The Best Psychological Thrillers, Ranked
Ah, psychological thrillers—because sometimes all you want is to feel immensely stressed out over imaginary people’s problems from the comfort of your own home. I jest, but also that’s kind of what we’re doing when we watch them, isn’t it? Like how horror films are basically fight-or-flight simulators for domesticated humans who live indoors and don’t have to run from lions anymore. Anyway, psychological thrillers are amazing for vicariously working out all your own tension and stress through the protagonist, and that moment of relief most of them give you at the end when everything’s finally resolved is pretty magical. Seriously, it’s almost like being high.
If you’re looking to get into the genre or just trying to figure out something to watch tonight, have no fear: I’ve rounded up the 10 best psychological thrillers and ranked them from good to great.
10. The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best. The twist is iconic and regularly makes top 10 lists of spoilers alongside Luke Skywalker’s parentage. Bruce Willis delivers a strong performance as Malcolm Crow, a weary psychologist trying to help a tiny little boy (the adorable Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people. I don’t know about you but as soon as there are children in a thriller I am instantly about 10 times more anxious (similarly if there are pets). It’s terrifying watching little Cole try to navigate around ghostly encounters and simultaneously watching Bruce Willis’s character try to decide if he believes in what is happening or not. With a kid’s safety on the line the film is full of sad and anxious moments leading to a truly touching, lovely resolution. Even if you know the twist do go ahead and watch it, I don’t think being surprised is integral to enjoying the film.
Hush is an incredible film for a number of reasons. There’s a badass female character, there’s a great depiction of deafness, there’s an absolutely terrifying bad guy, and the cat doesn’t die. Mike Flanagan‘s film follows Maddie, a deaf writer who lives alone, as she becomes the target of a sadistic attacker who intends on breaking into her house and killing her. Hush‘s audio style shift when we switch to Maddie’s point of view, changing how sounds are perceived and lending a nuance to the film that increases the tension. I love the determined Maddie, and how talented and intensely focused she is on finding the next best way to survive. She’s clever enough to know that when the masked killer reveals his face it means he doesn’t intend for her to live, and she changes strategies accordingly. Hush is intriguing, well-paced, terrifying, and has a very satisfying conclusion.
8. Gone Girl
On to something a little more modern, I have to admit that Gone Girl got me when I saw it. It’s full of incredibly unsympathetic characters, which is par for the course with a Gillian Flynn story, but no matter how conniving, cunning, and utterly terrifying Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is, there’s something very satisfying about watching her self-pitying husband (Ben Affleck) taken down. Obviously, Amy Dunne is a bad guy, but so is Nick, with his tendency to sleep with his students and attempts to reduce his wife to a supporting character in the Nick show—a story that plays out again and again when women succeed past the points their husbands set for them. Directed by David Fincher, Gone Girl is twisty and turn-y and fast-paced and fun to watch, and I ended it feeling that these two people thoroughly deserve each other. It’s fascinating to watch either side try to come out on top, and there’s something cathartic about the ending despite, well, everything.
7. 12 Angry Men
If you’re going to watch 12 Angry Men, it has to be the 1957 film, not the remake. Paul Newman is essential to the proper watching experience of this extraordinary one-room classic about the nuances of the justice system and the determination of one stubborn man to ensure that justice is done. Set in a sweltering jury room, 12 Angry Men revolves around Juror Number 8 (the jurors are identified only by their court-appointed numbers), the only hold out against a guilty verdict being handed down to a young Latino man on trial for murder. As Juror Number 8 explores his belief that there’s reasonable doubt, as well as the biases of the jurors who voted for a guilty verdict, the film slowly ratchets up the tension in a nail-biting journey towards the final verdict. 12 Angry Men is timeless yet timely in its demonstration of how bias and indifference among the jurors perpetuates systemic violence within an unjust system.
Another great who belongs on every list of the best psychological thrillers is Stephen King, and let’s be real, Misery is the most iconic of the genre. After famous author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) crashes his car, he’s lucky enough to be rescued by a nurse who also happens to be his biggest fan. Unfortunately for him, she’s not happy with how Paul ended the most recent novel in his series—particularly his decision to kill off the heroine, Misery—and decides that he’s going to rewrite it for her. And this time it better have a happy ending. With Kathy Bates giving a traumatically believable performance as a ruthless, obsessive fan, Misery is one of those films where you feel just as breathless and trapped as the main character.
Silence of the Lambs might be the most famous film and book about Hannibal Lecter, but my favorite of the series will always be Manhunter (based on the book Red Dragon). Hannibal (Brian Cox) is once again simply a consultant in this film, though this time it’s Will Graham (William Petersen playing the role later taken up by Hugh Dancy in Hannibal) rather than Clarice who’s subjected to Hannibal’s games. Manhunter sees the cannibal and FBI agent hunting the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan), a serial killer who breaks into houses and slaughters whole families, killing the mother last after posing her family’s corpses so they witness her murder with their sightless eyes. With Will’s own family under threat, Manhunter becomes a race against time to get to the Tooth Fairy before he gets them first. A far more ominous and chilling villain than the transphobic and dated Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, the Tooth Fairy is a villain who haunts you long after the end credits have rolled.
The film that coined the phrase, Gaslight is an incredible picture from 1944 about a young heiress whose husband is trying to convince her that she is insane. Ingrid Bergman plays the heroine, a newlywed opera singer who is trying to recover from her beloved aunt’s murder. If this sounds fishy, you have good instincts. Her doting husband is constantly pointing out how forgetful she is when she’s sure that she has not forgotten anything at all. In the titular act of psychological torture, he uses a clever contraption to dim the gas lamps from a different room so that his wife thinks she is losing her mind. It’s a complicated film and a tense watch as the character tries to convince herself that she is still sane while her husband does everything in his power to undermine her, and it’s still topical today. Gaslight is worth watching, if only to see where the term originated.
3. Crimson Peak
This period thriller is visually stunning, atmospheric, and Gothic to the core. Crimson Peak is an absolute gift from Guillermo del Toro that features a dashing, heart-grabbing performance from Tom Hiddleston as the mysterious, brooding Thomas Sharpe, and a sterling turn from Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, the effervescent heiress possessed of ghostly visions and terrible choice in men. Centering around Sharpe’s ancient home on Crimson Peak (so called for the red earth that “bleeds” through the snow), the film is stunning. The costumes, the sets, the props, even the way people move are all so visceral and gorgeous that it takes my breath away. Crimson Peak evokes Bluebeard in chilling fashion as Edith slowly realizes how much is wrong with her new husband, and begins to suspect why she is suddenly seeing so many ghostly women around the house. With poisoning, attempted murders, deadly wounds, and skeletons in a basement that hosts the world’s creepiest lift, you won’t catch your breath once while watching Crimson Peak.
2. High Noon
Why is High Noon on this list, you might ask? High Noon is a western, not a psychological thriller! Well, a thing can be two things (Jake Peralta voice), and High Noon absolutely straddles the genre line like a very tense pro. My wife feels very strongly about this film because one of their formative memories, which firmly cemented their love affair with the genre, is watching and rewatching the iconic moment “where the main character waits in dread for his death to come to him, paced out with the ominous ticking of a clock edging always closer to noon, and shots of those around the town who are waiting with just as much dread.”
High Noon is a deeply personal story of honor, duty, and family in which a retiring lawman tries desperately to find people who will support him for one last stand as the time of reckoning draws ever closer. With a pacifist wife and an entire town too frightened to stand up to evil, the psychological battle of Gary Cooper’s character is thoughtful and nuanced, and the tension is thick. No matter how many times you’ve seen High Noon, you’re on the edge of your seat as the ticking of the clock strikes dread in your heart.
1. Rear Window
You can’t have a list of psychological thrillers without at least one Alfred Hitchcock film. Absolutely any of his films could have made the list, from the very early slasher Psycho to the supernatural disaster in The Birds, but when it comes to sheer, slow-building tension, Rear Window tops the list. Featuring Jimmy Stewart as photojournalist L.B. Jefferies and the incomparable Grace Kelly as his beautiful, high society girlfriend Lisa Fremont, Rear Window is so tense that knowing what was coming the first time I watched it somehow made it even more scary.
Set in a block of flats during an oppressively hot summer, the injured Jefferies tries to entertain himself by peeking at his neighbor’s antics through a telescope. As Fremont tries to lift his spirits and regain his attention, Jefferies starts to notice some very disturbing things happening with one of his neighbors in particular, and a terror-inducing game of cat and mouse ensues. (This is another film where the dog dies, so be warned.)
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