The wikipedia definition of psychological thriller is “a thriller story which emphasizes the abnormal psychological states of its characters”. As per director John Madden, “psychological thrillers focus on story, character development, choice, and moral conflict; fear and anxiety drive the psychological tension in unpredictable ways.” Of course, psychological thriller is a sub-genre within the broader thriller genre, but there’s no denying that it could be a genre in itself, especially when you take into account its popularity among both the audiences and the filmmakers. Though, psychological thrillers have really found its footing in the 21st century. Here is the list of top psychological thrillers ever. You can watch some of these best psychological thrillers on Amazon Prime or Hulu.
20. Coherence (2013)
‘Coherence’, a story of eight friends at a dinner party experience a troubling chain of reality bending events, is essentially based on a scientific theory referred to as Schrödinger’s cat theory. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. In simple terms, it is the possibility of existence of multiple simultaneous realities at the same time. It is a film that works both as a science fiction and as a great psychological thriller.
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19. The Invitation (2015)
At certain times, “The Invitation” will make you wonder about the sense of the plot and you will question the logics behind the main character’s actions, not to mention his strange and frustrating attitude towards the story. However, there are reasons for these blank holes and although slowly brought to the surface, the film will still manage to keep you loyal because of the piercing tension floating through the air, from beginning to end. It’s strange, mysterious and the feeling that something wicked is going on will linger throughout its 100 minutes. Long story short, it’s about Will and his girlfriend attending a dinner at his ex-wife’s Hollywood home. There will be her new husband, old friends and some past secrets taunting the harmony of the evening. Clever, effective and incredibly teasing.
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18. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Based on a novel of the same name, this masterful adaptation to the screen received large critical acclaim and the reasons for it do not come unnoticed. It centres around Eva dealing with a disturbed, violent and stubborn son named Kevin, who from childhood onwards resists bonding with his mother with his strange and distant behaviour. He is now in prison, for leading a high school massacre. A delicate and difficult subject dealt with an impactful, shocking but very controlled vision, mastered by Tilda Swinton’s astonishing performance that truly empowers the film’s excellence. This blend of dramatic tension and heart-pounding horror makes it a psychological thriller worth the watch, that will leave you talking about Kevin as we were told so from the beginning.
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17. Identity (2003)
There’s a reason why ‘Identity’ despite being thrashed by critics stands today as one of the cult classics. Yes, it is a flawed film, but in its flaws also lies its beauty. It is a story of ten strangers who find themselves stranded at a desolate Nevada motel during a nasty rain-storm and become acquainted with each other when they realize that they’re being killed off one by one. The film plays not just with the minds of its characters but also its viewers .. till the last scene.
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16. The Sixth Sense (1999)
This classic drama by M. Night Shyamalan revolves around Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, who accepts the challenge to treat a young boy that sees dead people. As their relationship evolves, Malcolm Crowe starts to believe that the child is actually seeing ghosts. “The Sixth Sense” not only pays attention to detail but also reflects upon difficult subjects like death, love, commitment, and grief. Furthermore, it has an incredible execution and brilliant performances by Bruce Willies and Haley Joel Osment. It is easy to understand why this movie stayed with so many people upon watching it.
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15. The Prestige (2006)
What best movie to trick your mind and expand it into multiplying paths than this thrilling mystery on rivalling stage magicians? Widely known and often mentioned for its excellence at storytelling and plot twisting, it is officially a crime not to have seen this film by now. After all, it’s been more than 10 years already! With suspense and excitement as its middle name, it follows the performance of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as two 19th Century magicians obsessed with their craft to a, perhaps, unhealthy extent. Gloriously written, divinely directed and beautifully shot, “The Prestige” will never lose its place as one of the best mind-blowing mystery thrillers ever made.
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14. Shutter Island (2010)
All hell breaks loose at the AsheCliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, when they find one of their most dangerous patients to have escaped the premises but hiding somewhere in the hospital. Investigators Teddy and Chuck come on board and start looking for clues on the island. They find everyone to be a suspect. Even Teddy himself. Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller has the viewer caught biting his nail in anticipation.
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13. Prisoners (2013)
Fear has such power over minds that it can paralyze those, like a tarantula does to its prey. Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ effectively explores the fear of unknown, the boundaries of morality, and the dilemmas of human conscience. Let me warn you right away – It’s disturbing and makes you shiver to the marrows. And you wonder, what if it happens to me?
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12. Gone Girl (2014)
Adapted from the novel of the same name, Gone Girl punches above the weight of what’s on paper. With some starkly memorable visuals, haunting score, and a perfect casting, Fincher manages to create something that will linger in your memory long after the credits have rolled. On the face of it ‘Gone Girl’ appears to be a tale of secrets, but actually it’s a tale of trust: How much trust do you have in marriage, and more importantly, how much do you know your partner.
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11. Se7en (1995)
A movie that firmly established David Fincher as a doyen of American Cinema, ‘Se7en’ is one of the finest mystery thrillers ever made. The plot revolves around a couple of detectives trying to nab a psychotic serial killer, who uses the seven deadly sins as a motif for his murders. Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey; it is highly regarded amongst critics for its thematic wealth. It went on to become a cult classic in its own right over the next two decades and was an instant hit as well.
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10. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
One of the great modern thrillers, this Oscar winner is a testament to what an assured direction with an intriguing plot should look like. The main strength of the film is in its moments of silences — and the symbolism around them. Psychological crime dramas usually rely on the tried and tested formula, but this film actually relies on the fragile psychological state of the audience, which in turn is the reason why it’s so compelling.
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9. Funny Games (1997)
This Austrian psychological thriller by Michael Haneke is disturbing beyond description. What makes the film this scary and disturbing is the fact that it is way too relatable by the average viewer. Even if all of us do not own humungous vacation homes or play golf for recreation, we can imagine two people breaking into our homes and holding our family hostage. And that’s what happens in the film. What seems to be a friendly neighborhood introduction turns out to be a kidnapping situation, where the couple and their young child are taken hostage by the two strangers. The reason is obviously unknown. Well, they were both psychos. That’s reason enough. I still remember imagining myself in the situation, as it was just too ummm, plausible. However, another key feature of the film is that at a point, Haneke starts talking to the viewers, reminding them how it is just a film and how helpless we as viewers really are. This is among the best meta moments in meta history. You’ll have to watch the film to truly experience what we want to say.
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8. Oldboy (2003)
‘Oldboy’ deviates from the usual path of the revenge thrillers. Yes, it is violent, but director Park Chan-wook challenges typical uses of explicit violence by using it symbolically in support of his unforgiving narratives. His is a visceral brand of storytelling, told with rich visuals, impassioned functionality, and poetic purpose. He exhausts us emotionally, exposing us to a painful dramatic beating and in turn, ensuring that his film is not just watched but also lived through.
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7. Caché (2005)
Caché in English means hidden, and frankly, there couldn’t have been more apt title for this film, for Hanake is not just playing the hide and seek game with his characters, but the audiences of the film too. In an act of pure genius, Hanake carefully uses still shots where the action may not always be happening at the center of the screen — sometimes, it may not be happening on-screen at all. He lets audiences make inferences and judgements on their own, giving little-to-no help deconstructing the characters and their motives. One of the most challenging pieces of cinema you will ever see.
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6. Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac’ is not your conventional thriller — it is slow-paced and focusses more on mood and characters than plot. It is not a film that will leave you happy when it ends. It is also a film where the bad guy wins, good guys lose. No, I am not criticizing. On the contrary, these are the reasons that make ‘Zodiac’ a modern masterpiece. When a film manages to twitch you for full two-and-a-half hours, and leave you thinking for days, it must have got many things right that the routinely made thrillers don’t. In my opinion, ‘Zodiac’ is Fincher’s best film, where he, with his discipline and range of skills, shows why sometimes “less is more”.
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5. Memento (2000)
‘Memento’, in ways more than one, is a landmark film. It re-shaped the concept of story-telling in cinema. It teased, tested and challenged its viewers like very few films manage to do. Though, the ultimate strength of ‘Memento’ may not actually lie in its jigsaw narration, but rather on how surprisingly affecting it is — a quality that Nolan always tries to bring in all his films, even though with not as much success. ‘Memento’ is also a template of filmmaking that proves big doesn’t always mean better; small can be great too. We only wish, Nolan can come back again to making such intimate, striking pieces of art.
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4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ is the quintessential Hollywood thriller that seamlessly blends all the inherent ingredients of a psychological drama, horror and mystery film and brilliantly manages to create a distinctive cinematic experience. The film tells the story of a young American FBI trainee who seeks help from a cannibalistic psychopath in order to hunt down another serial killer in town. In an iconic film performance, Anthony Hopkins very nearly steals the show with his portrayal of a sadistic psychopath in a film that had him on screen for just over 16 minutes. The film won all the major academy awards in 1991 and is one of the most popular films of the 90s.
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3. Vertigo (1958)
Oh, it’s that man Hitchcock again! Can he ever falter? ‘Vertigo’ is the greatest mystery film ever made. Plain and simple. With a plot that follows an acrophobic detective who is hired to investigate his friend’s wife who has been behaving strangely, the film grabs you right from the start and we are seduced by Hitchcock’s world of murders and mysteries. The film has an ending that is disturbingly haunting and spine-chilling as it continues to be felt, discussed and celebrated as one of the greatest American films ever made and unarguably the finest of the genre.
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2. Rear Window (1954)
Some might argue that ‘Rear Window’ is Hitchcock’s best film. However, I feel that Hitchcock’s greatest works were yet to come. Having said that, I do believe ‘Rear Window’ is one of the genre’s best films and Hitchcock fearlessly explores and prowls around the dark, mysterious secrets hidden deep inside the human psyche. The film follows a photographer who, out of boredom, begins to take pleasure in spying on his neighbors through his window and comes across an attractive, middle-aged woman. The film has had a huge influence on many subsequent suspense/mystery films.
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1. Mulholland Drive (2001)
A film that is discussed even today, around 15 years after its release, ‘Mulholland Drive’, quite simply, offers the greatest cinematic mystery of all time. David Lynch’s best work till date, ‘Mulholland Dr.’ lingers, fascinates and feels like a hypnotic narration of an extended mood opera. It is one of those films which hugely benefits from multiple viewings, when the underlying themes of identity, delusion and the nature of fame become all the more apparent. Featuring one of the all-time great female performances, by Naomi Watts, ‘Mulholland Dr.’ is truly an unforgettable experience.
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