50 Good Psychological Thriller Movies
By Shane Rivers
With the release of Gerard Butler’s Law Abiding Citizen, I started thinking about the best psychological thrillers available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Due to its impressive number of triumphs in recent years, it has become one of the most consistent genres for those looking for entertaining films with a twist. It’s therefore my pleasure to present 50 good psychological thriller movies that you might find of interest.
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1. Strangers on a Train (1951) – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this film deals with Guy Haines (Farley Granger) an amateur tennis star who wants a divorce from his cheating wife. He has a chance encounter with the psychotic Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), and the stranger proposes that he’ll murder Haines’s wife if he’ll in turn dispose of Anthony’s father. Haines doesn’t take him seriously, but he starts to look at things differently when his wife turns up dead.
2. The Signal (2007) – Everyone exposed to a bizarre signal goes absolutely crazy. In the midst of the madness, a young woman tries to escape her psychotic husband and reach the man she’s been having an affair with. An interesting film, because some of the main characters have actually been affected by the signal. I’m proud to add this one to the list of 50 good psychological thriller movies.
3. Mulholland Drive (2001) – David Lynch turns out yet another bizarre and original work. This one stars Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Elena Harring in a tale of aspiring actresses, bungling hitmen, amnesiacs, and gorgeous lesbians.
4. Transsiberian (2008) – An American husband and wife (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) take the Trans-Siberian Railway and befriend a young couple who may be involved in something shady. They must also contend with Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian narcotics officer with a few secrets of his own.
5. Donnie Darko (2001) – Teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is plagued with visions that the world is coming to an end. These disturbing dreams evolve into the exploration of parallel universes and other such highbrow concepts. Directed by Richard Kelly, the fascinating film stops just shy of being completely pretentious. Southland Tales would more than make up for that.
6. Unbreakable (2000) – Bruce Willis is David Dunn, an unexceptional security guard who becomes the sole survivor of a trash crash which kills 131 passengers. He later meets a brittle-boned man named Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) who reveals that Dunn has superpowers. Is Glass insane, or is Dunn really something special? It’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan, so that should give you a hint.
7. The Wages of Fear (1953) – A French classic about four down on their luck men hired to transport nitroglycerine over treacherous mountain terrain in order to put out an oil well fire. Later remade in America as Sorcerer in 1977.
8. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Alfred Hitchcock remakes his own film about a couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) who inadvertently get involved in an assassination plan in Morocco.
9. Kontroll (2003) – A Hungarian film about the men and women who inspect tickets on the subway. Besides following their daily struggles on the job, the movie also introduces a serial killer who may be one of their own. A unique film filled with dashes of comedy, drama, romance, and terror.
10. When a Stranger Calls (1979) – Carol Kane and Charles Durning star in this thriller about a deranged madman who famously telephones a terrified babysitter from inside the house. But that’s only the beginning of the film, as the psycho escapes an asylum years later and once again tracks down the former babysitter.
11. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock directed this film which made people everywhere nervous about taking a shower. Anthony Perkins stars as Norman Bates, a lonely young man with a very unhealthy relationship with his mother.
12. Vertigo (1958) – A retired cop with a fear of heights (James Stewart) is hired to keep tabs on the wife of a friend and discover the cause of her recent erratic behavior. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it is often considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made.
13. Marathon Man (1976) – Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier star in this film which confirmed everyone’s fear of dentists. Olivier plays a wanted Nazi war criminal who must journey to New York in order to get a fortune worth of diamonds. Hoffman is the poor sap whose brother works for CIA (before he‘s murdered, that is), which is enough to get him captured and tortured by the sadistic former death camp dentist.
14. Phone Booth (2003) – Colin Farrell stars as a sleazy New York publicist who gets trapped inside a phone booth by a deranged sniper and framed for murder. Forrest Whitaker stars as the cop who tries to resolve the situation without bloodshed, and Katie Holmes has a small part as a hopeful actress who Farrell is taking advantage of.
15. M (1931) – Fritz Lang considered this to be his finest directorial work and rightfully so. Peter Lorre appears in his first major film role as Hans Beckert, a tormented serial killer who preys on children. As the whole city searches for him, it becomes a race between the cops and criminals as to who will catch (and punish) him first.
16. Funny Games (1997) – This Austrian film revolves around two young men, Peter and Paul, who capture a vacationing family and force them to participate in a series of sadistic games. Directed by Michael Haneke, this film was given an English language remake in 2008 (once again directed by Haneke). The line between fiction and reality is constantly blurred, and the audience is made complicit in the murders.
17. Secret Window (2004) – Johnny Depp plays Mort Rainey, a writer living in isolation in a lakeside cabin and facing divorce from his unfaithful wife (Maria Bello). One day, he receives a visit from a man (John Turturro) claiming that Rainey has plagiarized his work. Rainey sets out to prove him wrong, but he discovers a few things along the way that are far more disturbing.
18. The Stepfather (1987) – Terry O’Quinn plays a man obsessed with finding the perfect family. When one doesn’t live up to his expectations, he murders them, changes his appearance, and then goes in search of another. Will his latest family see through his ruse before it’s too late?
19. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Jodie Foster plays an FBI trainee assisting with the search for a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. She’s sent to get advice from famous psychotic Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), and the two form a strange bond. Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill continues to strike, as well as dancing around with his penis tucked between his legs to let us know he’s really crazy. One of the best psychological thrillers of the modern era.
20. Straw Dogs (1971) – A controversial film from director Sam Peckinpah. Dustin Hoffman stars as an academic who moves with his wife to her former hometown in Britain. The locals don’t exactly take a shine to him, and this later erupts into rape and violence in the classic Peckinpah tradition.
21. Memento (2000) – Guy Pearce plays a tormented man looking for his wife’s killer. Plagued by chronic memory loss, he tattoos any clues he finds onto his body. A bizarre whodunnit that’ll keep you guessing until the final frames.
22. Blow Out (1981) – Brian De Palma directed this film about a sound effects technician (John Travolta) who believes he might have accidentally recorded an assassination taking place. John Lithgow also stars as a hitman who takes his job way too seriously.
23. Play Misty for Me (1971) – Clint Eastwood plays a radio DJ who must deal with the affections of a deranged female fan. This film paved the way for later works like Fatal Attraction about spurned women on a psychotic rampage.
24. Touch of Evil (1958) – Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, and Marlene Dietrich all star in this tale of murder and intrigue on the Mexico/US border. Welles also directed, and the film’s opening 3 ½ minute tracking shot is considered one of the finest in film history. Heston plays a Mexican, by the way, and the amount of dark makeup he wears looks somewhat comical by today’s standards.
25. Dial M for Murder (1954) – An Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a former tennis pro (Ray Miland) who marries a woman (Grace Kelly) for her money and then plans to have her killed. His plan goes awry, however, partially thanks to the presence of Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American crime scriptwriter who his wife was once involved with. Only two settings are used for the film (a living room and a gentleman’s club).
26. Peeping Tom (1960) – Directed by Michael Powell, this controversial British film nearly destroyed his career. It revolves around a disturbed young man who murders women and records their dying expressions with a portable video camera. When it comes to a list of 50 good psychological thriller movies, this one deserves a spot every time.
27. The Tenant (1976) – Roman Polanski directs and stars in this film about a man who rents an apartment where the previous tenant committed suicide. Before long, he begins to suspect that his neighbors and landlord are trying to get him to do the same thing.
28. The Lady Vanishes (1938) – The success of this U.K. film allowed Alfred Hitchcock to move to Hollywood. A group of passengers on a train in Central Europe are delayed by an avalanche. When passenger Iris blacks out after getting hit in the head with a flowerpot, she awakens to find one of the other passengers missing. To further complicate matters, those around her claim the missing woman never existed.
29. Don’t Look Now (1973) – A heartbroken couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) travel to Venice to recover after the tragic death of their daughter. They encounter a pair of strange psychic women during their journey and receive a cryptic warning. Meanwhile, a serial killer stalks the streets of Venice.
30. Pacific Heights (1990) – Michael Keeton stars as the tenant from hell, and Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine are the couple who mistakenly rent him a room.
31. The Vanishing (1988) – A Dutch film about a girl who disappears from a rest stop in rural France. Her boyfriend becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, and his search lasts for years. We also become familiar with the man who kidnapped her, and the two are eventually drawn together.
32. Insomnia (2002) – A remake of a Norwegian film, Insomnia stars Al Pacino as a LAPD detective sent to Alaska to try and solve the disappearance of a teenage girl. He accidentally kills his partner while he’s there, but many believe he did it on purpose. He’s aided by a local cop (Hilary Swank), and there’s still the matter of a killer being on the loose. Robin Williams co-stars.
33. The Game (1997) – Michael Douglas stars as a driven businessman whose brother (Sean Penn) buys him a unique gift for his upcoming birthday. It’s a game of sorts, but even the company which provides it is vague about the details. When the game starts, he soon regrets having agreed to participate. Directed by David Fincher.
34. Jagged Edge (1985) – Jeff Bridges stars as a man arrested for the murder of his wife. He hires a reluctant lawyer (Glenn Close) to defend him, and she must learn what really happened. But as she digs deeper in the case, her life also becomes endangered. Robert Loggia and Peter Coyote co-star.
35. 2LDK (2002) – Two Japanese actresses stay in an apartment overnight while producers decide which one lands an important role. Jealousy begins to boil to the surface, and it soon erupts into a darkly comical showdown complete with a chainsaw and plenty of blood.
36. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Frank Sinatra stars in this film about a platoon of American soldiers captured and brainwashed during the Korean War. This leads to a Communist plot in which one of the soldiers is meant to act as an assassin. Can ‘Ol Blue Eyes stop it in time? By the way, this is the first American film to feature a fight scene in which both participants employ martial arts (Sinatra and Henry Silva).
37. Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – A Vietnam veteran (Tim Robbins) begins to experience a series of bizarre incidents. Is he slowly going mad, or is he seeing things that others choose to remain blind to? You won’t know the true answer until the very end of the film. Elizabeth Pena and Danny Aiello co-star.
38. The Conversation (1974) – Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, this film deals with surveillance expert Harry Caul and his latest assignment. While listening in on a couple in the park, Caul becomes convinced their lives may be in danger if he hands the surveillance tapes over to his client. How we interpret what people say becomes a central theme of the movie.
39. The Machinist (2004) – Christian Bale lost over 60 pounds to play Trevor Reznik, a man who hasn’t slept in over a year. Driven to paranoia through lack of sleep, he begins to suspect that someone is out to kill him, a fact which is confirmed when bizarre post-it notes suddenly appear on his refrigerator door.
40. Deep Red (1975) – One of director Dario Argento’s more popular films, Deep Red follows a music teacher (David Hemmings) as he tries to solve the brutal murder which he witnessed in an apartment building.
41. Manhunter (1986) – The first film based on Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon novel. When a killer known as “The Tooth Fairy” begins butchering entire families, a former FBI agent is called out of retirement to catch him. Brian Cox appears as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (the spelling of his surname was changed in later films).
42. Apt Pupil (1998) – Based on a novella by Stephen King, Apt Pupil is directed by Bryan Singer and stars the late Brad Renfro as a high school student who discovers a Nazi war criminal (Ian McKellen) living in suburbia. He blackmails the old man into telling him about what happened in the death camps, and their relationship begins to take on a much darker nature.
43. House of Games (1987) – A psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) gets drawn into the world of con-men in this film written and directed by David Mamet. The various cons will keep you guessing throughout, and Mamet’s script crackles with fresh dialogue. It also stars Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh, and Ricky Jay.
44. Hard Candy (2006) – A tense struggle between an online predator (Patrick Wilson) and the 14-year-old girl (Ellen Page) he’s set his sights on. Plenty of twists and turns in this one.
45. Breakdown (1997) – Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan star as a couple traveling cross-country. They experience car trouble along the way, and a friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) offers to give the wife a ride to a telephone. When she disappears, and the trucker denies stopping to help, the husband is left with a dangerous mystery on his hands.
46. Rear Window (1954) – A photographer (James Stewart) with a broken leg passes the time by spying on his neighbors. When he becomes convinced that his salesman neighbor (Raymond Burr) murdered his wife, our hero just can’t let it go. Grace Kelly co-stars as Stewart’s socialite girlfriend. Fans of the genre have long regarded it as one of the best psychological thrillers to ever grace the big screen.
47. The Dead Zone (1983) – In this adaptation of the Stephen King story, Christopher Walken plays a man who gains strange psychic abilities after awakening from a coma. This leads him to take on a serial killer and even a mad politician (Martin Sheen).
48. The Sixth Sense (1999) – The movie which made director M. Night Shyamalan a household name. A child psychologist (Bruce Willis) attempts to help a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who claims he sees dead people. Watch out for the twist ending!
49. Frailty (2001) – The tender story of two young Texas boys and their loving father (Bill Paxton). Well, at least until the father is visited by an angel who gives him a list of demons in human form that must be destroyed. Particularly effective since Paxton’s earnest character really believes he’s been chosen by God. Matthew McConaughey and Powers Booth also star.
50. Basic Instinct (1992) – Michael Douglas is Nick Curran, a police detective assigned to look into the stabbing death of a former rock star. His investigation soon points towards sexy Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a successful writer and lover of the deceased. Before you can say “Paul Verhoeven loves sex and violence, ” Curran is jumping into the sack with Tramell and being pulled into a web of kinky sex, deception, and murder.