Many people have always had a certain fascination for and curiosity about violence and calamity. Psychological thrillers not only give us those delicious cinematic thrills where we find ourselves in an unusual and suspenseful atmosphere, but they also make us explore the mind and the psychology of broken minds, souls, and morally ambiguous people. We love them because they trick us; we can be surprised by where the film takes us and plumb our darkest fears.
There have been countless great psychological thrillers over the years and the genre is still beloved. You’ll find 10 underrated, overlooked films that deserve more recognition or more discussion at least, as they don’t always get brought up in such talks. Hopefully, the chosen films are closer to the psychological thriller area than the horror, though there’s sometimes a thin line between them.
10. Apt Pupil (1998)
Brad Renfro was certainly one of the best child actors of his generation. One of Joel Schumacher’s discoveries, he had a great breakthrough in “The Client.” It’s sad what happened to him in his later life and it certainly is disturbing to know who directed this movie, but when you see the film for what it is, you see one of the finest actor duos of its time.
Renfro plays Todd, a teenager with in-depth knowledge of German and World War II history. He exposes an ex-SS man and concentration camp guard who leads a secluded life as a supposedly Ukrainian immigrant, portrayed chillingly by Ian McKellen in one of his rather underrated turns. He threatens to extradite Kurt Dussander, who now lives under the name Arthur Denker, to the police unless he describes in detail his cruel deeds in the concentration camps. However, all of this will only strip malice in both of them.
The movie is not interested in giving much of a social message; it’s a study on evil and the film does a great job with exploring the minds of those two people. When the pacing changes, it becomes more and more of a disturbing experience. Unfortunately the film was a box office flop, but it’s one of the finest Stephen King adaptations.
9. In the Cut (2003)
One of the most severely criticized films of the 21st century, “In the Cut” is a bold and exciting film from Jane Campion with fantastic turns from Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. The plot follows New York City-based English teacher Frannie who sees a woman give oral pleasure to a man in the bathroom of a bar. A little later, a woman’s body is discovered in front of her house. It soon turns out that it is the girl observed by Frannie, believed to have fallen victim to a serial killer. So she meets Detective Giovanni Malloy, who is investigating the case.
Now, it sounds like a basic erotic thriller plot and maybe that’s what most people expected and didn’t get from this, but this is a Jane Campion movie and she’s not necessarily interested in the mystery aspect. What she presents here is a study of violence in all its aspects, most interestingly the violence between the sexes. The film was received much better in Europe compared to the United States, but still it became obscure over the years. Giving a somewhat pessimistic view of love and sex, Campion also explores the attraction to violence with a script full of subtexts as well as direction and cinematography full of haunting shots and impressive, poetic narrative. It’s also a film that maybe needs multiple viewings to fully appreciate, but even if you don’t like it, one thing is for sure – it’s something that will leave an impression on you.
8. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2010)
In 1979, Mark Yavorsky, a promising actor from the University of San Diego, killed his mother using an antique saber. He reenacted, literally, a scene from the Greek tragedy Orestes, a play in which he had been cast as the lead. His story inspired Werner Herzog to make a film called “My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done” which stars Michael Shannon, in one of his deliciously deranged forms, as a mentally unstable man who kills his mother and then the whole thing turns into a hostage situation.
Herzog made it clear that he was not interested in the real-life story of the man but rather just explored this unique set of mind. The film tries to explore the psychology of this interesting young man who becomes increasingly disaffected with, and oppressed by, what he perceives to be the artificiality of the world. So the criminal case rather forms the narrative framework for the jump into the psychological depths. It approaches the figure of the murderer and his mental state primarily in flashbacks based on memories or reports from eyewitnesses; Herzog shows episodic stations of Brad’s increasing madness. It’s not necessarily an easy watch, but it provides a great performance by Shannon to keep you interested.
7. Experiment in Terror (1962)
A sharp, well-crafted noirish thriller, “Experiment in Terror” is one of those films that gets better with repeat watches. The film is set in San Francisco. Kelly Sherwood, a young bank clerk, is threatened one evening by a man who is trying to blackmail her: he will kill her or her sister Toby if she does not steal $100,000 from a bank for him. Kelly informs police officer John Ripley, who advises her to work with the blackmailer. Meanwhile, Ripley begins his investigation.
The sublimely shot cinematography really impacts the psychological suspense dished out within this movie. Everything is great about the film; the score itself is great enough to get yourself into the movie. It sets the mood already. Ross Martin’s psychopath performance is truly creepy; you certainly won’t forget this devilish grin for a long time after seeing it.
Several elements of this film also inspired scenes in many David Lynch projects, which will be interesting for Lynch fans to catch if you haven’t seen it yet. As an example, there is the Twin Peaks (1990) sign at the beginning of the film, which served as obvious inspiration for the title card and setting of Lynch’s television series of the same name. All in all, “Experiment in Terror” is an unpredictable, stylish film.
6. The Ones Below (2016)
While it may remind you of different kinds of films from “Gaslight” to “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” David Farr’s “The Ones Below” is stylish enough to stand out. Justin and Kate are expecting their first child. The joy is great when it turns out that their new neighbors Jon and Theresa are also expecting a child, for whom a long-cherished wish is fulfilled. The couples become friends and have dinner together at Justin and Kate’s apartment. At the end of the evening, a chain of unfortunate coincidences leads to an accident in which Theresa falls down a flight of stairs and suffers a stillbirth. In their grief, the couple blames Kate and Justin for the accident.
An overlooked psychological thriller that mildly builds up tension with a fine atmosphere, interesting narrative, some humor even, and also some terrific acting. Some Hitchcock and Polanski influences are also obviously there since Farr obviously studied their work very carefully. The minimalist psychodrama has something of a chamber play feeling and focuses on character development and tension building.