As far as genres go, perhaps no single one has a deeper catalogue than thrillers. You have heard the recommended classics 1000 times before but underneath that top layer of Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs, and Psycho, lies multiple layers of quality movies waiting to be watched. These are some of the most underrated of the genre.
1. Frenzy (1972)
With Frenzy being Hitchcock’s last great film, it is honestly surprising it has not got as much attention as some other thrillers. But perhaps that’s because of how out-of-place it is in the 1970s landscape. The new decade and New Hollywood as a whole brought forth a new breed of thrillers. Grimy landscapes, unmistakable moral ambiguity, and next to no room comedy defined what audiences got out of thrillers in the 1970s.
Frenzy is by no means a relic of the past but it’s not Hitchcock fully giving himself over to genre trends either. It is Hitchcock at his most voyeuristic and most graphic. Every murder feels like uncharted territory for even Hitchcock himself and seems much more likely to come out of a De Palma film than one from the original master of suspense. But Frenzy’s greatest victory is how cheeky it remains.
Despite this tale of a serial killer going around London killing women with a tie, Frenzy’s script can be as giddy and playful as Hitchcock’s lightest fare when it wants to be. That’s why Frenzy is a must-watch. It’s a fascinating merging of Hitchcock in his glory days and the much less forgiving violence and stories of New Hollywood and Giallo films. And it’s Hitchcock returning to his oh so British roots, making Frenzy a madcap mashup of all of the phases of Hitchcock’s career.
2. The Stunt Man (1980)
The Stunt Man begins with a thrilling escape that transitions into the joke that defines the whole movie, that nothing is more dangerous than film. The Stunt Man is an integral comedy thriller, one so sinister in its type of black comedy that makes some Coen movies seem time. O’Toole is larger than life as a movie director, maybe or maybe not conspiring to kill a stunt man and stealing his love interest. The constant swerving between thinking Cameron is in actual danger or just imagining it keeps viewers on their toes.
The movie deceives and fakes out so many times you will get lost in whether or not this is all some twisted joke or if the film really is a product of a psychopath’s imagination, and an intensely creative way to kill off a stunt man. Forty minutes in, watching The Stunt Man becomes akin to whiplash. But thanks to all the great work from Barbara Hershey, O’Toole, and Steve Ralisback early on, all the film’s trickery feels earned. Underneath the suspense is a story with genuine stakes, and a fresh take on jealousy and filmmaking itself.
3. Cop Land (1997)
The sheer star power of Cop Land is overwhelming. Stallone, De Niro, Keitel, and Liotta have an absolute blast and chew up dialogue like it’s the last movie they’ll ever be in. Robert Patrick is great as usual in support, and you got five future Sopranos just for the fun of it. It is pretty amazing how James Mangold has been chilling in the background for decades on end just for the fun of it. Maybe Cop Land does not stand upon the top of its genre. But it is a more than worthwhile venture into police corruption.
Mangold delivers a fascinating look at how cops occasionally tag together to create a seemingly invincible front. But as the film progresses, we see this is not so much about brotherhood or family but maintaining some minimal sense of power in the face of a justice system waiting for the cops to slip up. And Stallone is in peak form trying to figure out whose side to take, playing his simple, down-on-his luck character to excellence. There is no reason not to watch Cop Land. With an abundance of great thrillers released in the 90s, it is understandable that this was swept under the rug. But there is no excuse to avoid such a good time in the present.
4. The Outpost (2019)
Nothing against 1917, but this is the war movie from 2019 worth the hype. What The Outpost lacks in technical achievement it more than makes up for in character and action sequences. Like Black Hawk Down, it follows a group of men left to fight an enemy they barely can see in an isolated location. When it comes to its stance on war, The Outpost strikes a very similar balance to Black Hawk Down. It by no means is pro war but is very much pro-soldier, frequently displaying the virtue and comradery of the team its story is based on.
Like The Stunt Man, its early moments of character building are necessary and thankfully devoid of any contrived dialogue. Conversations are both important and telling of the film’s themes while still having an impressive amount of realism to them. But what puts The Outpost on this list is the last hour. After having sporadic attacks sure to catch the viewer off guard early on, the second half of the movie is a barrage of bullets and nerve-racking tension. As the soldiers fight off Taliban fighters, it is near impossible not to be impressed with the action on display with a comparatively dismal budget by the standards of modern war films. Surely one of the most underrated war films of the 21st century.
5. Play Misty for Me (1972)
While Frenzy plays against some of the tropes of 1970s thrillers, Play Misty for Me fully leans into them. It is a psychosexual thriller where every scene that is not painted with the fierce color of Giallo films is a portrait of a sleazy cityscape. Play Misty for Me revels in being dirty. Its early affair slowly catches up to Clint’s Dave as he gets mysterious calls to play the song “Misty.”
Like the other films on this list, this was a film with solid elements all around that was not properly recognized. All the performances get the job done and the films effectively ramps up to a memorable slasher-esque finish over a roughly 100-minute runtime. In just over an hour and a half, viewers get to witness just how good Eastwood is as a chameleon director blending into the times and the immortal charm he brings in front of the camera.