13 Scary Psychological Thrillers
Article By: Tony Timpone
During the ’80s slasher boom, many horror filmmakers, not wishing to be corralled with that often-maligned slice ’n’ dice subgenre, labeled their own movies “psychological thrillers.” Numerous times, these were just cases of wolves hiding in sheep’s clothing. But then there also exists the legitimate psychological thriller, movies that use more traditional elements of suspense and mystery to tell stories of obsession, madness and splintered mental states.
Abstaining from the supernatural, fantastic and overly Gothic and avoiding high body counts, the psychological thrillers catalogued on today’s The Friday 13 probe the literal demons of the mind that sometimes lead to tragic consequences. (List arranged according to year of film’s release.)
1. Diabolique (1955)
Running with a novel from Vertigo co-author Pierre Boileau, director Henri-Georges (The Wages of Fear) Clouzot (dubbed the “French Hitchcock”) fashioned this much-imitated suspense classic. An abusive headmaster (Paul Meurisse) mistreats both his wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret) in equal measure, so the two ladies decide to drug and drown the heel in the bathtub. After dumping his corpse in the pool, no trace of the body is later found. Is that his ghost seen traipsing around the estate grounds or did the man somehow survive the murder attempt? Maybe a pre-Columbo police inspector can get to the bottom of the disappearance—or will the femme conspirators mentally unravel before the end? Diabolique’s surprise-filled final act still stands as one of the great nail-biter’s of all time.
2. Vertigo (1958)
James Stewart stars as a detective with a fear of heights who accepts the job of tailing his friend’s mysterious (and beautiful) wife (Kim Novak). The distressed woman claims to be possessed by an ancestor who committed suicide. When Novak decides to take a fatal plunge from a church tower, the vertigo-stricken and love-smitten Stewart can’t save her. While recovering from a mental breakdown, Stewart meets her lookalike and obsessively molds the new flame into the image of the dead one… So plays out inarguably the most psychologically compelling Alfred Hitchcock picture ever, bolstered by emotional performances by its leads, colorful San Francisco locations and a hypnotic score by Psycho’s Bernard Herrmann. After your first viewing of Vertigo you will become just as obsessed as Stewart’s character and want to watch this amazing film (voted the best movie of all time by Sight & Sound) over and over again.
3. Repulsion (1965)
Polish director Roman Polanski’s answer to Hitchock’s Psycho also follows the violent decline of a lonely, anxious person plagued by severe mental issues. The striking Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol, a painfully shy immigrant living in a London flat with her sister. She’s also sexually frigid, depressed and prone to upsetting hallucinations. When sis goes on holiday, friendless Carol slips off the deep end and undergoes a schizophrenic break, murdering any man unlucky enough to walk through her door. We spend most of Repulsion watching the troubled woman’s nightmares take hold of her fragile psyche as budding genius Polanski inflames our apprehension.
4. Play Misty for Me (1971)
Clint Eastwood made his directorial debut on this suspense sleeper, about a twisted fan (Jessica Walter) who stalks her favorite deejay (Eastwood). A few cans short of a six pack, the woman slowly ingratiates herself into the jazz-spinner’s life: first with her frequent call-in requests to put the record “Misty” on the turntable, then she hooks-up with the smooth talker at a local bar. But a casual fling soon develops into queasy obsession, and Walter commences to menace the man and his girlfriend. First-timer Eastwood, comfortable shooting in his scenic adopted hometown of Carmel, displays a sure hand behind the camera and knows how to build tension here. Walter does loony well, enough to convince us that she could be a formidable danger to a tough-guy like Eastwood. Thanks to endless tabloid reports of celebrity stalkings, Play Misty for Me remains relevant. The similarly-themed hit Fatal Attraction lifted much of the Misty plot 16 years later, though Eastwood didn’t need a boiled bunny to get us jumping.
5. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Mourning the death of their young daughter, unhappy British couple Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland head to Venice, where Sutherland accepts a job as an art restorer. Encounters with an elderly psychic woman provide dire warnings, while Sutherland starts having psychic visions of his own, involving his death and his little girl wandering the dank Venetian streets. Adapting a story by Daphne Du Maurier (Hitchcock favorite of Rebecca and The Birds notoriety), director Nicolas Roeg crafts a tale of slow-building psychological terror as Sutherland questions his sanity in a city where every corner casts an ominous shadow. You won’t be able to shake the jaw-dropper of an ending. Punk band Big Audio Dynamite referenced the film with their hit song “E=MC2.”
6. With a Friend Like Harry… (2000)
Another tale of obsession and murder, this black comedic thriller starts out innocently enough. Frustrated writer Michel (Laurent Lucas) and his family (wife and three bratty daughters) run into one of Michel’s old high school friends, Harry (Sergi Lopez of Pan’s Labyrinth). Strangely, Michel remembers little of Harry, but Harry recalls everything about Michel. The insistent Harry ingratiates himself into Michel’s life with lavish gifts and career advice, but things take a fiendish turn when Michel’s relatives begin turning up dead! Is Harry Michel’s dark id personified or just another unhinged psychopath? Director Dominik Moll keeps us guessing as he tightens the screws. The terrific Lopez won the French equivalent of the Oscar for his cunning contribution here.
7. One Hour Photo (2002)
Late funnyman Robin Williams relished playing an understated villain in this subtle thriller. He’s “Sy, the Photo Guy,” who works the one-hour photo counter at a chain store. The lonely man becomes fixated on the Yorkin family after snooping into their suburban lives while developing their film cartridges. He certainly doesn’t like cheating husband Michael Vartan very much, but will go to huge lengths to win the sympathies of wife Connie Nielsen and son. Director Mark Romanek, a music video guy, avoids the exploitation approach and eschews any unnecessary bloodletting, instead focusing on the humanity of the fanatical Sy. Williams underplays the role perfectly; despite Sy’s simmering psychosis, we feel sympathy for this isolated, withdrawn and potentially violent character.
8. The Machinist (2004)
A year before he bulked up to play Batman, Welsh actor Christian Bale lost an astounding 63 pounds to take on the titular role in this very dark thriller. He’s Trevor Reznik, an emaciated shell of a man who has not slept in a year. He suffers from paranoia and hallucinations, convinced that someone’s out to get him, like his wary co-workers at the factory. Screenwriter Scott Kosar (who penned the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) and director Brad (Session 9) Anderson keep the film rooted in the writings of Fyodor (Crime and Punishment) Dostoyevsky and movies of Hitchcock, as we pensively wait for the big reveal of the cause of Reznik’s crippling insomnia.
9. Black Swan (2010)
Speaking of dedicated performers, actress Natalie Portman shed 20 pounds and trained (on her own dime) for a year to play the unbalanced ballerina in this critically-praised film by Darren Aronofsky. Portman portrays Nina Sayers, a neophyte dancer with Mommy issues who’s up for the lead in Swan Lake. The part will have her inhabiting light and dark personas of the same character, and as a consequence her real life likewise splits in two. As things become more competitive with her rival (Mila Kunis) and while enduring the abuse of a manipulative director (Vincent Cassel), Nina loses her grip on reality in compelling fashion. Portman took home an Oscar for her stunning descent into oblivion.
10. Shutter Island (2010)
The closest director Martin Scorsese ever came to helming a Gothic horror movie would be this Leonardo DiCaprio smash, which pays homage to the atmospheric Val Lewton and Hammer pictures that the filmmaker grew up with. Based on the Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane novel, the period piece spotlights DiCaprio as 1950s federal marshal Teddy Daniels, tasked with investigating the disappearance of a murderess at an isolated insane asylum, sort of an Alcatraz for lunatics. None of the characters, from the doctors to the inmates to the nightmares-plagued Daniels himself, seem to be who we think they are. The terror escalates when a hurricane knocks out power and communication with the mainland. The edgy performances by Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas keep us guessing as well as to who’s who, though many will see the twist ending coming.
11. Sleep Tight (2011)
[REC] co-creator Jaume Balagueró piloted this unsettling suspenser from Spain. César (an intense Luis Tosar) toils as the concierge/doorman at a fancy apartment building. He greets all the tenants with a warm smile and helping hand, but in actuality he is a solitary and profoundly unhappy man. His secret mission: to spread his discontent to all those around him. The sicko has the keys to everyone’s room, and he soon targets the perpetually cheerful Clara (Marta Etura). At night César slips into her flat, drugs her, messes with her makeup and plants roach eggs. Tension and terror further escalate with the arrival of Clara’s boyfriend and the blackmailing plot by the bad seed down the hall. You won’t sleep tight after seeing this unsettling movie; it gets under your skin from the first frames and won’t let go until its unexpected finish.
12. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
A recent success on the festival and repertory circuit, this German film subtly builds to a crescendo of insanity and horror. The less said about its storyline—written and directed by the Austrian duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz—the better to preserve its unforeseen revelations. Twin boys Lukas and Elias (played by same-named Lukas and Elias Schwarz) suspect that the woman (Susanne Wuest) who returns to their cottage home after a hospital stay is not their mother. With her face covered in bandages from a comprehensive plastic surgery, how could anyone tell? But something’s quite not right here, and by the end you will be gasping in astonishment.
13. The Gift (2015)
The conveniently buried past rears its head to mess with an upwardly-mobile couple in this low-key thriller from the Blumhouse fright factory (Insidious, Sinister, The Purge). After Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) bump into Simon’s awkward high school “friend” Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed), the man worms his way into their perfect lives with unwanted presents and unwelcome visits. Though Simon doesn’t remember the socially maladjusted guy initially, we eventually learn they share a disturbing history. And the chickens have come home to roost… To its credit, The Gift doesn’t descend into late-inning bloodletting, but instead deals in the psychological trauma wreaked by bullying and the ultimate payback for such childhood transgressions.
We can suggest a few more psychological thrillers that warn us of the human monsters next door or within us—Fatal Attraction (1987), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Single White Female (1992), Chasing Sleep (2000), Fear X (2003), Hard Candy (2005) and The Invitation (2015). Rate these and others on our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13.
Tony Timpone serves as head programmer and emcee of Los Angeles’ Monsterpalooza conventions.