There’s nothing quite like psychological horror—its complex, unsettling, and full of unreliable characters. They tend to eschew normal tropes and push against viewers in increasingly dark and experimental ways. When you sit down to watch something deemed psychological horror, it ends up watching you just as much. That fourth wall we all sit behind when absorbing our entertainment of choice is shattered—and the experience brings you into a dark and often personal space.
We gathered some of the best psychological thriller movies that often get overlooked. These films are so twisted and menacing, you need to see them, if even only once!
Back when this film came out, it was seemingly on everyone’s mind. The marketing surrounding the film touted it as truly terrifying, with a narrative woven into a web of complexity. Coherence is up there with Primer in taking a no holds barred approach to physics, particularly quantum decoherence.
It begins during a dinner party involving eight friends when a comet, Miller’s Comet, passes over California. The event causes a chain reaction of confusing and troubling occurrences that change the face of reality. It’s a real mind warp—and has become less discussed and talked about in the years since its original release. A shame because it manages to be equally delectable as it is frequently dumbfounding.
Writer and director Satoshi Kon was one of a kind. His style and thematic interests almost always walked into the world of surreal and psychological horror. The 1997 film Perfect Blue is a perfect example of his ability to enter the darkest, most jarring of psychological spaces.
Mima Kirigoe is a celebrity singer, part of a J-pop group called CHAM!. She decides to step away from the group and reinvent herself as an actress. Soon after, she gains the interest of a stalker named Me-Mania who takes on very Misery vibes when the obsessed fan disagrees with the career change. Mima takes on a role in a TV drama called Double Bind that proves to be traumatic, and her hold on reality begins to blur. She regrets leaving CHAM! and her own reflection starts talking to her, creating a double entity. Kon manages to explore identity and the perils of celebrity with excellent animation, making the film a masterfully complex slice of psychological horror.
I Saw the Devil
If the title doesn’t already suggest the darkness surrounding this film, the first couple minutes will get the point across. The 2010 South Korean film I Saw the Devil is about an NIS agent named Kim Soo-hyun as he seeks revenge for the violent murder of his wife by way of serial killer Jang Kyung-chul.
In the opening minutes of the film, we witness the pursuit and gruesome aftermath of the kill in extreme detail. Afterwards, the film rushes to the capture of Kyung-chul, but instead of having it end like so many other revenge films, I Saw the Devil does something even more brutal: Soo-hyun sets the killer free. He implants a tracking device in Kyung-chul and follows him around as he continues to indulge in his violent behavior. However, when a kill is about to be made, Soo-hyun intervenes, often beating up the killer and leaving him wounded and hurt. It’s a compelling and absolutely upsetting plot device that left me so inspired, I ended up writing a book (My Pet Serial Killer) as a result of watching the film. I Saw the Devil deserves to be right up there with Oldboy and Parasite as high water marks for South Korean cinema.
The original Cube has occupied the cult classic category for decades now. Yet it remains to be one of the less discussed (and viewed) psychological horror films. Since the film was recently remade, it begs viewers to look back and watch the original.
The premise is simple: five strangers wake up in a strange room. Without anything to go on, they try to escape, only to discover that there could be hundreds of rooms just like it, with some booby-trapped with deadly devices. The maze becomes a mirror reflection of the group’s unraveling sanity, with discussions among them frequently exploring the nature of existence and humanity’s purpose. Cube was a truly unique film and if the remake and sequels are any indication, it’s a must-see for every fan of psychological horror.
Like a sinister cross between Sliver and The Tenant, the 2011 Spanish film Mientras duermes (or Sleep Tight), is one of those psychological horror films that really get under your skin.
Viewers are introduced to a lonely and unmemorable concierge named Cesar, who aims to spread his misery across the apartment building’s tenants. Unable to find happiness, Cesar sets his sights on Clara, one of the tenants. He breaks into her apartment, rifles through her things, and even gives her chloroform in order to keep her asleep while he occupies her apartment. He does this again during successive nights to plant, among other things, bug eggs to enact an infestation in Clara’s apartment. Mientras duernes is so accurate in its depiction of human despair and loneliness, you can’t help but keep watching as Cesar consistently proves to be a disgusting, deeply troubled solitary man.
A disturbing rendition of how humans can be cruel to each other, Nocturnal Animals takes a brutal look at longing and love. At the center of the film is Susan Morrow, a successful art gallery owner who wallows in her lavish yet unfulfilling life. Her marriage with Hutton is falling apart, with suspicion that he has been cheating on her amid his frequent business trips. Susan receives a manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, who she had cheated on with Hutton years ago.
Alternating between Susan’s miserable life and the novel itself, Susan reads the manuscript with increasing fascination. Edward’s novel seems to be about a family that is accosted while traveling to Marfa, Texas by a crew of sadistic criminals. Both wife and daughter are kidnapped and later found murdered; the husband makes it his life to find and seek out revenge. Nocturnal Animals is a film that makes you second-guess whether love always ends up in disaster, ruining the very same lives it had once saved.
Before David Fincher directed Fight Club, he graced viewers with a film that effectively built up an impossible premise,\: what if life itself was a game and you weren’t in on it? The Game is about a wealthy and lonely banker who is taken out of his routine workaholic lifestyle when his brother Conrad gives him a gift. Shrouded in mystery, the gift is to something of a “game” offered by Consumer Recreation Services. Admittedly curious about the company, the banker decides to sign up and, of course, his entire life comes crashing down in a series of increasingly paranoid events pull him from his emotionless life.
It’s a film that does something which rarely works: pulls a big twist at the end and still manages to stick the landing—rather than lose most of the audience. It remains an admirable depiction of paranoia too, which always proves to be a touchstone for good psychological horror.
The Skin I Live In
The Skin I Live In contains one of the most unexpected and jarring discoveries I’ve ever encountered—and I’ve seen a lot of horror. Robert Ledgard is a plastic surgeon that found success in creating artificial skin that is resistant to bites and burns. Dubbed “GAL,” his work is by all accounts a scientific marvel. Yet he harbors a secret.
Residing in a secluded estate, Ledgard keeps a young woman named Vera captive. The “mad genius” comes out when Ledgard is revealed to have done tests on humans. Of course, there’s far more to Vera and her own secrets are, ahem, more than skin deep. The Skin I Live In is the kind of film that you can’t unsee, a sterile yet seductive blend of romance and horror.
Super Dark Times
If you’re like me, you grew up in the 90s and often feel nostalgic for those “simpler” times, when afternoons seemed to stretch on forever and the only real responsibility was making sure you did your homework. Super Dark Times is incredibly effective at capturing the nostalgia, setting such a familiar stage so that when things get really dark, it hits even harder.
Zach and Josh are best friends. Both love to talk about films and comics—and both are crushing hard over Allison, a classmate at school. One day they cross paths with two other acquaintances, Daryl and Charlie. Everyone hates Daryl, but they end up hanging due to promise of marijuana and a katana. After an accident ends with Daryl dead, the friends decide to ditch the body and keep the secret. Guilt begins to mess with the kids. Soon Zach’s sanity fades and Josh begins to fear for his own life and innocence. Super Dark Times is Stand by Me on steroids.