A thriller is a film made to excite. A thriller wants to elicit responses like surprise, suspense and anxiety. The genre therefore relies on the experiential part of films. A good thriller creates an intense experience for the watcher, it must leave them on the edge of their seat. To do this filmmakers have come up with countless ways to trick the viewer into excitement, even though they are merely sitting in a safe chair in the cinema or at home.
To create tension and excitement a filmmaker has a number of tools at their disposal. It helps that film has since its inception been used to entice excitement into the viewer. A filmmaker can create a story like a puzzle, each piece reveals more and chances the film and its characters. Or a filmmaker can put their characters in tense situations; create use the audio-visual experience of film to put the viewer in the action happening on screen. Examples of all of these will be found in this list.
The goal here was to put together classic thrillers that for some reason are ‘underwatched’ nowadays. Furthermore, care was taken to put together a diverse group of thrillers, with different themes, approaches to filmmaking and from different countries and times. Avid film fans will definitely recognise a number of directors whose features are named on this list. Here are the greatest thriller classics you’ve probably never seen.
10. Blow-up (1966)
‘Blow-up’ is a thriller by the hands of Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni. It follows Thomas (David Hemmings) a photographer who seems to find something nefarious in the back of one of the pictures he took. The film takes a while to get going, and Antonioni meanders through its plot to establish Thomas’ view of the world. How things look from his perspective as a person (and a photographer), which is important for figuring out the puzzle that is ‘Blow-up’.
‘Blow-up’ is carried partly by David Hemmings’ strong central performance as the stand-offish Thomas, who gets obsessed by the images he took. Likely the best sequence of the film is in the middle is where he endlessly edits and waits to develop new photographs, looking for the tiniest details based on just a hunch. ‘Blow-up’ is not a film for those that get easily frustrated, it seems less concerned with what really happened than it is with what the personal interpretation of the watcher is. That makes it at times a hard film, but definitely also an interesting challenge of a thriller.
9. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
‘Elevator to the Gallows’ by Louis Malle (Au Revoir les Enfants) is one of the first ‘French New-Wave’ films; a roughly defined film movement characterised by a freer view of film and audio-visual inventiveness. It produced such films as ‘Breathless’, ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’, or ‘The 400 Blows’. ‘Elevator to the Gallows’ opens explosively with a few heavy jump-cuts making a potential boring telephone scene spring to life. The whole film is filled with cool audio-visual tricks to deliver a movie experience.
‘Elevator to the Gallows’ follows a Julien (Maurice Ronet) who murders his boss, whose wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau) he has an affair with. It is a stylish thriller sliding through a strange plot. Many of the scenes are visual gems, like the interrogation scene with its characters appearing and disappearing from darkness, and even scenes of Florence walking through the dark city are beautiful. Add to that a jazz soundtrack by Miles Davis and you have a cool stylish thriller.
8. The Fourth Man (1983)
Last Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven made before his departure abroad. It would be the closest Verhoeven would ever come to art-house until he made ‘Elle’ in 2016. This gloomy, stylish thriller follows Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé), a writer, who gives a reading of his work in a town and becomes obsessed with a local woman. He begins to get visions of his own demise related to this mysterious temptress Christine (played wonderfully by Renée Soutendijk).
‘The Fourth Man’ is based on a book by Gerard Reve an established writer in his own country and a person who does not shy away dark sides of sexuality. The main character, his namesake, is something of a pervert, and the whole movie has an uncomfortable sexual tension going on. Gradually the mystery of Christine’s past becomes more clear, and the fate of Gerard darker. One of those film experiences that just leaves you feeling exhausted and somewhat violated. But for a dark, sexual thriller that is not a bad thing.
7. Benny’s Video (1992)
When hearing the name Michael Haneke you know it is going to be a rough ride. The director has such films as ‘The White Ribbon’, ‘Amour’ or ‘Funny Games’ to his name, and is notorious for his bleak view of humanity. ‘Benny’s Video’ is no different in that regard. It follows the teenager Benny, obsessed with films who one day films a crime of his own.
‘Benny’s Video’ is a dark, dark thriller. It is also quite unconventional. There is not really an antagonist in the film. Much of the tension comes from the unnatural situation the characters find themselves in. In the second part of the film there is a vacation that becomes hard to watch because the characters have such a different view of what went on before. That discrepancy delivers considerable tension, and is frustrating and heart-breaking. In short: ‘Benny’s Video’ is another misanthropic masterpiece by director Michael Haneke. Not the type of fun thriller you watch after a long day of work to unwind, but one you watch to delve into the depths of human misery.
6. House of Games (1987)
David Mamet is probably best known for his screenwriting (the Untouchables) but his directorial efforts are nothing to sniff at. ‘House of Games’ is the best one. Psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) wants to help a compulsive gambler but is dragged into a bizarre world of con men and dark games, which proves attractive to her.
‘House of Games’ is a relentless thriller, following who is really playing the game on whom becomes harder and harder while the film becomes more complicated. The film in that sense is almost like a puzzle that finally fits in the end. It is also compelling as a viewer to get sucked into the strange world director Mamet paints, with its endless small cons and games. Fun thriller.