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Don’t lose your mind...it’s only a movie! Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Psychological Thrillers.
For this list, we’re taking a look at the most suspenseful, dramatic and emotionally draining films in the psychological thriller genre. We’ll be trying to steer this list away from pure psychological horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby, however, as those deserve their own list. Oh, and considering that we just might be getting into the roots of why these films are so troubling, a spoiler alert is probably in order!
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#10: “Insomnia” (1997)
Although many movie fans might be more familiar with Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake, this psychological thriller was originally brought to us back in 1997 by Norwegian-born director Erik Skjoldbjaerg. The film follows a Swedish cop played by Stellan Skarsgard, who visits a Norwegian town with up to 24 hours of daylight, while on the hunt for a murderer who always seems to be one step ahead. The lack of sleep makes it difficult for Skarsgard’s character to retain his sanity for much of his investigation, causing the police inspector to make one very costly mistake. No matter which version you are lucky enough to watch, Insomnia is still a nail-biting thriller.
#9: “The Machinist” (2004)
Christian Bale earned notable praise and awards for his portrayal of a troubled industrial worker whose sleep deprivation and resulting rapid weight loss results in hallucinations, paranoia and near insanity. It’s startling how dramatic Bale’s physical form changes almost before our eyes in The Machinist, due to the actor’s frightening commitment to the role. Bale’s character Trevor Reznik eventually takes on the appearance of a walking corpse, developing sores and lesions on his body, in addition to the emaciation. The Machinist may not know if he’s awake or asleep, but the audience is certain of how uncomfortable and creepy this film truly is.
#8: “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990)
Personal loss, post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorder all afflict the troubled lead character of director Adrian Lyne’s disturbing film, played with tragic conviction by Tim Robbins. The titular Jacob seems to have developed multiple personalities after suffering the loss of his child, not to mention the after-effects of serving in the Vietnam War, and goes through much of the movie wondering exactly what is real and what isn’t, as all of his neuroses reach a boiling point. It’s a film that remains thought provoking and frightening to this day.
#7: “Funny Games” (1997)
This is the second film on our list to’ve been remade, with the original 1997 version of Funny Games seeing an updated version starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts only a decade later. Both films follow a family who is tormented by a duo of disturbed young men while on vacation in a remote house by a lake. Abuse, humiliation and violence are only some of the agonies the family suffers through during their ordeal. The thugs even break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, manipulating the film’s narrative in a manner that parallels our own perverse obsession with violence and the media.
#6: “American Psycho” (2000)
Author Bret Easton Ellis published the source material novel for this film back in 1991, detailing the life of a psychotic businessman and serial killer by the name of Patrick Bateman. Christian Bale appears for the second time on our list in the titular role, delivering a performance that earned the actor both critical and commercial praise in what many agree is one of his greatest roles. The film’s murder set pieces are often punctuated by Bateman’s appraisal of 80s pop music, while in later scenes he delivers dialogue so brutal and biting that it somehow makes this violent and satirical movie-watching experience perversely quote-able.
#5: “Se7en” (1995)
If you’re seeking the roots of director David Fincher’s affinity for the psychological thriller explored in such films as The Game and Gone Girl, then look no further than his 1995 masterpiece. This rough and gritty police procedural follows two detectives on the hunt for a deranged serial killer who is using the Seven Deadly Sins as inspiration for his slayings. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play the rookie and veteran detectives respectively, and both deliver great performances as the corpses begin piling up, thanks to the psychopath’s imaginative handiwork. Sloth, Lust, Pride... Se7en does not hesitate to reflect humanity’s darkest desires back at us, in all of their grim reality.
#4: “Memento” (2000)
Christopher Nolan is back again messing with our heads with his marvelous mind-melting experience simply known as Memento. Guy Pearce plays a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia after the murder of his wife. Pearce’s character Leonard is then forced to permanently tattoo key phrases about his life onto his skin in order to piece together the mystery, while at the same time coming to terms with his innermost secrets. The film is best enjoyed through multiple viewings, as that way, we can get a firmer grasp on Nolan’s complex, yet satisfying noir-inspired tale of identity.
#3: “Black Swan” (2010)
Obsession and perfection are just two of the themes which rear their heads here in director Darren Aronofsky’s troubling tale of a beautiful, but mentally fragile dancer who is determined to be cast in the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Nina Sayers is magnetic as we follow her relationships with her sexually aggressive instructor, her emotionally abusive mother and a devious understudy. Aronofsky’s combination of gorgeous cinematography, A-list acting and legitimately cringe-worthy frights make this a psychological thriller for the ages.
#2: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Audiences may have first danced with Brian Cox as the devilish Doctor Hannibal Lecter in 1986 with Michael Mann’s masterpiece Manhunter, but it was Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the brilliant but deranged Lecter that remains in fans’ minds. Director Jonathan Demme struck gold when he helmed 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, a story of rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling and her search for the disturbed serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Cox and Hopkins both play Lecter with the expected levels of class and wit, but it’s the latter’s iconic declaration of his preferred dinner accompaniment that truly gave audiences chills.
Before we unveil our most psychologically damaging film, here are a few thrilling honorable mentions!
- Shutter Island (2010)
- Shattered (1991)
- Taxi Driver (1976)
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
- Dead Ringers (1988)
- Misery (1990)
#1: “Vertigo” (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock was known as “The Master of Suspense,” and delivered on this title time and time again with a bevy of cinematic classics. Before Hitchcock graced us with the presence of one Norman Bates in Psycho, however, he first told us the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco detective with a crippling fear of heights, and a mysterious woman who may not be all she seems. In 2012, Vertigo earned the honor of toppling Citizen Kane as the “Greatest Film of All Time” according to Britain’s distinguished “Sight and Sound” magazine, and with good reason, for this psychological thriller possesses a near perfect amount of character depth and plot twists to keep audiences guessing right until the very end.
Do you agree with our list? Which psychological thriller do you think tortured minds enough to warrant inclusion? For more psychotically awesome top 10 lists published every day, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com!