating the prize for this competition.
Sources: this article uses synopsis information from IMDB – the Internet Movie Database