30 Must-See Psychological Thrillers

1) The Prestige (2006)

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This incredibly twisty psychological thriller from Christopher Nolan is a one-of-a-kind film that revolves around two rival magicians playing mind games in Victorian era London. It’s very much an old school psychological thriller that demands your utmost attention from the first frame to the last. The first time I saw it, I dropped my jaw in awe. I was completely blown away and couldn’t get up from my seat for a while. Make sure there are no distractions around.

2) Memento (2000)

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Another Nolan film that’s about a man suffering from anterograde amnesia trying to find his wife’s killer. The film’s narrative is non-linear and just as with The Prestige, it requires you to pay close attention from the first frame to last. Mental health experts have lauded Nolan’s depiction of anterograde amnesia, calling it the most accurate. The most interesting thing about the film is how it puts you in the same state of mind as the protagonist and by the end, you’ll find yourself asking tons of questions.

3) Inception (2010)

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Well, here comes Nolan once again. With an astonishingly complex storyline that deals with the subconscious and multiple dream levels, this is Nolan’s second original screenplay since Following . A rousing background score from Hans Zimmer adds an extra level of grandeur to an already compelling narrative. It’s an immensely entertaining mind-bender that will probably get you interested in books about psychology/dreams. The ambiguous ending has been the subject of much debate.

4) Prisoners (2013)

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Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has become one of my favorite contemporary directors. He has a penchant for dealing with serious, thought-provoking subjects. Prisoners follows the story of a man who pursues his own brand of justice when his daughter goes missing. Also trying to solve the mystery of the missing children is a hard-nosed detective. The film serves some delicious twists and turns that will keep you hooked from beginning to end. It also boasts of some stupendous camera work from master cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Featuring impressive performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, this one’s a keeper. Can’t wait to see Villeneuve’s upcoming Sicario.

5) Insomnia (2002)

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Okay, I promise you that this will be the last Nolan film you’ll see on this list. Insomnia is Nolan’s most underrated film and it deserves more appreciation, in my opinion. It  may not have the complex narrative structure of Memento or The Prestige but it’s still a remarkable addition to his filmography. This is the only film that Nolan did not write. He was hired by Steven Soderbergh to make this Hollywood remake of a Norwegian thriller of the same name. To many, this version is far superior to the original one. It features two legendary actors – Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Seeing Williams play a psychopath was a pleasant surprise. Such a fantastic actor. R.I.P

6) The Game (1997) 

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David Fincher’s third film is about a wealthy investment banker who receives an odd gift from his younger brother on this 48th birthday, promising him that it will change his life. Rest assured, it does change his life, in ways he never expected. It’s an atmospheric head trip that boasts a terrific lead performance from Michael Douglas. His character is slightly reminiscent of his Oscar winning turn in Wall Street (1987). For some reason, I found this to be superior to Fincher’s Se7en. I think I am in the minority that feels this way.

7) Mulholland Drive (2001)

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Although I haven’t fully figured out what the fuck it really is about, I was blown away by David Lynch’s bizarre masterpiece. This is one film that is so bloody hard to explain. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that takes a long time to put together. There are various interesting fan theories out there, and I have one of my own.

8) Black Swan (2010)

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My favorite Darren Aronofsky film. A ballet production hires a ballerina to play the character of White Swan in a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The demands of her grueling rehearsals for this performance causes her to lose a grip on reality and sends her into a downward spiral. There are some influences of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes as well as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Natalie Portman won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for the role.

9) Zodiac (2007)

Director David Fincher is known for making two of the finest serial killer films in Hollywood – Se7en and Zodiac. And there are two categories of Fincher fans: one that thinks Se7en is better than Zodiac and the other that thinks exactly the opposite. I belong to the latter camp. I think Zodiac is Fincher’s most accomplished film till date. My admiration for this film grows with each passing every year. This is the kind of compelling cinema that gives me the maximum kicks. I’m sure this must have been the most complicated film that Fincher has had to tackle so far. His attention to details here is more prominent and awe-inspiring than all his other films.

The stunning historical accuracy of the film has been noted by many critics and because of this, it has been aptly compared to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, another favorite of mine. It’s not a coincidence as Fincher himself has cited the film’s influence in several interviews. Fincher went to great lengths to re-create the real-life locations, especially the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle. Also, noteworthy is his seamless use of visual effects to design some of the shots and locations. What Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides managed to display here is pure magic. Some sequences looked so realistic that you can never quite tell for sure if they were created with the help of CGI. It can be easily mistaken for self-indulgence but taking into consideration Fincher’s distinctive style, you know that those shots are there for a reason.

10) El Aura (The Aura) (2005)

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From director Fabian Bielinsky who made the brilliant Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), this Spanish psychological thriller revolves around an epileptic taxidermist obsessed with committing the perfect crime. He gets his chance when a fellow taxidermist invites him to a hunting trip. In the middle of the trip, he suffers from an episode and accidentally shoots a hotel owner. The film succeeds in keeping you guessing right till the end. One of Ricardo Darin’s finest performances.

11) The Face of Another (1966) 

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The Face of Another is an offbeat, surreal and thought-provoking film from avant-garde Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara. It stars the legendary Japanese thespian Tatsuya Nakadai, who became a frequent collaborator of director Akira Kurosawa since he parted ways with Toshiro Mifune. But apart from the Kurosawa films, he has worked on films of several other notable Japanese filmmakers such as Masaki Kobayashi, Kihachi Okamoto etc. This allegorical film is based on the novel of the same name by Kobo Abe, who has often been called the Japanese Franz Kafka and rightfully so.

The film moves along like a nightmare and benefits well from Teshigahara’s radical filmmaking style. The central premise carries so many themes that viewer is compelled to initiate a long, intellectually stimulating discussion on them. The two stories in the film raises thought-provoking questions on the effect of an individual’s appearance on himself as well as others, the ever-changing nature of identity, thereby making strong statements about a culture obsessed with superficial appearances. The film’s effectively haunting and sometimes disturbing imagery drives home the point of some of the themes which it explores.

12) Duel (1971)

No vehicle has looked more menacing, terrifying and intimidating in cinema than the 1955 model Peterbilt 281 tanker truck in Steven Spielberg’s full-fledged directorial debut Duel. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson that appeared in an issue of Playboy magazine, the film follows a day in the life of an ordinary man named Richard Mann taking a long car trip, hoping to make a business meeting on time. Things take an unexpected turn when he provokes the ire of a psychotic truck driver en route and Mann’s life becomes a living nightmare from that point on. What ensues is a long and horrifying chase – a duel to the death – between Mann and this maniac.

What makes the film even more terrifying is the fact that the identity of the truck driver is never revealed throughout the film. Not even once do we get to see the face of the man driving this huge beast of a machine. It’s as if the truck has adopted a persona of its own. There are plenty of scenes here that will make your hair stand on end. It’s like one of those terrifying killing machines from one of those Stephen King novels. Mann and the driver are engaged in an intensely ferocious battle and this is the kind of genuinely disturbing scenario that you wish would never ever happen to you. The film is characterized by its tight plotting, minimalist style and narrative simplicity.

13) Misery (1990)

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Kathy Bates’ Anne Wilkes is one of the most frightening characters I’ve seen. She scared the shit out of me! Even The Joker doesn’t frighten me as much. Also starring James Caan, it’s an adaptation of Stephen King’s book of the same name. Caan plays a writer and Bates is an obsessive fan of his. She rescues and nurses him after his car goes off the road in a blizzard. She brings him the manuscript he had written – which he had given her earlier as a return favor – and asks him to make some changes to it because she isn’t happy with the way it’s been written. Needless to say, being the terrifying maniac she is, she puts him through unimaginable hell. If you happen to be a famous celebrity, you don’t want to end up with a fan like this.

14) The Woman in the Window (1944)

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Things don’t go well for a lonely, middle-aged Professor when he meets an attractive woman outside the men’s club he regularly frequents. There is a reason why I mentioned this film in my list. You’ll know when you see it. One of Fritz Lang’s best films. This was his second collaboration with Edward Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. They had previously worked on another film-noir called Scarlet Street which was also good but a little depressing.

15) The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining  is  another Stephen King adaptation on this list. Jack Nicholson is perfectly cast in one of his iconic roles as Jack Torrance, the caretaker of a haunted mountainside hotel. The psychic powers of his son Danny and the ghosts of the former guests bring out the worst and he slowly turns into a murderous, ax-welding killer hell-bent on murdering his family. The Room 237 scene is one of the creepiest scenes I’ve seen. I once joked that you’ll never look at a naked woman in the same way again after watching that scene.

16) Garde a vue (The Grilling) (1981)

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Garde a vue is one long interrogation sequence from start to finish. Now, that might sound boring to some but it’s not. Starring the legendary Lino Ventura and Michel Serrault and directed by Claude Miller, it’s about an eminent businessman questioned on some recent child murders. It was remade in Hollywood as the much inferior Under Suspicion, starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. Even if you have seen the Hollywood version, I still suggest checking this one out.  Highly recommended.

17) Una pura formalita (A Pure Formality) (1994)

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A novelist (Gerard Depardieu) who is picked up at night by the police after he is found senselessly wandering in the rain. A murder has occurred nearby and he is counted as a suspect. At the station, he is interrogated by a detective (Roman Polanski) who happens to be his fan. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), this is one of the most haunting psychological thrillers I’ve come across.

18) Mad Detective (2007)

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Just as its title suggests, the film is about a mentally unstable Hong Kong detective named Chan with psychic abilities who is coaxed out of retirement when a policeman goes missing. Chan has the ability to see a person’s “multiple personalities”. The film is a brilliantly crafted thriller that plays with your mind. There are some moments in this film where it’s not easy to differentiate between reality and illusion.

19) The Tenant (1976)

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Roman Polanski directs and stars in this creepy psychological thriller about a shy and timid man who grows increasingly paranoid and suicidal after he starts to witness strange occurrences in the new apartment building he has just moved into. Anyone who has had experiences staying at creepy-looking hostels, lodges, hotels or dealing with strange neighbors will find something to identify with in the film. I did.

20) The Conversation (1974)

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The Conversation is another film that deals with paranoia. A surveillance expert finds his life slowly turning into a nightmare when he finds something suspicious inside one of his recordings. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Godfather-II), the film is one of Coppola’s strongest albeit less discussed efforts. (You can read my essay on the film here.)

21) The Treatment (2014)

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I caught this Belgian film only recently and found it be a much better film than Fincher’s Se7en. I think this is the most unsettling serial killer film I’ve seen since Se7en. A slow burn thriller that keeps you guessing right until the end.  It follows the life of a detective haunted by the disappearance of his younger brother during his childhood. When a similar child missing case occurs, he starts to pursue the same man he suspected was involved in his brother’s kidnapping. A very, very disturbing film regardless of the surprisingly minimal gore. Director Hans Herbots can be rightly called the Belgian counterpart of David Fincher. A feeling of dread permeates the entire film. You are not given all the answers by the end.

22) Peeping Tom (1960) 

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I have to thank Martin Scorsese for giving this film the cult-status that it enjoys today. He championed strongly for it’s re-release in 1979 and if it weren’t for him, I would never have been aware of it. You can see it’s strong influence on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Both films have a relatable protagonist and both commit unspeakable acts of violence, and yet, we feel sympathy for them. I’m sure this was considered totally unacceptable by British audiences back then.

What’s funny is that during the same year, Hitchcock came out with a similar film, Psycho, with similar themes, also about a psychopath but went on to become a major success (despite the fact that Hitchcock too was lambasted by the critics due to it’s lurid subject matter). Peeping Tom ended up being largely forgotten. The ending, although sad, is one of the most brilliant endings I’ve seen in the history of cinema. What I love most about this character is that once we discover the dark truth about him, we begin to see him in a completely new light.

23) The Medusa Touch (1978) 

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The ’70s witnessed Richard Burton doing some inconsequential films just for the sake of earning a paycheck. He was going through several bad marriages and a bad drinking habit. Surprisingly, he was sober throughout the filming of The Medusa Touch. It was as expected, dismissed as just another one of these inconsequential films. But for me, it’s an exception. I think it’s a grossly underrated horror/thriller film that has not received it’s due. Roger Ebert hated the film and I didn’t agree with his review. Burton is truly menacing as Morlar and his dialogues are uttered with his usual eloquence and ferocity. The background score is really spooky and sets the tone of the film right from the opening scene. And the creepy ambiguous ending gave me the chills.

24) American Psycho (2000)

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A supercharged and hyper-violent serial killer film that was directed by, surprisingly, a woman. I don’t think a male director could handle something like this. What makes this controversial film very compelling is that it also doubles as a satire. Also, the phenomenal soundtrack featuring the likes of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins smooths things a little. Best Christian Bale performance ever!

25) The Offence (1972) 

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Director Sidney Lumet is most well-known for his intense American crime classics such as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico ,12 Angry Men and Prince of the City (which I found to be better than Serpico). But before all that, he had been involved in some notable British productions as well. They were The Hill, The Deadly Affair, The Offence and Murder on the Orient Express. One of the most overlooked of the bunch is The Offence, a brilliantly layered and disturbing psychological thriller. It’s one of the very few films that revealed to us the real actor inside Sean Connery. I was completely taken back when I saw Connery in a role like this. I mean, this is James Bond, for crying out loud, and seeing him play a psychologically tormented character was something that I didn’t expect at all.

26) Memories of Murder (2003)

At once unsettling and thought-provoking, this cult Korean thriller from Bong Joon-Ho comes loaded with all the usual elements that you expect in a serial killer drama, but what made it stand out from any others in its league is that it managed to incorporate an ample dose of humour courtesy of the main characters, especially Song Kang-Ho. The film is a perfect example of riveting storytelling, striking camera work and memorable performances. It has one of the most haunting endings I’ve ever seen.

27) Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Tom Ford’s latest Nocturnal Animals is the sort of film that, I imagine, someone like David Fincher would get a massive kick out of. While watching it, I was reminded of one of his quotes: “I am interested in films that scar.” This film is certainly one of those. It has the dark and emotionally scarring sensibilities of Fincher along with the stylistic flourishes of Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Almodovar, Brian De Palma, and David Lynch. You can read my full review here.

28) Death Note (2006)

Based on the Japanese manga series of the same, Death Note is a deliciously wicked psychological thriller that also features supernatural elements. To those not familiar with the manga, it’s about a notebook that has the ability to kill people. All one has to do is write down the names of the people he/she wants dead and they drop dead instantly from a heart attack or a variety of other reasons, provided you have a wildly creative imagination.

This notebook falls into the hands of a college kid named Light who uses it to free the world of all criminals under the guise of a mysterious, faceless personality called “Kira”. But when moral boundaries are crossed, he is hunted by both the police and Interpol. Aiding them in the investigation is an eccentric and brilliant investigator called “L”, who happens to be a pale-faced, sweets-obsessed teenager. My favorite character in the film is a shinigami (God of Death) called Ryuk, apart from “L”. He only eats apples and nothing else.

There is a sequel called Death Note-2: The Last Name, which is twice as complicated and introduces a new “death note” along with a new shinigami and other new characters. An (unwelcome) American remake of this series is on the way.

29) Cure (1997)

Not a lot of names come to mind when somebody asks me to list the best horror films I’ve seen that managed to be both horribly unsettling and intellectually stimulating at the same time. Some of them maybe formulaic and derivative and yet only few succeed in being impressively original. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s (not a relation of the other Kurosawa) Cure is one of them. At times reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s early work, the film begins with a murder scene set to a playful tune that belongs in a cartoon or a comedy and has no place in a psychological thriller or a horror film, for that matter. You can read my full review here.

30) The Gift (2015)

When was the last time that you saw a psychological thriller so good that you couldn’t stop thinking about it long after the end credits had rolled? And, when was the last time that you saw an actor make a transition to directing and become successful at it? Actor Joel Edgerton does exactly that with The Gift. This is a film so unbelievably good and deliciously wicked that I can recall at most 1 or 2 films that were able to deliver an almost equivalent experience (one of them being The Prestige and the other Prisoners). It’s part-Hitchcockian thriller and part-relationship drama. Althought Edgerton’s Gordo is quite a creepy figure, it’s impossible not to feel a little sympathetic towards him. Edgerton has written and directed it with the confidence and skill of a veteran filmmaker. Can’t wait to see what Edgerton has in store for us next.

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10 comments

  1. Good collection of psychological thrillers. I don’t like few movies in the list, but liked the inclusion of certain films, especially Pure Formality, Garde a Vue and The Aura. Few great movies that immediately comes to my mind that are not in the list: “Women in the Dunes” (1964), “Duel” (1971), “Cache” and “The Pledge”. Anyway, kudos to you, since preparing a list on such a broader subject is very hard.

    Liked by 1 person

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