What’s the difference between a regular thriller and psychological thrillers? Essentially, psychological thrillers are a sub-genre and instead of heavy action or romance or comedy, it plays with your psychological cortex using the disposition of characters in the movie.
The genre loves to emphasize the mental states of its characters, sometimes delusional or unstable. We can’t call the best psychological films, a horror film simply because these films are rooted in realistic mind games as opposed to a ghost. Complex relationships with people are more tangible and less variable than seeing or imagining dead creatures. That’s why with a few twists thrown in, viewers are usually in for a surprise or two—or was it all in the characters’ heads in the first place? These thrillers are rooted in very well crafted reality.
The genre-pioneered with Hitchcock’s Psycho and we willingly followed the stories of psychotic characters in brilliant movies like ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. Movies such as ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Open Your Eyes’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’, meanwhile, deep and make you question existence.
With modern films like Shutter Island, which follows an investigator on the hunt for an escaped murderer or Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ which follows more traditional plot twists, we have compiled a list of the best psychological thrillers to spook and to pump up that adrenaline.
Some dark, some chilling, some discombobulating, here are our picks of
The best psychological thrillers of all time:
When a storm upturns their yacht, a group of passengers jump on board a ship close by. Strange things start happening as soon as they board the vessel.
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is based on the book of the same name. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Teddy, visits a psychiatric facility after a patient goes missing. As the investigation goes on, it’s apparent there is more to the story than what meets the eye. This may be the creepiest role you’ve ever seen Leo in.
Get Out’s writer and director, Jordan Peele, calls it a ‘social thriller’, but such are the head-spinning manipulations in its often-twisting plot (of Daniel Kaluuya’s central character – and the audience), you could also easily file ‘Get Out’ under psychological thriller too. In it, Kaluuya plays a photographer who accompanies his girlfriend to her cringingly liberal parents’ house for one of the least satisfactory weekend breaks committed to screen.
The Sixth Sense
Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist starts treating a young boy who becomes the medium of communication between Crowe and a slew of unhappy spirits around. Haley Joel Osment’s acting stole the show in this movie.
Cole finally opens up about his “gift” to his mother about how he has to help the spirits that demand his attention and Malcolm has to die in order to realize he was a workaholic who should have paid a little more attention to his wife. A thriller movie that’s genuinely haunting, this is one of the greatest movies that will put your life into perspective.
Huge props should be given to writer and director Christopher Nolan for making a film that not only straddles grief, loss, memory and an edge-of-your seat intensity, but which also centres around a mystery so complex that it feels almost impenetrable. Told in non-linear patches, the film follows amnesiac Leonard Shelby, played expertly by Guy Pearce, as he tries to avenge the the murder of his wife. It is, of course, not that simple, but what is clear through the narrative snippets is just how much our actions and identities are shaped by perceptions and memory.
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, Mementolaunched Nolan’s career, and it’s easy to recognize the winding twists and turns replicated in his 2010 smash success, Inception.
David Fincher’s serial-killer thriller isn’t afraid of stereotypes; from the mismatched cops to the overly intelligent psychopath, the film ticks all manner of boxes. But then Fincher creates an atmospheric and claustrophobic world, a rainy urban hellscape, that shocks these tropes with a revitalising buzz of electricity. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script contrasts theoretical bookishness with impulsive action that builds until film’s horrifying final few moments, which leaves you in a moral quandary that perhaps has no answer.
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.
Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, Psycho – is about Marion who has disappeared after stealing money but is being chased by her lover and sister. Things turn awkward when this leads them to the infamous Bates Motel, where they meet Norman Bates.
Mr. Nobody’s narrative tangles has big ambitions and absorbing visuals make for an intriguing addition to director Jaco Van Dormael’s filmography.
Former police detective “Scottie” Ferguson, who has an extreme fear of heights, is hired to follow his friend’s wife, who fears she has lost her mind and is a danger to herself. The detective becomes dangerously obsessed with his friend’s wife after she passes away.
Often regarded as cinema’s greatest achievement, ‘Vertigo’ presents the peak of Hitchcock’s psychosexual fixations in gloriously shot Technicolor. Playing Judy Barton – or is it Madeleine Elster? – Kim Novak personifies twisty femininity. Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, an ex-detective increasingly consumed by her, is a perfect subversion of the actor’s wholesome image.
A story of two friends who are also fellow magicians but with ill-fated futures ahead. After a tragic incident makes them bitter enemies, they make great sacrifices to bring fame but with terrible consequences.
Hard Candy (2005)
Thinking another victim is on the way, he takes her home, only to find out that the vicious 14-year-old knows his secret and comes loaded with a plan to end his sick games.
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.
Two engineers, Aaron and Abe, are quite ahead of their game. When they accidentally invent what they believe is a time travel machine, Abe builds a new, more advanced version of the same. He believes it can transport humans through space. They then decide to test it, with sinister consequences of venturing into the unknown.
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
In this movie, Evan gets severe headaches and suffer blackouts. When unconscious, he travels to his own past and realizes the alterations made by him in the past start causing drastic changes in the present.
Black Swan (2010)
The dramatic world of ballet is fertile ground for an exploration of professional jealousy and obsession. Darren Aronofsky’s lurid psychological horror film delves into the compellingly creepy idea of doppelgangers, via committed performances from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who push the backstage maneuvering to dizzying extremes.
The Game (1997)
Nicholas Van Orton, a merchant banker, receives a strange birthday gift, a voucher for a game, from his brother Conrad. Upon the use of the voucher, he falls in trouble. This is considered David Fincher’s most underrated movie and one of the best psychological thrillers ever.
The Shining (1980)
Can you even have a list of best psychological thrillers without including The Shining? Taking an off-season job at a historic hotel overlooking the Colorado Rockies, what could go wrong? Once Jack uncovers his son’s ability to see into the hotel’s horrific past, the supernatural happenings call his sanity into question. Will they be safe?
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
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.
The film “Pi” is a study in madness and genius. Dramatically gripping and frighteningly smart, this Lynchian thriller does wonders with its unlikely subject and shoestring budget. With an 88% rate on Rotten Tomatoes, this movie is a must watch!
Gone Girl (2014)
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.
Nick Dunne discovers that the entire media focus has shifted on him when his wife Amy Dunne disappears on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary. When a forensic test reveals blood-stains belonging to Amy, the world turns its suspicions on Nick.
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck brought this book to life in the movie by the same name, and you won’t believe all the twists in it.
Even all these years later, describing the plot of ‘Donnie Darko’ is not easy, or perhaps even possible. However, the ambiguity about what is actually going on doesn’t detract from the film’s chilling Lynchian colour palette, creepy appearances of a giant rabbit called Frank and commentary on teen isolation and mental health. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an intense and menacing performance as the titular character, all brooding and enigmatic, matching the ominous tone of the film. While the themes of time travel alternate universes and quantum physics will still blow your mind.
Adam, a bored college professor, spots his doppelganger in a movie. The doppelganger is an actor in Hollywood and leads a very different lifestyle, but with the same face. Adam then slips into the new man’s shoes and takes over his persona. This complicates everything and comes with a price.
If Jake Gyllenhaal spent the rest of his career playing morally-questionable men pulled apart by their own actions, there would be few complaints.
‘Funny Games’ director Michael Haneke understands the hidden guilt of the blissful bourgeois, tormented by outside forces – in this case, an unknown stalker with a camera. Among the auteur’s masterpieces, this Juliette Binoche-starrer agitates through its meticulously concealed anxiety, culminating in a political statement on the contemporary residues of historical violence and racism.
This 1999 cult favorite is the best 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.
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.
The Silence of the Lambs
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. With insights from Lecter, Starling starts her pursuit of the serial killer, nicknamed “Buffalo Bill”.
This Academy Award–winning movie was followed by a sequel, Hannibal, and a pair of prequels: Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
A sexy masterpiece of deeply unsettling mystery, David Lynch’s nonlinear neo-noir is a dusky, discursive thriller as glamorous and slippery as the city it celebrates. It is endlessly fascinating, and certainly one of his most enduring voyages into dream logic. Two female archetypes – blonde Betty (Naomi Watts) and brunette Rita (Laura Harring) – become inextricably linked as they navigate the glittering cinematic surface and the criminal underbelly of LA. It’s a journey that ultimately leads us to question the very nature of identity and reality, when they encountered budding director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) en route.
Nikki is an actress whose creative ventures are often controlled by her possessive husband. As she accepts a new role, he warns her co-star to keep his hands off Nikki, as their characters have an affair. Then the actors find out, to their horror, that they’re starring in an unfinished project in which the lead actors were murdered earlier.
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.
Other best psychological thrillers include:
Sphere (1998 by Barry Levinson), The man from earth (2007 by Richard Schenkman), Identity, The Double, Henry : Portrait of a serial killer, I Saw the Devil, Deja VU, Premonition, Edge of Tomorrow, The no. 23, Confessions, The Tunnel, We need to talk about Kevin, Chained, The Objective, Siren, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Magnolia, Prisoners, Sinister, Dimension Bomb, A Tale of Two Sisters, Jacobs Ladder, Farm House and Secret Window.
International best psychological thrillers include:
Cure (Japanese), No Smoking (Indian Film), 404:Error Not Found (Hindi movie), Kaun (bollywood), Silk (Korean), Gozu (Japanese), Hansel & Gretel Korean
That concludes the list but you can carry on and get inside some of these movies to take you far away from everyday life. We would suggest that you start at the top, and make your way down and realistically you’re set for a whole year! A long long list of psychological thrillers is for savouring, because it will make you think!