The best psychological thrillers are true to their genre: they are suspenseful and cerebral, forcing audiences to expand their minds while characters face suspenseful environments. Several of acting’s finest have graced the screen in a psycho thriller once or twice and the genre can be placed under a plethora of films. We will be looking at the psychological thrillers that caused minds to bend and muscles to clench; the thrillers that birthed twist endings still living on in cinematic infamy. We will be breaking down the top 10 psychological thrillers in order.
While taking a look at some of the 20th and 21st century’s best, we will also take a dive into the directors on this list and their ability to solidify the genre as one of the industry’s most attractive types of narratives. From Fincher to Nolan, the psychological thriller is a genre that has been uniquely crafted by every filmmaker of its time, even all the way up to 2019 with Todd Phillips’ Joker and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. No matter which way they bend the story, these films get us zoned in and force us to try to resolve the conflicts before the characters do.
Not only can these thrillers play tricks on the minds of audiences, they also break down our psyche and make us vulnerable to unlikely twists that we never saw coming. As complex as these films can get, so can analyzing them. But when everything comes together for a film in this type of genre, it deserves to be remembered. Now let’s get into the top 10 psychological thriller films.
The Sixth Sense
While the plot twist has become a facet of great storytelling in cinema, there was a time when the technique wasn’t so familiar to audiences. It has been explored for decades, but M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 paranormal thriller, The Sixth Sense, has redefined how pop culture interprets a film’s plot twist. Avoiding all spoilers, despite the film’s biggest reveal and its cultural impact, The Sixth Sense is a lesson in storytelling and subverting expectations. There are colossal performances from Bruce Willis and a young Hallie Joel Osment, who play a child psychologist and a young boy with the bone-chilling ability to see ghosts; but that’s far from the twist. Shyamalan plays with our expectations like a true showman and hits us over the head with the movie’s most important theme: the conflict between seeing and believing. Since Shyamalan’s breakout film, he hasn’t quite come out of its shadow, but his trademark storytelling techniques continue to reach the masses.
Just a year after The Sixth Sense came a different type of psychological thriller; one with more of a social commentary. American Psycho, the only film on this list written and directed by a woman, makes a statement on yuppie (young professional) America. Starring Christian Bale as the infamous Patrick Bateman, this film is a polished look at an anti-hero who kills for pleasure. Drawing from films before its time, like The Shining and Taxi Driver, and inspiring work after its time, like Dexter and Nightcrawler, Mary Harron’s psychological cult classic American Psycho keeps audiences guessing. It’s a commentary on corporate America, the facades of businessmen, and their pretentious behavior through a hyper analysis of a corporate yuppie by day, axe murderer by night. Harron takes the anti-hero archetype and spins it on its head psychologically, delving into Bateman’s mind and thought processes; especially with help from his cringey but convincing narration.
Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut is the last film in Stanley Kubrick’s historic filmography before he died. And, although it was not as acclaimed when it came out, this film, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, is now known as a definitive epilogue to a storied career. While this won’t be Kubrick’s last appearance on this list, Eyes Wide Shut is a masterclass in attention to detail, exploring love, lust, cults, and more, with a dreamlike tone and pitch-perfect cinematography. While it is hard to compare Kubrick’s final film to its predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey, its cultural movement is shifting it into a classic. The performances are great, Kubrick is at his best late in his career, and he took his time to deliver a film that checks every box. With cinematographer Larry Smith (Only God Forgives, 2013) behind the camera, Kubrick and co. create a psychological thriller based on taboo subject matter like sex and prostitution, and the vulnerability that men have to become tempted by their vices. From its mysterious, iconic term fidelio to its intense study on the psyche of a man entering a “new world,” Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s last and most valiant effort to filmmaking.
Christopher Nolan, one of the genre’s most influential filmmakers, has pretty much claimed it for his own and has been experimenting with different narratives within the genre, dating back to his earlier films like Memento. The murder mystery and psychological thriller explores the life of Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce, who has severe short-term memory loss and can only remember things from as far back as a few hours before. Nolan uses Leonard’s condition to drive the story on a bit of an unusual road. Leonard’s condition takes us through his memories and the clues, like his several tattoos, that he leaves himself to remember previous interactions he has as he tries to find the man who killed his wife. Nolan explores the technique of an unordered narrative structure and nails it, creating a pay off that you’ll have to remember. Memento would not only inspire other filmmakers, but also himself, as he would go on to make some of the 21st century’s most memorable psycho thrillers.
What more is there to say about Parasite? It has all of the awards and has made every top 10 list since. But Parasite’s multi-faceted exploration of genre just simply has to be discussed; psychological thriller being one of those areas. Putting a microscope up to two very different families in South Korea, director Bong Joon-ho breaks down class by portraying the thoughts and actions of the characters. You see deep into the characters and easily dissect their motives, theirs wants, and their needs. While Parasite may not rank up to its psycho thriller counterparts, it isn’t far off. With it’s recent buzz deeming it an instant classic, it simply explores several different genres, like dark comedy and drama, and cannot be held under one scope or interpretation. However, the film is a horrifying and surreal look into the lives of everyday people with completely different backgrounds. It creates the illusion that allows the audience to feel what the characters are feeling, as well as their suspense and anxieties.
With such an unforgettable movie title turned cinematic icon like Hitchcock’s Psycho under the psychological thriller genre, it was a no brainer to add it to this list. Serving up one of the most iconic movie scenes and plot twists in history, this 1960 classic defined a legendary career for horror director Alfred Hitchcock. The film is about a young lady on the run, played by Janet Leigh, who meets Bates Motel manager Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. The film features one of the horror genre’s greatest and most influential scenes with the shower stabbing as well as a mind bending twist at the end. While films that followed took Hitchcock’s method and tweaked it decade by decade, he will always be notable as a pioneer of psychological thrillers and the horror techniques that would always have a place in cinema. The black and white film is still adored today and constantly examined by college professors and film scholars. It’s depth goes beyond its claim as a psychological thriller masterpiece, but other filmmakers have made even more significant claims.
Inception is a psychological thriller that still has audiences scratching their heads; and it’s all thanks to Christopher Nolan’s evolution in the genre. Films like Inception often need a unique world to exist in, and what better place to set a psychological action thriller than a dream. The 2010 epic, Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is about a group of highly professional “dream artists” who are attempting to hijack the dreams of a rightful company heir, played by Cillian Murphy. With stellar performances that help boost the magnitude of this film, Inception relies on a complex narrative structure that seems to complicate audiences’ thought processes. While the clichéd plot twist seems to be littered within the genre, several psychological thrillers like to leave their resolutions up for interpretation, like American Psycho. And, this is the main reason why movies like Inception are revisited so often, with fans searching for different answers on every rewatch. While on the surface, it’s our interpretation that allows our imaginations to run wild, Inception is unique in that the dream world it portrays takes us out of our own world and into the film; and Nolan does this effortlessly.
Coming in at our third spot is Kubrick’s second nod to the psycho thriller, but this time, it’s his 1980 Stephen King adaptation of The Shining that is messing with our psyche. The film, which delivers some of cinema’s most iconic lines and shots, like “Here’s Johnny” and the intricately-patterned Overlook Hotel carpets, is about a man and his family’s descent into madness while watching an eerie Colorado hotel over the winter months. While performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall tend to live on, it’s Kubrick’s take on a psychological horror and his keen attention to detail that always has film scholars circling back to it. The Shining is visually stunning, yet slow-burning. It hits all the right narrative marks and Nicholson flawlessly consumes audiences, helping them feel his character’s psychological breakdown. The film, although criticized by the likes of Stephen King himself, is the epitome of films that follow a protagonist’s fall into absolute madness; a true psychological marvel.
David Fincher is no stranger to psychological thrillers, but it’s his 1999 cult classic, Fight Club, that is almost always mentioned when discussing this specific sub-genre. This film has a slew of subversions, a major, decade-defining plot twist, and a multi-character study of two complex, yet similar characters in Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s performances. With films like Zodiac and Gone Girl, Fincher has proved his mastery of the psychological thriller genre, but it’s Fight Club that stands the test of time in the best possible way. Everything comes together in this film, including the acting, the score, the dark, but visually-striking tone, and much more. Fight Club is about a down-and-out average joe that results to an actual “fight club” to relieve his tensions. But when an already-gone-mental character starts to spiral in the midst of new friends and interactions, we begin to question our own psychosis as audience members. While Fight Club may not match up historically to some of cinema’s classics, like The Shining and Psycho, the film nails the genre unlike any other, except one film that has paved its own way within the genre and cinema greatness alike.
Silence of the Lambs
American Psycho has serial killers, Inception has an intense psychological narrative, and The Sixth Sense has an unforgettable plot twist. But, few movies have all three quite like Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Best Picture winner, Silence of the Lambs. Along with captivating performances from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, this film is about a young detective searching in a maximum security psych ward to find a serial killer. Enter Anthony Hopkins’ iconic character, Dr. Hannibal Lector. With one of the shortest screen times for any Best Actor winner, Hopkins brings his character’s psychological disorder to life and is an absolute thrill, rightfully so. The film is adored by scholars, critics, and fans alike. While it stands alone as one of the greatest films of the 1990s, it ranks high on all-time lists of horror films, crime dramas, and especially psychological thrillers. Aside from Silence of the Lambs being mind bending, psychologically straining, and bone-chilling all at the same time, it is simply an A+ lesson in filmmaking, from visual storytelling to unforgettable suspense.