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Silence of the Lambs, best 90s movies
Photograph: MGM

The best psychological thrillers

From ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ to ‘Mulholland Drive’, we picked the most mind-blowing psychological thrillers of all time

By Time Out Film
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What differentiates a regular thriller from a psychological thriller? Not much, actually. Rather, the former is a broad genre in which the latter resides. See it, then, as a sub-genre, one that, instead of action or tension, hinges on the psychological disposition of its characters. In these films, the mental state of the characters sways like a ship in a storm, be it through unreliable narration, the distortion of reality or existentialism.

With movies like ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, it’s the psychopathy of the characters, as well as Dr Lecter’s psychological manipulation, that provide the thrills, whereas Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ relies on more traditional plot twists. Movies such as ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Open Your Eyes’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’, meanwhile, are more focused on the distortion of reality and questions of existence.

With this in mind, we dived into our psyches and swam around the darkest corners of our minds to pick some of the most chilling and discombobulating films. So, in no particular order, here are our picks of the best psychological thrillers of all time.

RECOMMENDED: The best thriller films

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Film Thrillers

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.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Kiss Me Deadly’

M (1931)

Film Drama

Several real-life child murderers, cannibals and serial killers – their nicknames are grisly enough: the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Düsseldorf – terrorised Germany in the 1920s. Berlin’s most moneyed and celebrated director, Fritz Lang, was drawn to the subject, which would become the spine of his first sound film, in many ways the commercial birth of the modern psychothriller.

Buy, rent or watch ‘M’

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Les Diaboliques (1955)

Film Thrillers

A creepy boarding school, a monstrous headmaster, his quietly fed-up wife, another disgruntled lover – thrillers rarely come better stocked for suspense. France’s own Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, subversively teams up the timid spouse (Véra Clouzot, the director's wife, playing a plain Jane in braids) with the hedonistic mistress (Simone Signoret, sporting a contrastingly provocative look) for a vengeful murder scheme against their common enemy. The result is a truly scary thriller that influenced ‘Psycho’.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Les Diaboliques’

Vertigo (1958)

Film Thrillers

Often regarded as cinema’s greatest achievement, ‘Vertigo’ presents the peak of Hitchcock’s psychosexual fixations in gloriously shot Technicolor. Playing Judy Barton – or is it Madeleine Elster? – Kim Novak personifies twisty femininity. Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, an ex-detective increasingly consumed by her, is a perfect subversion of the actor’s wholesome image.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Vertigo’

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Taxi Driver (1976)

Film Drama

One of the most iconic films of the ’70s is also one of the most thrilling: Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran turned cabbie who battles inner demons, is one of the defining portrayals of fractured masculinity. Scorsese brilliantly showcases a troubled mind in a way that makes the audience hold its breath.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Taxi Driver’

Zodiac (2007)

Film Drama

David Fincher’s deep dive into the enigmatic Zodiac Killer might move in a leisurely fashion, but its slow pace only heightens the unravelling of both the film’s journalist protagonists and the investigation into some of America’s most infamous unsolved crimes. In the end, one is left feeling that the compulsions to solve crimes and solves life’s puzzles, no matter how grim they are, are essentially fruitless.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Zodiac’

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Mulholland Drive (2001)

Film Drama

A sexy masterpiece of deeply unsettling mystery, David Lynch’s nonlinear neo-noir is a dusky, discursive thriller as glamorous and slippery as the city it celebrates. It is endlessly fascinating, and certainly one of his most enduring voyages into dream logic. Two female archetypes – blonde Betty (Naomi Watts) and brunette Rita (Laura Harring) – become inextricably linked as they navigate the glittering cinematic surface and the criminal underbelly of LA, encountering budding director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) en route. It’s a journey that ultimately leads us to question the very nature of identity and reality.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Mulholland Drive’

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Film Thrillers

In the early 1950s amid America’s growing panic surrounding Soviet domination, Hollywood was facing its own Communist backlash. The McCarthy hearings highlighted that filmmakers had just as much to fear from their own government as they did from a looming and shady foreign power. It makes sense that the movies produced during and after this time would reflect that, and indeed ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is the clearest expression of that anxiety. Even now, it remains a nightmarish tale of high-level subterfuge, mental manipulation and the futility of one man’s rebellion against an ingrained social system.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

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The Conversation (1974)

Film

Francis Ford Coppola makes art out of paranoia in this tense mystery starring Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who becomes obsessed with a recording that ultimately wreaks havoc. The thrills come from the puzzle of figuring out what we’re listening to – and who might be listening to us. It’s a perfect tale for the Nixon era, and all too relevant today.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Conversation’

Blue Velvet (1986)

Film Thrillers

Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper and Laura Dern star in this suburban nightmare. It’s a haunted cruise into a netherworld of desperate damsels, corrupt cops, underworld crooners and well-dressed fuckin’ men. Director David Lynch creates a visually stunning, convincingly coherent portrait of a monstrous substratum to conventional, respectable society. Impossible to describe, harder still to fully comprehend, it’s more nightmare than film.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Blue Velvet’

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Blow-Up (1966)

Film

Languid arthouse-r Michelangelo Antonioni is hardly the first name you think of in the ‘thrillers’ genre. But where other filmmakers hit all the genre beats – the girl(s), the gun, the crime – the Italian skips anything so prosaic to weave a hypnotic portrayal of the dark side of Swinging Sixties London. If you find Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’ a bit less than rigorous in solving its own central mystery, lower your expectations. If not, double-bill it with Brian De Palma’s loose homage ‘Blow Out’ for an extra serve of sensory paranoia.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Blow-Up’

The Vanishing (1988)

Film

On top of a list of brilliantly twisted European thrillers that got really bad Hollywood remakes (‘Diabolique’, ‘Open Your Eyes’, etc.), you’d find George Sluizer’s tar-black study of obsession and evil most ordinary. It follows Dutchman Rex (Gene Bervoets) as he tries to uncover the fate of his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), who disappeared from a rest-stop service station years earlier. The ending is a jawdropper.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Vanishing’

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Notorious (1946)

Film Thrillers

Hitchcock’s wartime thriller pairs Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in a tale of intrigue and double-dealing. It’s set in Rio but you won’t find gorgeous shots of Sugarloaf Mountain here, only opulent interiors that feel like they’re closing in as the stakes crank up. Don’t expect the suave Grant of ‘North By Northwest’ et al; his US government agent is, frankly, a bit of a cad, leaving Bergman in mortal peril as Nazi suspicions slowly fall on her.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Notorious’

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Film Thrillers

Hitchcock rated this blackly comic suburban thriller as one of his very best, and who are we to argue? He embroiders it with little details: blink-and-you’ll-miss-it evidence that builds up to a portrait of breathtaking sociopathy in the lady-killing Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). To his teenage niece – the young, bored, yearning-to-be-elsewhere Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton (Teresa Wright) – his visit is a welcome diversion. At least until she realises that he’s actually a cold-blooded murderer.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

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The Grifters (1990)

Film Thrillers

Novelist Jim Thompson was a genius of hardboiled crime fiction: his books are lean and gripping, generally following a rugged, amoral, none-too-bright hero as he’s messed with by a sharp-witted woman with a lust for cash. This Martin Scorsese-produced, Stephen Frears-directed black comedy is one of the strongest adaptations of his work. John Cusack plays the lunk in question, a con-man who thinks he can get one over on his own mother, played with delicious savagery by Anjelica Huston. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite pan out.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Grifters’

Caché (2005)

Film Drama

‘Funny Games’ director Michael Haneke understands the hidden guilt of the blissful bourgeois, tormented by outside forces – in this case, an unknown stalker with a camera. Among the auteur’s masterpieces, this Juliette Binoche-starrer agitates through its meticulously concealed anxiety, culminating in a political statement on the contemporary residues of historical violence and racism.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Caché’

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Knife in the Water (1962)

Film

He’s a deeply polarising figure now but there was a time when Roman Polanski was best known for his mastery of taut yet tangled thrillers. This Oscar-nominated 1962 effort, filmed in his native tongue and shot in Poland’s lake district of Masuria, is a three-hander that bristles with static. It’s an exercise in pared-back tension building: a young man is invited into a couple’s sailing excursion and… well, nothing good happens. It’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with more knives and jostling male egos.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Knife in the Water’

Blow Out (1981)

Film Thrillers

Brian De Palma’s reworking of the ’60s thinker ‘Blow-Up’ is a superbly stylised tale of paranoia, featuring John Travolta as a movie sound-effects technician who believes he’s captured a political assassination in his recordings. The film is bolstered by a number of high-strung set pieces; its combination of slasher-flick imagery, political intrigue and tragedy is intoxicating.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Blow Out’

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Black Swan (2010)

Film Thrillers

The dramatic world of ballet is fertile ground for an exploration of professional jealousy and obsession. Darren Aronofsky’s lurid psychological horror film delves into the compellingly creepy idea of doppelgangers, via committed performances from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who push the backstage maneuvering to dizzying extremes.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Black Swan’

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Film Drama

Rita Hayworth practically ties Orson Welles’s loosely-accented Oirish sailor in knots in this masterful film noir. The pair’s real-life relationship was coming apart at the seams during filming, but their on-screen chemistry positively sizzles in a giddily boisterous narrative that wraps murder, double-crossing and the odd red herring in its clammy embrace. The hall of mirrors finale has inspired everything from ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ to ‘MacGyver’. You can’t say that for ‘Citizen Kane’.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Lady from Shanghai’

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Memento (2000)

Film Drama

Huge props should be given to writer and director Christopher Nolan for making a film that not only straddles grief, loss, memory and an edge-of-your seat intensity, but which also centres around a mystery so complex that it feels almost impenetrable. Told in non-linear patches, the film follows amnesiac Leonard Shelby, played expertly by Guy Pearce, as he tries to avenge the the murder of his wife. It is, of course, not that simple, but what is clear through the narrative snippets is just how much our actions and identities are shaped by perceptions and memory.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Momento’

Funny Games (1997)

Film Drama

Continuing the fascination with violence and its representation evident in his earlier films, Haneke's movie may be shocking, but it's also entirely serious. A couple and their young son arrive at their lakeside holiday home, only to have it invaded by two strange, ultra-polite young men who turn out to be sadistic, homicidal psychopaths. No facile explanations are offered for the killers' behaviour; rather, through their regular asides to the camera, and by occasionally disrupting the otherwise 'realist' narrative, Haneke explores both the emotional and physical effects of violence, and interrogates our own motives in consuming violent stories. Amazingly, very little violence is actually seen; we hear its perpetration and witness its aftermath, which (though no less disturbing) is absolutely crucial to the responsible treatment of such a horrific subject. Brilliant, radical, provocative, it's a masterpiece that is at times barely watchable.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Funny Games’

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Gaslight (1944)

Film

Before gaslighting became a thing, it was a film – actually, it was two films. The first is a British effort from 1940 about a woman being slowly robbed of her sanity by her controlling husband. The best of them, though, is George Cukor’s 1944 thriller that spins Patrick Hamilton’s play into the template Donald Trump and others would later perfect IRL. In a meta move, the Hollywood studio behind Cukor’s film, MGM, tried to destroy the negative of the earlier version. Might have been easier persuading people it didn’t exist, eh?

Buy, rent or watch ‘Gaslight’

Seven (1995)

Film Drama

David Fincher’s serial-killer thriller isn’t afraid of stereotypes; from the mismatched cops to the overly intelligent psychopath, the film ticks all manner of boxes. But then Fincher creates an atmospheric and claustrophobic world, a rainy urban hellscape, that shocks these tropes with a revitalising buzz of electricity. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script contrasts theoretical bookishness with impulsive action that builds until film’s horrifying final few moments, which leave you in a moral quandary that perhaps has no answer.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Seven’

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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Film Thrillers

Jonathan Demme’s taut serial-killer procedural, based on the novel by Thomas Harris, borders on Grand Guignol horror. Jodie Foster, blending strength and vulnerability, stars as FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who is sent to interview the cannibalistic Dr Hannibal Lecter, embodied chillingly by Anthony Hopkins, in a maximum-security facility so that he might shed light on a string of abductions and murders by the elusive Buffalo Bill. Featuring exceptional cross-cutting leading up to its grand finale (a twisty reveal sends shivers down your spine), Lambs is one of the greatest thrillers of all time, and set an unbeatable benchmark for serial-killer movies.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

Get Out (2017)

Film Horror

Its writer-director, Jordan Peele, calls it a ‘social thriller’, but such are the head-spinning manipulations in its often-twisting plot (of Daniel Kaluuya’s central character – and the audience), you could also easily file ‘Get Out’ under psychological thriller too. In it, Kaluuya plays a photographer who accompanies his girlfriend to her cringingly liberal parents’ house for one of the least satisfactory weekend breaks committed to screen. 

Buy, rent or watch ‘Get Out’

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Stranger by the Lake (2014)

Film Drama

Putting the, erm, ‘cock’ into Hitchcockian, this sexually explicit homage to the Master comes filtered through the elegant prism of French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie. It’s an atmospheric murder-mystery set at a gay cruising spot by a sunkissed lake. On the surrounding hills, strangers get hot and heavy; below them, a man is drowned. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) witnesses the crime and quickly finds himself drawn into a nerve-shredding game of cat and mouse with the perpetrator.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Stranger by the Lake’

Open Your Eyes (1997)

Film Thrillers

This Spanish film was remade in Hollywood as ‘Vanilla Sky’, one of Tom Cruise’s artier projects best known for its breathtaking shot of a deserted Times Square. The original, by Alejandro Amenábar, doesn’t have that money shot but it does a much better job of knitting its existential narrative into a persuasive thriller about a wealthy young man attempting to piece his life back together after a terrible accident. If you love Penélope Cruz, good news: she’s in both.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Open Your Eyes’

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Fatal Attraction (1987)

Film

Glenn Close stars in this controversial thriller about a stalking ex-mistress that kicked off a whole slew of single-white-female thrillers. Close plays Alex, an editor at a publishing company, who, after an affair with the successful Dan, played by Michael Douglas, becomes obsessed and begins to stalk him and his family. After the unfortunate death of a rabbit – giving us the term ‘bunny boiler’ in the process – things come to a bloody conclusion.‘Fatal Attraction’ might not get made today, especially because of wised up discussions about mental health and misogyny, but it’ll still put the blinkers on any extra-marital activity you might be planning.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Fatal Attraction’

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Film Thrillers

This re-released B&W melodramatic thriller gave the muscular director Robert Aldrich a big hit on release in 1962 and has enjoyed warm admiration ever since as a camp classic. Part of its appeal was casting the explosive mixture of ageing stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as the co-dependent/murderously antagonistic ex-starlet sisters; ex-child star Jane (Davis), maddened by sororial jealousy and alcoholism, and the threatened Blanche, who eclipsed her, now bound by a wheelchair and a staircase-filled house.Reviewed nowadays, the Guignol/Gothic elements impress less (the eerie use of sound and cinematographer Ernest Heller’s clever expressionist touches notwithstanding) than the wry Billy Wilder-esque cynicism Aldrich applies to its ‘Hollywood on Hollywood’ portrait and his use of sturdy Hitchcockian techniques to strengthen and punctuate the film’s neurotic hot-house melodramatics. Though far from Aldrich’s best, it still makes for an amusing and enjoyable romp, with Davis’s schizophrenic ravings deepened by the poignant awareness the director shows of loss, ageing and faded glory.

Buy, rent or watch ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’

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Donnie Darko
Photograph: Newmarket Films

Donnie Darko (2002)

Film Drama

Even all these years later, describing the plot of ‘Donnie Darko’ is not easy, or perhaps even possible. However, the ambiguity about what is actually going on doesn’t detract from the film’s chilling Lynchian colour palette, creepy appearances of a giant rabbit called Frank and commentary on teen isolation and mental health. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an intense and menacing performance as the titular character, all brooding and enigmatic, matching the ominous tone of the film. While the themes of time travel alternate universes and quantum physics will still blow your mind.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Donnie Darko’

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