The 25 Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time
8. Dead Ringers
In Dead Ringers, we welcome back Mr Cronenberg in the list. Released in 1988, Jeremy Irons plays two lead roles as Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical twin brothers that run a successful Gynaecology practice in Toronto. Typical of the director, this film is controversial, thought- provoking and terrifyingly beautiful.
The story follows the twins growing up together in almost segregation from the rest of the world. Through their closeness, they virtually become one self as they develop into students studying gynaecology. With business blooming, the twins become more detached in their personalities, with Elliot the more confident and Beverly the shy, humble type.
Through these traits however, the twins abuse the trust of the patients and decide to secretly share them with each other, in more ways than one. When Beverly falls for a patient that he does not want to share, the two become independent, leading to imposing, cataclysmic reactions.
This emotionally-charged, grim, mutation of a film becomes even more shocking upon discovery of the fact that it is very loosely based on real life twins. (Be sure to watch the film before researching the story)
7. Blue Velvet
Possibly the quintessential film from director David Lynch, Blue Velvet is a 1986 mystery, film noir. Starring Kyle McLachlan, Laura Dern, Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini, it should come as no surprise that this is a dark, sinister and extreme film.
Jeffrey (McLachlan) returns home to look after his sick father who is in hospital. On his way home from visiting the hospital, he stumbles upon a severed human ear, close to a forest. Deciding to bring his gruesome discovery to the local police detective, he meets the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Dern).
After overhearing that the ear has something to do with a woman named Dorothy (Rossellini), both Jeffrey and Sandy set out to uncover this mystery by themselves. Unfortunately for them, this mystery leads to the terrifyingly insane and depraved Frank Booth (Hopper), an unstable and evil criminal. The deeper Jeffrey and Sandy delve the further out of their depth they get.
Blue Velvet is a chilling, uncomfortable viewing and with scenes of sadomasochism, violence and drug abuse, it’s a dark and disturbing experience. Nevertheless, it’s a brilliant, compelling piece of cinema that should not be missed.
6. The Night of the Hunter
Based on the novel of the same title, Night of the Hunter casts Robert Mitchum in the lead role as Harry Powell, an unethical preacher cum murderer. Alongside Shelley Winters, the film is loosely based on a true story, as he attempts to romance the unsuspecting widow and steal the hidden money. It was to be the last film directed by Charles Laughton.
Set in 1930’s West Virginia, Harry Powell is a self-labelled preacher who has been travelling the country attracting widows, then killing and robbing them, all the while convinced that this is what God wants him to do. Arrested for driving a stolen car and temporarily jailed, he meets prisoner Ben Harper, a convicted killer and bank robber facing execution.
Despite not being able to convince Ben to disclose where the loot is hidden, Powell hatches a plan to target his next widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). However, with the two Harper children being the only ones who know where the spoils are, Powell certainly won’t have things his own way.
With Mitchum giving such a skin crawling and menacing performance, Night of the Hunter is now known to be one of the most frightening movies around, for its time. Containing possibly the most notoriously twisted, on-screen villain in cinematic history, this is a film you will either LOVE or HATE.
5. The Innocents
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr, The Innocents is a gothic horror released in 1961. Without showing any gory or graphic images, this film relies simply on the setting, direction and the viewer’s own perception. Based on the novel, The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is open ended, leaving several interpretations of which all are unsettling and thought provoking.
Miss Giddens (Kerr) agrees to become the new governess to two orphaned children, named Flora and Miles who are currently in the care of their wealthy but disinterested uncle. After arriving at their beautiful country estate, Miss Giddens immediately connects with Mrs Grose, the likeable housekeeper, and meets Flora, a bubbly, cheerful young girl with a pet tortoise.
With Miss Giddens still settling in to her new headquarters, a letter is received from Miles’ boarding school, advising that he has been sent home early and subsequently expelled.
Upon meeting Miles for the first time, the governess finds him extremely charming, almost flirtatious. However, coinciding with the boy’s arrival, sinister and peculiar events begin to arise. With Miss Gidens demanding to know more about the past residency, sickening secrets are revealed, secrets that lead to a horrifying and ghastly culmination of events.
Whatever rationale you may come up with, the result is a breathtakingly disturbing translation of a classic ghost story, written by Henry James.
4. Don’t Look Now
Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, Don’t Look Now, is a frightening film that shows the psychological weight, the death of a loved one can bring. In this case Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play husband and wife, John and Laura, who experience the heart-breaking tragedy of losing their young daughter, after she drowned in their pond. The film presents the different styles of grief we can suffer.
Fast forward to the future and John and Laura are currently in Venice after John decided to restore an old church. After meeting a blind psychic woman in a restaurant, Laura’s mood changes when told that their daughter is happy.
However, John, being the absolute non-believer in clairvoyance, is not nearly as excited. But when they both start to witness strange sightings, particularly the same red-coated figure, (similar to how their daughter last appeared) desperation overcome grief, to haunting consequences
Director Nicolas Roeg creates an extremely chilling atmosphere with the tension building up to a ghastly, grotesque climax.
3. Rosemary’s Baby
The most acclaimed in ‘the apartment trilogy’, Rosemary’s Baby stars Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as husband and wife who have just moved into an old fashioned New York City apartment.
Thrilled with their new surroundings, Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy (Cassavetes) decide that having a baby is the next step in their relationship. With her interfering, yet supportive neighbours (Minnie and Roman), she embarks on her journey through pregnancy and is somewhat shoved in the direction of Dr Sapirstein, who insists that Rosemary drink a concoction that her helpful neighbour will bring her daily.
However, after burrowing deeper into the bizarre behaviour of those all around her, including her husband Guy; she speculates that they all have very sinister intentions for the unborn child. Can Rosemary unravel the plot in time to save her baby AND her sanity? Or has this all been a cruel illusion of mind tricks?
Mia Farrow produces the performance of a lifetime in Polanski’s brilliant psychological horror. Released in 1968, this truly terrifying film effortlessly stands the test of time.
2. Les Diaboliques
Directed by Henri-George Clouzot, this 1955 black and white French-masterpiece, features on many top horror film lists.
The film revolves around a boarding school, owned by the vulnerable Christina, (Vera Clouzot) but controlled by her repressive husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) with his mistress, teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret) in tow.With both women possessing a closeness and confidentiality in each other, due to the abusive Michel, they formulate a plan to take care of this tyrant.
However, between an intrusive private investigator, incorruptible schoolboys and a missing corpse, things take a mysterious turn for the worse.
Legend has it that Alfred Hitchcock was first approached to direct Les Diaboliques, however, when the deal came to nothing, Henri-Georges Clouzot was the inheritor.
Widely regarded as director Alfred Hitchcock’s best, Vertigo is a complex, psychological thriller starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. Proudly sitting atop of the much celebrated Sight and Sound Poll (in 2012), this masterpiece is a movie filled with suspense that unfolds in an extraordinarily haunting climax.
John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (Stewart) is a retired San Francisco police detective. After being involved in a rooftop chase, resulting in the death of a policeman, Scottie has been battling vertigo. When approached by an old college friend to secretly pursue the man’s wife Madeline (Novak), he begrudgingly accepts.
As Madeline proves exceedingly difficult to follow, he eventually tracks her down and rescues her as she attempts to leap into San Fran Bay. With both Madeline and Scottie spending more and more time together they ultimately confess their love for each other, whilst in the surroundings of an old Mission.
Out of nowhere, Madeline runs into the church and climbs the bell tower. With Scottie powerless to run after her, we are left with a breathtakingly daring act of cinematic genius that only the master of suspense could compose.
With a fantastic backdrop of San Francisco, this fable of romance and obsession is a stunning piece of work that should be ranked as highly in another 50 years’ time, as it is today.
Author Bio: Andrew Lowry lives in Bangor, Northern Ireland. He is a government worker by day, and cinephile by night.