Film noir’s most unsettling nightmare ends in a flaming nuclear disaster – and if that anxiety weren’t enough, there’s also off-screen torture, ferocious desk-clerk slapping and the casual destruction of a beloved opera record. Robert Aldrich’s perverse masterpiece brings Mickey Spillane’s vicious Mike Hammer (a grinning Ralph Meeker) to life: a vain bottom-feeder prone to using his fists. He’s the sourest of antiheroes. Los Angeles has made him that way.
What exactly determines a ‘psychological’ thriller? In the simplest terms, it has to do with the mind. In the greatest examples, it’s the mental disposition of its characters that pushes the narrative. It’s a subgenre that plays on elemental fears, traumas and delusions to burrow under the viewer’s skin. As one particularly disturbed young man once said, we all go a little mad sometimes, and that’s what makes psychological thrillers so relatable – and frightening.
To put together this list of the best psychological thrillers ever made, we ventured into some of the darkest corners in cinema. Some films are anxiety-inducing, others more atmospheric and meditative. Some are fun and twisty, others simply twisted. All of them are likely to leave you feeling out of sorts – and maybe in need of a shower afterward.