Although we think of the term ‘stress’ as having primarily negative connotations, health professionals often differentiate between its different variations. One beneficial variant of stress is known as ‘eustress’. This refers to the sensations we experience when pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones and the corresponding sense of accomplishment and satisfaction this results in.
Watching intense films is an example of the gratification we experience when we subject ourselves to eustress. Similar to riding a rollercoaster, we receive masochistic pleasure from putting ourselves in front of a facsimile of danger. Horror films, thrillers, war films and dark comedies are all examples of genres that can play on our urge to experience this transgressive, sometimes transcendent form of pleasure.
Stressful cinema can come in many shapes and sizes, from claustrophobic terror to social awkwardness to agonizing tension. This list focuses on ten films that go beyond those that are just scary or taut to being full-blown panic-inducing thrill rides. All are brilliant pieces of cinema, for both their white-knuckle force as well as their masterful formal construction.
Without further ado, here are the ten most nerve-wracking, stomach-churningly stressful pieces of cinema ever made.
1. The Wages Of Fear (1953)
Alfred Hitchcock had a theory about suspense. He said that a bomb going off under a table provides the audience with a surprise, but a bomb not going off under the table is what generates suspense. The Wages Of Fear is a ruthless exercise in stressful Hitchcockian suspense. It takes a while to get going, with the first hour dedicated to sketching out the lives of its main characters, but from the moment its nitroglycerine-loaded trucks depart, The Wages Of Fear offers up non-stop anxiety.
French director Henri-Georges Clouzet’s work was often compared to Hitchock, in particular his two masterworks Les Diaboliques and The Wages Of Fear. The latter is an existential thriller that pits its down-on-their-luck main characters against the forces of an absurd universe, with a sense of impending doom hanging over these lost souls tasked with transporting volatile explosives across a purgatorial landscape.
Featuring sequences often referred to as ‘pure cinema’, including a nerve-shredding climactic river crossing, The Wages Of Fear finds endless creative ways to put its characters in nerve-shredding danger. A sparse and muscular film that gradually transforms into something toweringly philosophical, this is the original stressful masterclass and remains one of the best thrillers ever made.
2. Duel (1971)
Steven Speilberg’s debut feature film (initially aired as a television film on ABC), Duel heralded the immediate arrival of a fully-formed directorial talent. Following well-received work in a succession of popular TV shows, Spielberg was signed by Universal Productions to direct four television films. Duel was the first and the best of the bunch, so much so that today it still ranks highly on lists of Spielberg’s finest works.
This lean, elemental film is an exercise in non-stop stress. The simple tale of businessman David Mann being pursued across the Mojave Desert by a tanker truck inexplicably hell-bent on killing him, Duel is a remarkable piece of suspense cinema that generates immense stress from the offset. Spielberg strips the piece down to its abstract essentials – the motivations of the barely-glimpsed truck driver are never revealed and the hulking truck itself is portrayed as an eerie, unstoppable villain.
The mysterious antagonist, archetypal lead and iconic American desert setting give Duel a mythic quality. Its nerve-wracking qualities transcend the in-the-moment stress and tap into something universal – the shared anxiety of being endlessly-pursued by some malevolent force. The film’s ending suggests, in typically hopeful Speilberg fashion, that we have the ability to conquer our demons, even ones as spookily intimidating as his iconic truck.
3. Das Boot (1981)
Few films feel as lived-in and as authentic as Das Boot. Every actor looks like they’ve genuinely suffered through the endless stress and claustrophobia of life aboard a German U-Boat during World War 2. The film’s texture courses with grease and sweat, you can almost smell the tiny confines of the submarine and the crew of beleaguered soldiers sailing it. Submarine warfare is a terrifying prospect in and of itself, but Das Boot brings it further to life in startling fashion.
Director Wolfgang Peterson, who would go on to direct Hollywood thrillers like Outbreak and Air Force One, expertly introduces us to the straight-line geography of the boat. His camera follows characters endlessly back and forth, from engine room to torpedo room, which quickly conveys the claustrophobic nature of the submarine. As morale starts to slip and the horrors of war become very real for the initially-enthusiastic characters, the audience know as well as them that there’s nowhere to run nor hide.
Several sequences, particularly an early attack by a British destroyer, are deeply-unnerving. A quiet and spooky atmosphere descends, as the crew kill the boat’s engines and whisper to one another in an effort to avoid a series of sudden depth charge explosions. There’s several versions available of Das Boot, including a 208-minute director’s cut that best captures the agonizing tenure of the lengthy voyage. Many similar films have been made in its wake, however none capture the cramped, stressful world of submarine warfare as well as Das Boot.
4. After Hours (1985)
There was an odd micro-genre in American cinema during the mid-eighties called the ‘yuppie nightmare cycle’. These films, which include Into The Night, Something Wild and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, take their lead characters on madcap voyages across a city, often utilizing elliptical, shaggy dog-like narrative structures. After Hours is the darkest and most surreal of these sojourns, a blackly-comic and intensely-frustrating night on the town guided by a filmmaker exorcizing a plethora of personal demons.
After Hours went into production following Scorsese’s initial failure to secure funding for The Last Temptation Of Christ. It feels like a film made by someone harboring deep-seated anger and bitterness. The tale of New York office drone Paul Hackett (played by Scorsese cipher Griffin Dunne) who falls down a nightmarish rabbit hole after meeting Rosanna Arquette’s Mercy Franklin, After Hours’ puts Hackett through a late-night ringer of inexplicable aggressions, false accusations and Kafkaesque interactions.
It’s an energetic and relentless film, driven by a series of maddening sequences that further ensnare the hapless main character in this nocturnal labyrinth. However, beneath its surreal frustrations lies an even darker undercurrent. After Hours is rife with barely-sublimated misogyny, perhaps stemming from Scorsese’ third divorce prior to the film’s production. Hackett meets a series of women, all of whom either cry, talk incessantly, laugh at or emasculate him. It makes for a sometimes-troubling watch, but one that’s made with undeniable skill and fervor.
5. The Hitcher (1986)
Released during the height of the slasher era, Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher is a grimy thriller that shares DNA with the slasher genre, but is far more hostile towards its audience than the average horror bloodbath. Rutger Hauer’s terrifying villain John Ryder is both inescapable and seemingly indestructible. Much of the film’s stressful qualities arise from Ryder’s practically-supernatural abilities. He’s portrayed as a demonic figure that has come to Earth to cause senseless mayhem and terror.
In their tense first meeting, The Hitcher’s protagonist, played by C. Thomas Howell, asks Ryder what he wants from him, to which the antagonist obliquely responds “I want you to stop me”. This makes Ryder’s motivations all the more panic-inducing, because it transcends rationality. He appears to have chosen the protagonist for no logical reason, other than an urge to cause horrifying carnage. The idea of being unwittingly thrown into this game of violent cat and mouse is a deeply stressful one, which the film plays on with absurdist glee.
The Hitcher shares superficial similarities with Duel, a previous inclusion on this list. The setup is similar, however it replaces Duel’s mythic suspense with nihilistic exploitation thrills. Though the film is morally shallow, there’s one too many overblown action scenes and it runs out of steam following a genuinely-horrendous set piece involving two trucks – The Hitcher still packs a searing, stressful punch.