6. Death and the Maiden (1994)
In South America, a lawyer is caught in a violent storm and is given a ride home by a charming stranger (Ben Kingsley) back to his home.Upon arrival, the lawyer’s wife (Sigourney Weaver) conceals herself, listens in on their conversation, and then steals the man’s car, stranding him at their house. After the husband and stranger spend the night talking and drinking, the husband goes to sleep and the stranger doses off on the couch.
While he sleeps, the wife ties him up and when her husband comes across this, she declares that the stranger was the man who had imprisoned and brutally raped her for two weeks while she was blindfolded when the previous political regime was in power and she was held as a political prisoner. She then demands, at gunpoint, that they give this man a “trial” to determine whether he was her tormenter.
This film–an adaptation of a stage play–was directed by Roman Polanski, a master of suspense. While the cast is small, and the locations are few, it is in this isolation that the tension and drama of the situation builds, where the audience begins to question the woman’s accusations at times while also becoming convinced of the stranger’s guilt.
The film explores crimes of the past and the context they may have been committed in, questions whether people can change over time from who they once were, and whether revenge can ever undo the damage already done. It’s difficult to watch the movie without reading much of Polanski’s biography into it, and perhaps even that bit of authorial perspective in this film’s creation makes it an even more involving thriller than most.
7. The Hunters (1996)
Upon the death of his father, a police officer from Stockholm returns to the northern province of Norrbotten, where he has been transferred due to killing a suspect in the line of duty. There he reunites with his brother, who is involved with local poachers.
As the local population grows more frustrated with the large-scale poaching operation, the officer begins to investigation. From there, a violent and brutal retaliations begin to be enacted by the poachers, which include the participation of the police officer’s brother, leading to long-buried secrets revealed and a tragic ending.
The Hunters is a thriller in the sense that nobody is safe; no character is immune from something horrifying happening to them, whether due to unfortunate circumstances or out of simple, violent revenge. By the time you realize this, however, it’s too late to turn back: you simple have to see it ends. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the film is how a simple poaching operation escalates to a tragedy.
8. Funny Games (1997)
A wealthy family–husband, wife, son, and dog–arrive at their lakeside summer home, saying hello to their neighbor and his two nephews. Soon after their arrival, the two well-mannered young nephews from next door arrive at their door asking to borrow some eggs. They soon start breaking the eggs, seemingly on accident, and then begin destroying the house.
When the husband asks them to leave, one of them breaks his leg with a golf club and informs them that they’ve already killed their dog. Then the film devolves into a cruel game as the young men terrorize the family, playing a “game” where they bet that the family won’t be alive by 9 AM the next morning.
Considered one of the best thrillers ever made, it is as scary as any horror movie. The polite–even charming–young men that play the cruel tormentors make the film that much more disturbing; they don’t seem to be doing any of the horrible things they enact for any other reason than that it amuses them. One of the young men even breaks the fourth wall occasionally, making the audience a sort of accomplice to his horrible game.
Director Michael Haneke also made an American version of this film, which–true to its original–offers the audience an unnerving thriller that seems all too plausible and preys upon a suburbanite’s fears.
9. Insomnia (1997)
When a young woman is found murdered in a small town above the Arctic Circle, two officers, Jonas and Erik, are dispatched to investigate. Along with unarmed local officers, they lay a trap for the killer; however, the killer runs when they blow their cover and shoots one of the unarmed cops. In the fog, Jonas–who still carries a firearm–mistakenly shoots and kills Erik.
While he tries to confess, the other officers assume it was the killer who shot Erik, and Jonas decides to cover up his culpability. While he tampers with evidence and the killer begins to blackmail Jonas with his knowledge of his errant shooting, Jonas begins to suffer from insomnia and races to both catch the killer and conceal his own wrongdoing while an investigator assigned to the officer’s shooting begins to piece together the truth.
A moody film set in a desolate landscape laid bare by the never-setting sun, the isolation of the events adds to the suspense as we watch a police officer both attempting to solve a crime while also hiding his own wrong-doing.
Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg keeps the tension running high as Jonas’s insomnia makes him more paranoid and desperate as the investigation wears on, creating a sense of foreboding that matches the arctic locale. Remade in 2002 with Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank and directed by Christopher Nolan, both versions have much to offer the thriller fan who doesn’t mind the cold–or losing a little bit of sleep.
10. Following (1998)
Speaking of Christopher Nolan, Following is his directorial debut. An unemployed writer begins to following strangers in hopes of gathering information and inspiration for his first novel. However, one day he follows a man who notices the young man following him. Undeterred, he introduces himself to the young man as a cat burglar and invites the young man to start accompanying him on heists.
Enjoying the burglar’s philosophy, that stealing things from people make them realize the importance of the things in their lives, the young man begins to adapt the burglar’s style and starts breaking in and stealing from people himself. When he’s caught in the act, the young man bludgeons the interloper. What follows would spoil the twist of the movie, but it certainly provides a good lesson of why one shouldn’t go around following strangers down dark paths.
Nolan’s first film is an impressive feat: he wrote, directed, produced, co-founded, and edited the film. Using black-and-white 16mm, it provides the film with a neo-noir flair, while his characteristic non-linear storytelling style keeps the audience uncertain of the characters’ motives. Shot for just $6,000, it is an impressive beginning–and a stylish thriller–that launched now one of the most famous directors in the world’s career.
Author Bio: Mike Gray is a writer and academic from the Jersey Shore. His work has been featured on Cracked and Funny or Die, and he maintains a humor recap TV and film blog at mikegraymikegray.wordpress.com.