8. Oldboy (2003)
Anyone who has seen this thriller will always remember where he or she was when they saw it. It is one of the most impactful films of the last 15 years in terms of its visual style and storytelling. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy is one that will stand the test of time.
In the second film in the installment, Oh Dae-Su has been imprisoned without cause for 15 years. When he is released, he is given clothes, money, and a cell phone. He is released unto a world that he was eager to return to yet with which he is unfamiliar. He also must find his captor within five days or his beautiful new love interest dies.
It is more than a revenge film, even though that is the core of the series. Oh Dae-Su is a man who has been pushed psychologically beyond his ability to withstand it. The roiling narrative depicts a broken man trying to put himself back together while tearing others apart with a claw hammer. The psychological horror that develops is gut wrenching enough without the other brutal scenes but this really is some of the best cinema that South Korea has to offer, and that says a lot as of late.
7. 3-Iron (2004)
Quite simply, this film is a sublime masterpiece and should be on several top ten lists. It is not pure genre by any means, but contains enough elements of a psychosexual thriller that fans of the genre will hold it in high esteem. Sparse and containing little dialogue, Kim Ki-duk spins a tale that is both light and dark. Characters communicate more with a look than any words could ever convey.
Tae-suk spends his days entering the homes of strangers who are often away or on vacation. While there, he tidies up a bit, eats their food, and does the laundry. When he enters the home of Sun-hwa, he does not realize that she is still there hiding after receiving a beating from her husband.
Sun-hwa is like a ghost in the house silently watching Tae-suk’s every move until she receives yet another phone call from her violent husband. The silence is broken with Sun-hwa’s primal scream into the phone. Kim Ki-duk portrays the pair’s journey into weightlessness that will leave you speechless at the end.
South Korean cinema continues to be some of the most risk taking and mind-bending out there. Films like 3-Iron don’t require patience from the viewer as much as a willingness to connect emotionally. The relationship between Sun-hwa and Tae-suk is one of the most beautiful ones you will see on screen. Keep an eye out for more efforts like this one from Kim Ki-duk.
6. Fatal Attraction (1987)
Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) embodies every trait that men fear after a one-night stand. Obsessive, controlling, and downright crazy. Not to say that women find these traits attractive in members of the opposite sex, but unfortunately, Alex Forrest was heralded for being an empowering female character for women in the 80s.
Women saw her as an everywoman’s champion who refused to be seen as just some sexual plaything. The movie is a nonstop thrill ride but the notion of female empowerment needs to be dispelled quickly.
Michael Douglas plays Dan Gallagher, a successful Manhattan attorney who has an illicit affair with Alex while his family is away for the weekend. He thinks it was a simple fling but has no idea that absolute hell he is about to experience. Alex refuses to be ignored and continues to contact Dan against his wishes. This film portrays Alex as a manipulative, scheming she-beast who will stop at nothing until she gets what she wants.
It fits the genre in the truest sense. Potboiler takes on a whole new meaning here (RIP bunny) as each attempt to connect to Dan is amplified. The idea of Forrest as a feminist hero is so bizarre as this woman clearly has Borderline Personality Disorder. Substituting empowerment for mental illness is disingenuous at best. Whichever perspective you take, Gallagher is not the villain here. Glenn Close was excellent in this role, however, and Fatal Attraction to this day, practically defines the genre.
5. Klute (1971)
This smart, taut, thriller is part of the Alan J. Pakula canon. DP Gordon Willis’ cinematography is outstanding. The casting and direction are superb. It really sets the standard for films of this genre and other detective thrillers. Jane Fonda (Bree) gives one of the more realistic portrayals of a call girl in cinema history.
Donald Sutherland is Klute, a small town cop who is hired to investigate the disappearance of Peter Cable’s (Charles Cioffi) friend Tom. Tom has written an obscene letter to New York call girl, Bree. Klute moves to New York and enlists the help of Bree to locate Tom.
During the investigation, it is revealed that someone is stalking her. She is hollowed out emotionally after being in the life for so long but eventually the two become drawn toward one another. There are some hair-raising moments in this movie that stick with its viewers. The tension and pacing are impeccable and leave you on edge until the final frame.
The best moments of the film are when Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda are on screen together. Roy Scheider naturally gives a wonderful performance. When Bree discusses her lack of feelings about what she does with a steely cold heartedness, you almost wince a little. She is complex and Jane Fonda is at the height of her powers here in this role. This film was released on the tail end of the sexual revolution and examines what it really means to be “liberated”.
4. Boston Strangler (1968)
In 1967, Albert DeSalvo was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of several young women in the Boston area. This is not the type of role one would expect Tony Curtis to play but he was absolutely phenomenal as the psychologically perturbed DeSalvo. This is also one of the films that effectively used split screens to show simultaneously occurring events and not just as a gimmicky ploy.
Controversial in nature as some felt this subject matter should not have been used as entertainment, it is still one of the creepiest thrillers of all time. It is also an extremely well made film. Paraphilia as a topic in movies was something that was rarely explored. Hypnosis is still used with patients who have Dissociative Identity Disorder and the scenes where we see Tony transform are absolutely fixating. The final scene where Tony dissociates into the Strangler will stick with you for a lifetime.
3. Psycho (1960)
This movie is the progenitor of the psychosexual thriller genre as we know it. The iconic image of Janet Leigh being stabbed to death in the shower will be forever etched in all of our minds. Collectively, this film is in the conscious of cinephiles worldwide, as it should be. Not enough can be said about the cultural and historical significance of this film as it shifted the paradigm in terms of the level of sexual violence and depravity that has been depicted on screen.
Janet Leigh is Marion Crane, a woman who has just embezzled a large sum of money from her employer in order to pay off some of her boyfriend’s debts. She makes a wrong turn as she’s leaving and ends up at the Bates motel, which is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
She overhears Norman and whom she presumes to be his mother arguing. She decides at some point it is best to return the money, but first grabs a quick shower. The rest is one of the best Freudian twists seen on screen and has been imitated repeatedly in the decades to follow.
It would be interesting to see more of an in depth analysis of Bates’ sexual identity examined in this film. The Production Code was on its way out eventually so these taboo topics could be explored more freely. Clearly, this movie challenges preconceived notions of masculinity and other repressed desires.
Hitchcock did go on to include characters that landed on different ends of the sexuality spectrum, but not in the explicit sense. The score by Bernard Herrmann only adds to the frightening atmosphere of the movie and next to Jaws, might be one of the more memorable scores to date. This film is a classic from start to finish.
2. Frenzy (1972)
This is probably one of Hitchcock’s most graphic and disturbing films. It’s also not widely known but is rare gem that should be seen. The rape and murder scenes in this film really do surpass what we see in Psycho as Hitchcock had to show more restraint in 1960. Released in 1972, Frenzy is a fantastic look into the mind of a sexually repressed, psychotic killer. It is not easy to watch even by today’s standards, but the maddening intensity of this movie is Hitchcock at his finest.
Hitchcock returns to London in this thriller as we watch the body of a nude woman wash up along the banks of the Thames River. There is a serial killer loose who is strangling women with neckties. Jon Finch is a former member of the Royal Air Force who through an unfortunate turn finds himself being accused of the crime. He has to race against time to prove his innocence and find the real murderer before he strikes again.
The real killer is revealed early on as we see his modus operandi in full excruciating detail. He croons, “Lovely!” and “Bitch” alternately in this bizarre ritual, thus invoking the Madonna/Whore Complex. Hitchcock has taken some accusations of being a misogynist (Pauline Kael couldn’t stand it) in the past but this film seems to be more of an indictment of what happens to male desire when hampered by impotence and shame.
It is graphic and disturbing as he zooms in on the images of the dead women, wide-eyed with their tongues hanging out. This film is extremely effective as a psychosexual thriller on all levels and although it may leave you feeling worse about the world, it is truly the stroke of a master.
1. Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965)
Who Killed Teddy Bear? was not just daring for 1965 but with themes of homosexuality, rape, masturbation, incest, and pornography, this psychosexual thriller left no stone unturned. Documentary style shots of adult stores in Time Square are almost overwhelming and saturate the screen with the kind of filth you would find in the seedy underbelly of New York City. This is the most salacious, perverse, and deviant psychosexual thriller of all time. If you haven’t seen it, block out time in your schedule to do so.
Juliet Prowse stars as Norah, a DJ at a nightclub who begins receiving obscene and increasingly threatening phone calls from an unknown man. Elaine Stritch is the club’s no nonsense owner. She plays this part to perfection with the timing of an old pro. Jan Murray plays Lt. Madden who is decides he wants to handle Norah’s case personally.
At first, Madden doesn’t take the calls seriously until it becomes apparent she is being stalked. She has her suspicions as to why he wants to work on the case alone, until he tells her that a sex criminal brutally raped, murdered, and mutilated (not necessarily in that order) his wife leaving him to raise a young daughter on his own.
Norah doesn’t have a lot of people that she can trust as she is surrounded by people who all have their own agenda in mind. Elaine Stritch gives one of the best performances on screen after she offers Norah a little more than she bargained for under the guise of having a refuge from the voyeur. Sal Mineo plays Lawrence Sherman, a sexually confused busboy at the club. He is hiding a secret about a sexual dalliance gone wrong in his childhood.
His younger sister clutching her teddy bear, walked in on the event, ran away and fell down the stairs causing her to be permanently brain damaged. He takes care of her in addition to working at the club. This event has precluded him from sexually developing normally as an adult. The film is deliberately vague as to who was molesting Sal but that just adds to the intrigue.
Mineo is truly the standout in this film and is absolutely dripping with sexuality. He wears painted on clothes and seems to be just vibrating with sexual repression throughout the entire film. There is a scene at a swimming pool where we can see his full on erection through his trunks.
Later there is a dance scene with Lawrence and Norah that is enervating with sexual energy as Mineo is shaking and twitching like a madman, covered with sweat and pulsating with libido. You will be hard pressed to see a man working as hard on screen as Sal Mineo does in this film. The last few scenes will leave you rattled but having empathy where you would least expect it. A pulp classic on celluloid, this gem is a must see.
Author Bio: Edwanike Harbour has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid film buff and currently writes for Madison Film Forum. When she’s not in front of a movie screen, she is usually listening to indie rock and reading Don Delillo novels.