The suspense genre relies on the audience thinking they might know more than the characters in the film itself. They ask us to take part in the events of the movie, trying to second-guess what could happen next. Most films aren’t truly suspenseful as due to prior film knowledge we can more or less understand exactly how it will resolve.
The best suspense movies aren’t like that. They keep us guessing right until the end, perfectly designed to keep us on the edge of our seats. A great suspense movie should leave one breathless, as it is through not being sure of what might happen that true enjoyment can be found. This list is dedicated to the very finest suspense movies ever made.
The collection we have chosen is wide-ranging, covers nearly 80 years of cinema, and dips into many different genres. We have chosen to limit it to one director each, otherwise Alfred Hitchcock could easily have taken all ten spots on this list. Covering both English and foreign language films, our list encompasses noir, horror, political thrillers and murder mysteries. Read on to find out which films we have picked, and if you agree or disagree, sound off in the comments below. Be warned, spoilers may follow.
10. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Michael Haneke likes to torture his viewers. Whether its the postmodern sadism of Funny Games or the absolute bleakness of Amour, his films can be quite unrelenting. With Caché, he created a thriller that requires you to study every aspect of the frame in order to gather meaning from it. Casual filmgoers may be put off by the opening scene of a house, which drags on for a seemingly unending amount of time before being revealed to be a videotape made by the owners to see who has been harassing them. From there questions abound, but with no steady answer.
This is due to the way that Haneke has set up his shots. Doing away with the classical technique of filmmaking, he instead uses extremely long static shots that force the viewer into a complex level of contemplation that slowly grows into paranoia. In the process we see Haneke using his unique style to criticise the usual bourgeois comforts we take for granted. It isn’t an easy film to watch, at times extremely unnerving, but it is possibly the apex of his brilliant career.
9. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
The ultimate document of early 60’s anti-communist paranoia, The Manchurian Candidate is a film that rivets the viewer from beginning to end. Made at the height of US-Soviet hostility, it expertly details the feelings Americans had towards the threat of communism. It starts with the Korean War, where an American platoon is captured and taken to Manchuria. One of them is brainwashed to become an assassin. Only a little while later he is sent to assassinate a presidential candidate.
For a studio film released in the early 60s, there is an element of surrealism and satire that is still astonishing to this day. Its sense of paranoia is complemented by the camerawork, which uses strange angles to heighten this sense of unreality. At times it is hard to see the difference between fantasy and reality, making the film such a compelling watch.
The main concept has such a wide cultural cachet that “The Manchurian Candidate” is now used as a common term to describe someone who seems to be brainwashed into doing something. Frank Sinatra is the star, and this is easily his best role. It shows how he could have become one of cinema’s greats if he didn’t have to perform in Las Vegas all the time.
8. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Christopher Nolan had prior experience with suspense films in his breakthrough thriller Momento and later his Pacino-starring Insomnia, but with The Prestige he created his best suspense film yet. Although the film is initially quite confusing it has a resolution so delicious we cannot help but marvel. It is all the more precious considering he made it in-between Batman movies.
It stars Hugh Jackman as a magician in the 19th century who has an act that nobody can quite believe is real. Even fellow magicians cannot find an explanation for how it works. Nolan uses his traditional non-linear narrative techniques here to obfuscate the power of this trick, making the viewer constantly ask: How did that happen? This key question powers the narrative over many twists and turns, leading to a truly genius conclusion.
Jackman is balanced by an all-star cast, starring Christian Bale as Jackman’s nemesis, Scarlett Johansson as his assistant, and an iconic David Bowie as the real Nikola Tesla himself.
7. The Silence of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Still the only horror film to have ever won Best Picture at the Oscars, The Silence of The Lambs is the kind of film to get under your skin and remain there for weeks afterwards. Merging the horror and the thriller together, the film is as bone-chilling as it is riveting.
It is one of those movies where you eagerly want to know what will happen next even though you are dreading it at the same time. It stars Jodie Foster in a star-making performance as Clarence Sterling, a rookie cop who, upon being assigned a new case, finds herself somewhat in over her head. Coming at a time when female led crime films were extremely rare, the film felt like a breath of fresh air upon its release.
Her brilliant performance is expertly balanced by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal, a man who seems more frightening for what he says than for what he does. The crux of the film’s power comes in their confrontations between each other in the jail cell, as Sterling tries to get at the heart of what Hannibal wants. The genius of the movie is that she needs him in the end, as he alone knows the secrets to catching a delirious serial-killer. The results are unforgettable, as well as incredibly creepy.
6. Seven (David Fincher, 1995)
A true heir to Hitchcock’s throne, David Fincher has an obsessive way of framing his films that makes everything look absolutely deliberate. The genius of Seven (also stylised as Se7en) is the way it uses the concept of the seven deadly sins as the modus operandi of the serial killer. This is a truly dark and horrifying film, the biblical allusions making his murders all the more grander and inevitable. It is anchored by possibly a career-best performance from Morgan Freeman as a cop who is just trying to do the right thing, eventually overwhelmed by a world of constant darkness.
Suspense films are all about their conclusions, so much so that they feel reverse engineered until their final point. This is especially true with the “What’s in the box?” scene near the end of Seven. Most importantly, we never actually get to see what is in the box. That would ruin the point of the scene. Instead, we only see the horrified reaction of Mills (played with pitch-point perfection by Brad Pitt).
It is made even more tragic by the fact he cannot seek retribution for this act, as this would only play into the killer’s masterplan. The film may end on a hopeful quote by Ernest Hemingway, but this does nothing to soften the effect of such a brilliant scene.