We love the thriller genre on the whole, but psychological thrillers are consistently maddening. They’re subtle, intelligent, and terrifying without having to resort to crazy stunts or shock violence. They know that most fear and anxiety is experienced by the subconscious, so that’s what they’ll exploit. You might know in your rational brain ghosts aren’t real, but that’s not the part of your brain you’re using to watch a great supernatural thriller.
The other thing we realized about psychological thrillers when we were putting this story together is that there’s so much plot variability here. From underground fighting to ambulance chasing news reporting and seeing ghosts, there’s a lot of room for exploration. If you took a weekend to watch a bunch of different thrillers, you’re going to find yourself touching on a lot of other genres as well.
Robert De Niro plays paranoid delusional taxi driver Travis Bickle in this 1976 Scorsese classic about a man driven to madness after being rejected by a creeped out senatorial campaign worker Bickle invite to a porno theater. Aside from offering a gut wrenching look into New York City’s seedier ‘70s era, this cult classic features some of Scorsese’s most brilliant early work, and the storytelling is nothing short of brilliant. You see the puzzle pieces come together—obsessive behavior, PTSD, depression, anxiety, rejection—into this magnificent cacophony of terror and “oh fuck” moments. Sundance Now
The Silence of the Lambs
Considered by many to be one of the best films—let alone psychological thrillers—ever made, The Silence of the Lambs features Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an intelligent, manipulative cannibalistic serial killer, and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee tasked with tracking down a serial killer known only as “Buffalo Bill.” In order to find him, Starling must get inside the mind of a serial killer; a perspective Dr. Lecter gladly offers. Hopkins won Best Actor for his horrifyingly convincing role as Dr. Lecter, and he’s even been named the #1 Villain of All Time by the American Film Institute. Hulu
A now-legendary cult classic based on an equally excellent novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club stars Edward Norton as the unnamed narrator, who’s stuck at a dead-end job as an automobile recall specialist. His life outside the office isn’t much better, seeing as his most exciting moments are spent ordering IKEA furniture. But after he meets an interesting-looking soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a flight home from a work trip one evening, his life gets a whole lot more interesting. Aside from the film’s incredibly odd and quirky writing and character list, it’s great because the viewer gets a front row seat as its main character(s?) slowly descend into complete madness. Starz
The Sixth Sense
Sometimes, psychological thrillers don’t have to be graphic or violent, and that’s exactly what you get in The Sixth Sense. The award winning film that convinced everyone M. Night Shyamalan was a bankable director features Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist. After narrowly surviving a shooting from a deranged former patient, Crowe starts seeing a younger patient named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who reveals that he can see and interact with dead people. Though he doesn’t believe it at first, Crowe decides to stick with Cole, and encourages him to try helping the people he’s seeing. There’s a pretty awesome plot twist here, but we don’t want to ruin the film if you haven’t seen it. Though, chances are it’s already been ruined. Netflix
This is one of those films that starts off incredibly slow, but when it’s at full-bore, it’s absolutely insane. Another Scorsese classic, Shutter Island stars Leonardo Dicaprio as Teddy Daniels, a Federal Marshall tasked with investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at Shutter Island, a water-locked insane asylum. Daniels becomes suspicious of the hospital’s staff over the treatment of people in one of the hospital’s more mysterious wards. However, after it is learned that the arsonist who killed Daniels’ wife is also incarcerated on Shutter Island and that Daniels wishes to confront him, the story slowly begins to shift—is Daniels an investigator, or would he be better as a patient?
It’s hard to believe this film is already over 20 years old, but it’s only gotten better with age. Starring Brad Pitt as David Mills and Morgan Freeman as William Somerset, two detectives tasked with finding and stopping a horrific serial killer, Somerset is an old dog who’s one week away from retirement, and Mills is a young hotshot who moved to the big city to take on bigger and more dangerous cases. Only, this particular case proves more than both detectives bargained for. The killer chooses victims in the form of the seven deadly sins, and from the first victim to the last, it’s an incredible (and tough) watch.
When psychological thrillers work in concert with neo-noir themes, it’s always going to be a winner to us. Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a South Korean businessman who is mysteriously kidnapped and wakes up in a sealed hotel room. From watching TV in the room, Dae-Su learns that his wife has been murdered, and that he is the prime suspect. For 15 years, Dae-Su is held captive in his room until one day, he is randomly let go. The story itself is absolutely insane, involving incest, another rich businessman, suicide, hypnotism, and cut out tongues. It’s not a movie for the easily disturbed, but if you can handle the subject matter, you’ll love it. Netflix
This 1958 classic is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-ever films, and it is one of the earliest examples of the psychological thriller genre to date. Retired San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson is contacted by an old classmate, Gaven Elster, who’s concerned that his wife, Madeleine, is possessed by her great grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. Scottie starts following Madeleine around and the two eventually meet after Madeleine jumps into the San Francisco Bay and tries to kill herself but is saved by Scottie.
After a while, they fall in love, until Madeleine runs to the top of a church bell tower and hops off. Scottie has a breakdown and is admitted to a sanatorium, and upon his release, and still obsessed with Madeleine, Scottie starts frequenting the spots she used to go, where he eventually meets a woman named Judy from Salina, Kansas, who looks suspiciously like Madeleine. We won’t give it all away, but if you like classic Hitchcock, this has to be on your list.
Why the hell is Jake Gyllenhaal so good at playing the creepy weirdo? He plays Lou Bloom, a man desperate for work who stumbles on a car wreck. When a TV news crew shows up on the scene mere moments after the wreck (AKA nightcrawlers), he decides that’s what he wants to do. He makes friends with popular news anchor Nina (Rene Russo) and hires Rick (Riz Ahmed) to be a crew assistant. With Nina’s help, Rick and Bloom do exceptionally well, but Bloom’s thirst for a good story is unquenchable and he find himself at the center of one of his biggest leads yet. Netflix
The quintessential psychological thriller film, American Psycho stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a young, successful, ivy-league educated Wall Street guy with a boring, privileged life—and is also killing people who make him jealous or envious. Bale plays this role super well, and at times, it almost feels more like a comedy, until you remember that this guy is a fucking lunatic. HBO