Here’s a list of the best psychological thrillers of all time, in case you were looking to watch something classic and good this autumn.
While there are a variety of definitions for the “psychological thriller” genre, there is no universally accepted set of directorial guidelines. In general, good psychological thrillers integrate elements of personal character into overarching stories involving mystery and suspense, virtually crossing the line between a dramatic character study and the kind of plot structure you’d expect from, say, a detective film.
Many of the top psychological thrillers, however, have a classic recipe involving an antagonistic character rather than the traditional villain. In many films of this type, the main character’s inner conflict comes in the form of altering their perspective or discovering a truth buried in their own mind, involving scenes from their past. Basically, there is one character who is both positive and negative, but even in the latter you don’t fully hate him.
The scripts play with the main character’s back story or use an anonymous narrator. Films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento present the audience with one perspective on the story and then build suspense by showing the ways in which “reality” contrasts with that perspective.
Likewise, most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films also use this technique, and when I say this I am thinking in particular of Spellbound and Marnie, films in which the story concerns a character who “comes to his senses” after years of madness and confusion.
The list below contains some of the best thrillers of all time. Naturally, many more could be added here, but today’s article is purely subjective, as all writing in this niche should be.
When Detective William Somerset (played by Morgan Freeman) is offered the opportunity to work the last case of his career, he finds himself put in a difficult situation alongside young cop David Mills (played by Brad Pitt). Together, they uncover a series of rather elaborate murders. They soon realise they are dealing with a serial killer (played by Kevin Spacey) who is targeting people he believes represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset also befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in a deeply dangerous city.
The Shining (1980)
Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) takes a job at the remote Overlook Hotel in Colorado as a janitor during the winter, hoping to cure his writer’s block with the opportunity. He settles into the hotel with his wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny, who is filled with strange forebodings. As Jack finds that even this doesn’t help him get his writing back, and Danny’s visions become more disturbing, the hotel’s dark secrets come to light, and Jack turns into a vicious killer bent on terrorizing his family.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Young Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment) has a frightening secret: he is visited by ghosts. Obviously, Cole is frightened by visits from the dead, with unresolved issues that appear out of nowhere. He avoids telling anyone about it, except psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis). As Dr. Crowe tries to uncover the truth about Cole’s supernatural abilities, the unfolding of the script leads him to a reality that is hard to accept.
Shutter Island (2010)
The surprising escape of a murderess brings US Marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner (played by Mark Ruffalo) to Ashecliffe Hospital, a fortress-like insane asylum on a remote island. The woman seems to have disappeared from a locked room and there are hints that terrible deeds have been committed within the hospital walls. As the investigation moves past the early stages, Teddy realizes he will have to confront his own fears and learns something terrible.
After a serious car accident, novelist Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) is rescued by former assistant Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates), who claims to be his biggest fan. Annie brings him to her cabin to recover, but her obsession takes a dark turn. When she discovers that Sheldon is planning to “kill” his main character, otherwise Annie’s favorite, the woman goes berserk. As Sheldon tries to hatch escape plans, Annie becomes increasingly abusive, even violent, trying to force the author to rewrite the book and change its ending.
Secretary Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) chooses to go AWOL after stealing $40,000 from her employer, hoping to make her life better with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin). Traveling cross-country to avoid the police, she stops overnight at the Bates Motel and meets the polite but extremely bizarre owner, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), a young man with a passion for taxidermy and a difficult relationship with his mother.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” says con man Kint (played by Kevin Spacey), drawing a comparison to the most enigmatic criminal of all time, Keyser Soze. Kint tries to convince federal agents that the Devil not only exists, but is also responsible for luring Kint and his four partners into a heist plan that results in millions of dollars missing and an explosion in San Pedro Harbor that leaves many people dead.
Although Kevin (played by James McAvoy) has already told his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, that he possesses 23 distinct personalities, it seems he doesn’t immediately understand the seriousness of his situation. Forced to kidnap three teenage girls while Casey (one of the personalities) surfaces, Kevin ends up fighting an internal war that obviously doesn’t end very well.
The Bone Collector (1999)
Police officer Amelia Donaghy (played by Angelina Jolie) pursues a serial killer whose calling card consists of a small fragment of bone extracted from each of his victims. Unable to decipher the cryptic clues the killer leaves behind at the crime scene, Amelia calls in forensic expert Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) to help. The two try to figure out who this killer might be.