What are the best psychological thrillers at the movies? If you ask different people, I’m sure they will have different answers. But before we ask what their choices are for the best psychological thrillers, what is that subgenre anyway? Well, that means that it’s an edge-of-your-seat kind of movie. It has a very engaging storyline wherein the plot is designed to make each and every step very intriguing, mysterious, and of course chilling. All of those elements add to the thrill.
But what about the psychological part? Now this is the one where definitions might differ. But generally, if the story somehow messes up your mind in a way, then that’s a psychological thriller. Or the characters of the movie themselves have messed up minds – or have minds being messed up – then that could be one of the best psychological thrillers around.
Hollywood already has so many examples of this. To know what’s the best psychological thrillers, we suggest you look at the A-list casting. If big celebrities are in it, then the storytelling is sure to be a big hit. It’s a plus if the director and/or actors are also Academy Award winners. Here’s our suggested list.
Perhaps nothing beats all of these best psychological thrillers than Psycho. The title alone would be a sure bet for that subgenre!
This classic 1960 film is directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. That’s another classification why this is in our list. The film is shot in black and white, no blood spilling is seen. But the way the film was shot suggests the biggest thriller feeling for any audience of all ages.
The story revolves around a secretary who steals some money from her office. She tries to run away, but stops at a roadside motel. Little did she know that her quick overnight pit stop would be the last night of her life. Why? Enter the motel owner: Norman Bates. And the rest is psychological thriller history. Watch this if you love the genre. It’s a requirement!
2. Silence of the Lambs
It’s not exactly a horror film in the true sense of the word. But the events in Silence of the Lambs are as horrific as they could get. Yet the way the story was unfolded, and the way the film was shot, suggests that it should be here in our list of best psychological thrillers instead of being in a horror list. Now why is that?
Simple: As the lead character unpacks layers upon layers of psychologically-triggered clues, we the audience discover what she discovers. In order to solve a kidnapping, FBI agent Clarice Starling tries to get clues from a detained psychiatrist known as Hannibal the Cannibal. The clues he gives are startling indeed.
This 1991 classic is a proof that the best psychological thrillers could also win awards. It garnered the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director. Go watch it to see this iconic thriller of a film.
3. Black Swan
Director Darren Aronofsky knows how to tell a story with a punch. And his Black Swan is such a feat, earning its rightful place in our countdown of the best psychological thrillers in cinema.
The 2010 film stars Natalie Portman as a struggling ballerina who just won the coveted role in Swan Lake. But the role requires a dual personality approach for her. The white swan is the virginal benevolent one, while the black swan counterpart is the seductive and alluring one. Her character, Nina, is great at the first, but struggles with the last.
Now this is an example of a psychological thriller where the characters themselves are tortured psychologically by circumstances in their environment. It’s clear that this mind torment affects her spirit, and later her body. But she still tries to overcome the fight that primarily exists in her mind.
Go watch this modern masterpiece to see why it earns its rightful spot here.
Author Stephen King is known for his horror stories, but he’s also great at writing up stories that thrill us psychologically. One such example is Misery, which became a film in 1990.
The story is about a novelist named Paul Sheldon who made a name for himself penning romance novel series. But he decided to kill off the series’ main character in his latest novel. That doesn’t sit well with the book’s biggest fans, of course. But Paul couldn’t care less about the fans – until one of them kidnaps him.
The author got into a vehicular accident one day due to a blizzard, and a nurse found him and took him home. Nurse Annie recognizes him, and told him that she’s her number one fan. But when he revealed about killing the book character, Annie detained him in her house until he writes a better novel about her favorite book.
Needless to say, the agony that the author had to endure with his situation earns Misery its rightful spot in our list of best psychological thrillers. Watch this one for the sheer thrill of it!
The 1995 film Seven featured a psychologically disturbing series of crimes being investigated by two detectives. The veteran detective is played by Morgan Freeman while the rookie detective is played by Brad Pitt. Under the direction of David Fincher, their tale becomes one of the best psychological thrillers to come out in the cinema of the ‘90s.
The investigation of the murders baffle these detectives. That is, until they were able to figure out that each crime is designed as one of the seven deadly sins. Therefore, they still have to uncover each deadly sin theme, or prevent them from happening.
However, figuring out who the serial killer is would be daunting. And it also takes it toll on the personal lives of the detectives, especially the younger one. What do you think will happen here? Watch it to get over the suspense!
6. Cape Fear
Martin Scorsese has directed quite a few thrillers in his career. Robert De Niro has acted in quite a handful of them, too. That’s why it’s such a feast to see the two of them work together in Cape Fear. See why it earns it coveted spot here in our list of best psychological thrillers.
The story is about a convicted felon, a big scary dude named Max Cady, played by De Niro. He was imprisoned for raping and beating up a woman, and public defender Sam Bowden handles his defense. However, the gory crime made the lawyer cringe. So he tried to maneuver his defense so that his client would get surely convicted.
Now of course, the client is now mad as hell, and seeks revenge on the lawyer 14 years later. This is where all the psychological thrill sets in – a fun way for the hunter ex-con, and a scary way for the hunted lawyer. Watch this to see how it turns out!
7. The Manchurian Candidate
What’s more thrilling, psychologically speaking, than mind control? This is what the film The Manchurian Candidate explores.
The 2004 film reboot of the 1962 film version of the 1959 novel proves that its story is timeless and ageless. What’s more timeless and ageless as mind control to gain power, right?
But let’s focus on the 2004 version. Denzel Washington plays a former soldier who went with a senator’s son to war. But that son later got groomed to become a politician. And the grooming was done by his own politician mother.
Doesn’t sound so exciting, yet. But what if the grooming involves controlling the minds of certain individuals to be put under the control of someone? As the former soldier tries to figure things out, it turns out that the power play is way out of his league.
Watch this version to see why it’s in our list of best psychological thrillers. It’s truly an edge-of-your-seat story!
8. The Talented Mr. Ripley
If your greatest talents are impersonating people, forging their signatures, and obsessive social climbing, then there’s something psychologically wrong with you. What more if these so-called talents lead to murder? This is basically the premise of the highly interesting novel-turned-film called The Talented Mr. Ripley.
The 1999 film stars Matt Damon in the titular role. When he chances upon an opportunity to tag along the rich and the famous, he does. But once there, within their circles, his lies and pretensions may not work well for him in certain circumstances.
This impressively written film is on our list of best psychological thrillers because it’s interesting to see just how far this kind of character would go in life. You would try to look for a moral compass that drives him in life, but there’s something off in that compass as well if you get to the bottom of things with him.
9. Gone Girl
What if the love of your life suddenly disappears, only to track a web of cover-ups and lies? This is primarily what Gone Girl is all about.
In this film, the story is such a well-written narrative that you sometimes don’t know who to root for. So yes, it messes with your mind a bit as it unravels. And that’s the main reason why it’s in our list of best psychological thrillers. So this novel-turned-film is indeed a gem of the subgenre.
The story is about a writer-teacher named Nick, whose wife Amy suddenly disappeared from their home one day. Since she’s a known author of children’s books, her disappearance gains national attention and coverage. But later on, many clues are unraveled by the law, which leads us to believe that Nick may have had a hand on the disappearance. So this is primarily a whodunit with a who-did-who kind of narrative. That’s why it’s interesting to watch, from start to finish.
10. Shutter Island
Another Martin Scorsese film finds its way in this list of best psychological thrillers. And rightfully so, for the story itself bears unpacking in the most psychologically thrilling way, ever.
The 2010 film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a US Marshal investigating the disappearance of an inmate in a very tightly secured mental institution. Since the institution is located in a remote island, it was impossible for the escape to have happened. But there are a lot of clues there, waiting to be discovered, while the US Marshal investigates closely.
However, as he gets deeper in his investigation, there are more questions to be answered, and there are less answers to be found. And this is why the film earns its spot in our list – the film will also make you question which reality is real, and which is not.