Psychological thriller movies don’t always fit neatly into the “horror” genre, yet they terrify us all the same. With all of their twists and turns, here are the best psychological thrillers that left us waiting with bated breath to see what would happen next.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs has earned critical acclaim and audience favor for the startling and superb performances of its award-winning leads Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Its distinctive elemental blend of creeping horror and psychological thriller gets right to the heart of our fears about personal agency and control. At the crux of this iconic film’s unnerving journey into the hellish depths of a serial killer’s mind lies the relationship between Special Agent Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, whose twisted game of cat and mouse unfolds through a series of increasingly spine-tingling interactions, eventually bubbling over into a gripping and unsettling conclusion.
This 2018 film could have been a mere gimmick–with most of the film taking place “on screen” of a smartphone or laptop, Searching could have easily fallen prey to its premise, but a smart script and great performances from John Cho and Debra Messing made the movie a mediation on how technology can allow loved ones to become strangers to us and strangers to become loved ones, even if they’re not who they say they are...
3. Taxi Driver
This is another classic film, filled with unbelievable acting from Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Harvey Keitel. DeNiro plays Travis Bickle, an honorably discharged U.S. Marine, who becomes a taxi driver to combat his chronic insomnia. Things get intense, especially after Bickle meets Iris, a teenage prostitute played by Foster, whom he wants to free from her pimp. Foster was only 13 when the movie was made and had to undergo psychological testing by the California Labor Board to prove she wasn’t emotionally scarred by her starring role.
4. The Talented Mr. Ripley
Matt Damon’s portrayal of the incredibly creepy Tom Ripley had us on the edge of our seats during this thriller, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name. Ripley’s desperation to be close to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, through his devotion to the spoiled Dickie Greenleaf and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood, gave us the heebie-jeebies. It’s utterly terrifying to watch Tom’s obsession with Dickie grow, as we realize that he doesn’t just want to be Dickie’s best friend, he wants to be Dickie, at whatever cost.
5. The Machinist
Christian Bale famously dropped over 60 pounds in preparation for his starring turn in this film. Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a factory worker whose insomnia begins to affect his life–and his coworkers’ and loved ones’ lives as well. With the lack of sleep making it impossible for Trevor to know what’s going on, the audience is also blindsided by the strange and terrifying events of this 2004 film.
This 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel may limp a bit further into the horror genre than some of the other movies on this list. But the glimpse into the sordid mind of our villain, Annie Wilkes, gives the movie a decidedly psychological flavor. As his “number one fan,” Annie knows only she can convince author Paul Sheldon to finish his Misery Chastain romance series. And she’ll stop at nothing to get Paul to bend to her will. Thanks to a particularly scary performance by Kathy Bates as Annie, Misery goes down in history as one of the most gut-wrenching thrillers we’ve ever endured. The scene where Annie takes extreme measures to make sure Paul doesn’t disobey her … we can guarantee you’ll never see a sledgehammer the same way again.
Related: The 6 Scariest Stephen King Books
If Jake Gyllenhaal spent the rest of his career playing morally-questionable men pulled apart by their own actions, there would be few complaints. In Enemy, Gyllenhaal uses his abilities to the highest extent in a dual role as Adam Bell/Anthony Claire. Based on a José Saramango novel, The Double, Enemy is one of the earlier efforts from Denis Villeneuve, who has now gained mass recognition for his work on Arrival, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049.
8. Gone Girl
The novel that captivated us in 2012 was adapted for the screen two years later by Fight Club director David Fincher. Told in piecemeal narrative, we learn that Nick’s wife, Amy, is missing, presumed murdered, and many believe that Nick is responsible. As Nick insists upon his innocence, the tale turns into a cat-and-mouse game, in which nothing is as it seems, and no one can be trusted. The great, genre-subverting twist, as well as the look into the mind of a psychopath, makes this thriller one that shouldn’t be missed.
Related: 9 Books Like Gone Girl
9. Rear Window
If anyone understands suspense, it’s the master of it, Alfred Hitchcock. In this classic 1954 film, Jeff is driving himself crazy with boredom, laid up in his apartment with a broken leg, and only a pair of binoculars to keep him occupied. Though one would think a girlfriend like Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, would be enough to keep him entertained, Jeff becomes obsessed with spying on his neighbors. He’s soon convinced that something is amiss at a nearby apartment. Eventually, Lisa goes over to investigate. And it’s what happens next, with Jeff totally incapacitated, that brings Rear Window to its nail-biting conclusion.
This 1999 cult favorite manages to combine the best parts of both horror films and psychological thrillers to create something utterly and viscerally terrifying. After a middle-aged man is widowed, his son convinces him to hold auditions for his next wife. But when he meets a young woman who seems perfect, it becomes unclear who is auditioning–and for what role.
Related: 12 Most Badass Women in Horror
11. The Sixth Sense
Straddling the line between psycho-thriller and horror, The Sixth Sense has become infamous for its wild twist ending. Little Cole may be the one with emotional problems, but something’s not quite right with his doctor, Malcolm, either. With some fun jump scares thanks to Cole’s ghostly buddies, The Sixth Sense is a perfect “scary movie” for those who want more thrills and less gore.
This noir-inspired thriller has enough twists and turns to keep even the most savvy viewer on their toes. When murders related to the seven original sins begin to appear, both experienced Detective Lieutenant Somerset and newbie Detective Mills are baffled by who could be killing in such a structured, cold way. Soon, their lives will become entangled in the crimes in ways they couldn’t possibly foresee.
You may know Christopher Nolan as the director of the latest Batman series, but before that, he was the director of a cult favorite sleeper hit: 2000’s Memento. When we meet the tattoo-covered Leonard, he reveals that he suffers from a form of amnesia that prevents him from storing short-term memories. So, he tattoos any clues as to who murdered his wife on his body before he forgets them. Violent, complex, and confusing, Memento launched Nolan’s career, and it’s easy to recognize the winding twists and turns replicated in his 2010 smash success, Inception.
14. The Handmaiden
Inspired by Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook transformed an English Victorian thriller into a Korean colonist tale that keeps viewers guessing at every step of the way. This beautifully crafted film is best experienced with as little plot summary as possible–so we’ll merely say it is a must-watch for any psychological thriller fan.
15. Fight Club
Perhaps the zenith of the unreliable narrator trope that was so popular in the late 1990s, Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, explores the mind of an unnamed narrator, who becomes addicted to home shopping and visiting support groups as a means of dealing with his horrible insomnia. When he meets a man named Tyler Durden, his life changes; Durden introduces him to Fight Club, a place where men go work out their emotional traumas through recreational fighting. Of course, all is not what it seems, and the movie kept film buffs busy for nearly a year looking for clues to its tricks.
16. Hard Candy
We defy any viewer to watch Hard Candy without needing a shower afterwards. This twisted thriller follows a 14-year-old vigilante (Ellen Page’s first major role) who decides to punish a pedophile all by herself. When prey becomes predator, psychological thriller fans benefit.
17. Black Swan
2010’s Black Swan, from Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky, is sort of like the female version of Fight Club. That may be an oversimplification, but in this film, there is certainly more to our protagonist, the ballerina Nina, than meets the eye. While working on a new production of the ballet Swan Lake, the pressures of being the prima ballerina get the best of Nina, resulting in some strange hallucinations that have her, and the audience, wondering what’s real and what’s not.
This strange and delightful film from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. Still, it’s a creepily sexy story, filled with nods to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. India Stoker’s father has just been killed in a car accident when her long lost Uncle Charlie suddenly shows up, charming her mother and ingratiating himself into the family. Her whole life, India’s been a bit different … but as it turns out, she and Charlie are cut from the same cloth. The disturbing truth about Charlie’s background and his shared inheritance with India make Stoker an overlooked gem.
In what can only be described as the ultimate psychological thriller, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic involves detective Scottie Ferguson, who has retired after suffering from a bad case of—you guessed it—vertigo. When a friend asks him to come out of retirement to follow his wife, whom he believes has become possessed, Scottie reluctantly agrees. Filmed on location in San Francisco, this gorgeous film is more than a mere psychological thriller: It’s a masterpiece.
20. Mulholland Drive
Any decent psychological thriller will engender many a question in their viewer. But Mulholland Drive is unlike any other thanks to just how many questions it will leave you with. David Lynch’s penchant for the strange, the unknown, and the unknowable are taken to the extreme in this Hollywood fable.
Feature still from 'Enemy' via Pathé International