Table of Contents
“Psychological thrillers” constitute a cinematic genre where the story is told through the lens of a mentally disturbed character. The character’s mental state—whether it’s highly stressed, entirely delusional, wracked by guilt, or clouded by amnesia—forms the basis of the film’s dramatic tension. The main character or narrator is always involved in some sort of internal struggle that must be overcome. Fear, anxiety, paranoia, betrayal, and uncertainty fester and develop throughout the film, with death or at least irreversible failure always a looming threat.
Psychological thrillers can be distinguished from mind fuck movies in the sense that while the mind fuck movies may be completely confusing to the viewer, in psychological thrillers, the viewer is usually aware of the plot twists and seeming coincidences that torture the players in the film. In a psychological thriller, the viewer is often aware of things of which the characters in the movie are oblivious—unless, of course, the viewer is listening to an unreliable narrator, which is always a possibility. Sometimes in films such as this, nothing is what it seems to be.
Here is a list of more than 30 of the finest psychological thrillers in cinematic history.
Old Psychological Thrillers
In the first sound film by legendary German Expressionist director Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre portrays Hans Beckert, a child killer and implied pedophile who rains terror throughout Berlin during a string of unprecedented child abductions and slayings. When the local police prove to be too corrupt and inept to find the killer, Berlin’s criminal underworld joins forces to catch him. In the film’s most compelling scene, when Hans is dragged before a kangaroo court in an abandoned warehouse, he begs the assembled thieves and racketeers for mercy because he is ruled by impulses over which he has no control.
This movie is where the now-common term “gaslighting”—trying to convince someone to doubt their natural instincts because they’re crazy—originated. Ingrid Bergman portrays Paula Alquist, the niece of famous opera-singer Alice Alquist, who had been murdered in her London mansion about ten years earlier. While studying opera in Italy, Paula meets and falls in love with Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who marries her and convinces her to move back into the home of her murdered aunt. But Gregory slowly isolates Paula from the outside world. And strange things start happening—pictures show up missing, odd sounds are heard in the night, and the house’s gaslights start dimming without being manually adjusted—that have Gregory slowly convincing Paula that she’s losing her mind. But then a local police constable (Joseph Cotton) becomes suspicious that Gregory might know more about the murder of Paula’s aunt than he admits.
In the first of three Alfred Hitchcock classics on this list, the theme is voyeurism. L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photographer who’s been stuck in a wheelchair for weeks after breaking his leg filming an accident at a racetrack. Amid a sweltering Greenwich Village summer, his only pastime is looking out the rear window of his small apartment and using binoculars to peep on the activities of the other tenants in his apartment complex, who have their windows open due to the excessive heat. His girlfriend (Grace Kelly) enjoys the pastime of snooping on his neighbors along with Jeff until he becomes convinced that his neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife, whom Jeff hasn’t seen for days. Has Jeff actually put together the pieces and solved a murder, or has his isolation and confinement caused him to slowly lose his mind?
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a school principal who is widely despised due to his abusive and domineering nature. He beats his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot), who refuses to divorce him due to her devout Catholicism. But he also beats his lover and mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), one of the teachers at the school. Together the two women plot to kill Michel and take over the school. It’s the perfect crime—or is it? Did the women get revenge on Michel, or is he still alive and messing with their minds?
In an Alfred Hitchcock film that tops many critics’ “Greatest Movies of All Time” lists, James Stewart stars as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who has retired prematurely due to his morbid fear of heights. He is hired by his wealthy college acquaintance Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to track Gavin’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), a beautiful but icy blonde whom Gavin says may be a suicide risk because he fears she’s been possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. Against his better judgment, Scottie falls deeply in love with Madeleine up until the point she disappears. While pining over Madeleine, he then becomes obsessed with a working-class redhead named Judy Barton (also Kim Novak), whom he tries to remodel into the spitting image of Madeleine. All along, Scottie, despite being a detective, is clueless over the fact that Gavin Elster may be exploiting Scottie’s psychological weaknesses for his own sinister purposes.
In what many consider to be the first modern horror film, Janet Leigh portrays Marion Crane, a disgruntled secretary from Phoenix who embezzles a huge chunk of cash from her employer and goes on the run into the dark flatlands of central California. She checks into a creepy motel run by a man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives with his domineering mother in a mansion on the hill next to the motel. But only a third into the movie, Marion Crane gets stabbed to death in a shower in what is perhaps the most iconic scene in film history. The rest of the film focuses on Norman Bates, whose mommy issues are so intense that his obsession leads to one of the best twist endings in cinema.
In South Korea during the years following the Korean War, Mr. Kim is a piano teacher who gives lessons to workers in a local factory. His wife works from home at a sewing machine, but she is pregnant with their third child and needs some help. One of Mr. Kim’s private piano students, Miss Myung-sook, takes the job and comes to live with the family. But she slowly entangles Mr. Kim in her web of seduction and also becomes pregnant with his child, planting the seeds of the Kim family’s utter destruction.
Two legendary Hollywood actresses, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, star in this intensely creepy saga of faded fame and old age. Bette Davis is “Baby Jane” Hudson, who was a former child star during the vaudeville days. Jane was eventually overshadowed by her younger sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), whose fame as a serious actress eclipsed that of Baby Jane in the 1930s. But Blanche’s career was cut short during a car accident that was likely caused by Baby Jane’s alcoholism, rendering Blanche confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Seething with resentment toward her younger sister, Baby Jane becomes Blanche’s sadistic “caregiver,” cutting her off from all outside communication and cruelly torturing her while Baby Jane plans a possibly doomed Hollywood comeback.
In a role that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s all-time finest actors, Robert De Niro stars as Travis Bickle, a lonely and maladjusted ex-Marine and Vietnam War vet who takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City to deal with his insomnia. He focuses his romantic attention on a pretty young presidential-campaign assistant named Betty (Cybill Shepherd), but Travis is so socially inept that he sees nothing wrong with taking her to see a hardcore porno movie on their first date. When Betty rejects him romantically, Travis is crushed. He also suffers a mental breakdown which convinces him that he is a noble warrior who must “wash all the scum off the streets.” He befriends an underage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) and makes it his mission to rescue her from Manhattan’s seedy decadence—no matter how much blood he has to spill.
In director Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, James Caan portrays romance novelist Paul Sheldon, whose most famous fictional character is a woman named Misery Chastaine. Driving back to New York after finishing his latest novel in a Colorado lodge, he gets injured in an accident during a blizzard. When he wakes up, he’s being cared for by a nurse named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, who won a Best Actress Oscar) who has taken him back to her house. She proudly tells Paul that she’s his “number one fan” but becomes enraged when she realizes he’s killed off the Misery character in his latest novel. She also makes it impossible for Paul to escape in a brutal scene where she “hobbles” him by taking a sledgehammer to his legs. As he struggles to survive, Paul is forced to face the dark side of fame.
In one of only three movies in film history to win the “Big 5” Oscars—Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay—Jodie Foster portrays FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who has humble roots in West Virginia but seeks to advance into the upper echelons of federal law enforcement. Assigned to solve the case of a sadistic serial killer the press has dubbed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), Starling is sent to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant ex-psychiatrist and convicted serial killer. Upon their first meeting, Clarice realizes that Lecter is a master of psychological manipulation, and if she wants to solve the case, she must make herself vulnerable to Lecter’s terrifying powers of persuasion.
In one of his most disturbing roles ever, Robert De Niro stars as Max Cady, a sadistic rapist who’s recently been released from prison after serving 14 years for the rape of a young girl. But Max has been seething with anger the entire time because he feels his public defender Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) withheld crucial evidence that could have exonerated Max. With chiseled muscles and a burning hatred, Max sets about to terrorize Sam and his family. This 1991 Martin Scorsese film is a remake of the 1962 classic starring Robert Mitchum as Max Cady and Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden.
Jaded detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has seen it all and is ready to retire. Rookie detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) has all of the enthusiasm and lack of experience necessary not to be as jaded as his partner Somerset. When the two of them are assigned to solve the case of a new serial killer known only as “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey), they start to realize that he is dispatching victims based on their perceived violation of the Seven Deadly Sins. When Doe killed an obese man, he scrawled the word “GLUTTONY” on the wall above his corpse. After slaughtering a lawyer, he scribbled the word “GREED” on the floor. The killer views himself as the “Sword of God,” doling out justice against all the world’s wretched sinners. But when Somerset and Mills find themselves in the killer’s crosshairs, they are unprepared for the mind games he is about to inflict on them.
Perfect Blue (1997) follows a former pop star, Mima, as she slowly loses her grip on reality while being guided down a new career path by her manager. This animated Japanese feature manages to create a gripping depiction of altered perception and identity as it relates to performers and the people who watch (and obsess over) them. At times Perfect Blue can feel like a giallo in the vein of Tenebrae (1982), while at other times it has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s work and his ability to build incredible psychological tension around a central character.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is an exceedingly wealthy San Francisco investment banker who is so isolated and unhappy that he spends his 48th birthday alone, haunted by the fact that his father committed suicide at age 48. When his younger and less inhibited brother Conrad (Sean Penn) comes into town, he gives Nicholas a gift for “the man who has everything”—a ticket to Consumer Recreation Services, a company that designs games tailored to the needs of “whatever is lacking” in each recipient’s lives. When Nicholas finally agrees to avail himself of Conrad’s gift, he slowly starts to suspect that he may have been set up for an elaborate scheme to rob him of his wealth, but also perhaps his dignity and even his life.
In a film adaptation of novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s rumination on toxic masculinity, an unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) is a frustrated office worker with a vicious case of insomnia. Although he doesn’t have cancer, he attends cancer support groups to help tame his wayward soul. This is where he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who also attends these groups and also doesn’t have cancer. On a plane while presumably returning from a business trip, the narrator meets a charismatic soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who invites him to join a local club he has where men work out their frustrations through bare-knuckle boxing. But their fight club grows to the point where it becomes a beast that’s out of their control. And Marla slowly shifts her affections away from the narrator and toward Tyler Durden. The narrator realizes he’s being played psychologically, possibly to the point where he can be ruined forever, and so he starts plotting his escape plan.
In this adaption of the Bret Easton Ellis novel that was a commentary on the emptiness of unabashed 1980s yuppie consumerism, Christian Bale stars as Patrick Bateman, a young New York City investment banker who judges himself strictly by his belongings and wealth. He is just like everyone else in his milieu—vain, empty, competitive, and ruthless—but the main difference seems to be that unlike his cohorts, at least Patrick realizes it. In a twisted way of exorcising his own demons, Patrick becomes a ruthless serial killer.
New Psychological Thrillers
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is a former insurance investigator with severe short-term memory loss he sustained from a head injury while trying to intervene in the murder of his wife. In fact, the last thing he remembers was his wife’s murder. Vowing to avenge her death, he finds that his chief enemy is his memory loss—he must take Polaroids of things and scribble endless notes to himself so that he doesn’t forget everything upon awaking. Leonard is aided in his quest for revenge by a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), but Leonard soon has reason to suspect that Teddy’s intentions may not be all that pure.
In director Richard Kelly’s surreal masterpiece, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the title role as a disturbed teenager who has trouble relating to nearly everyone in his life. His only real friends seem to be a girl named Gretchen and his psychiatrist. But his favorite companion—who may not be a real friend at all—is a giant rabbit named Frank, whom only Donnie can see. As the presidential election of 1988 reaches its final days, Frank warns Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. After a jet plane crashes into Donnie’s bedroom and makes a complete mess of his life, Frank increasingly intrudes into Donnie’s thoughts, driving him toward increasingly criminal acts.
In this psychological thriller by David Lynch, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is an optimistic young actress who comes to Hollywood with the brightest of intentions. But since Hollywood chews up and spits out everyone who enters it, she soon finds herself embroiled in a scandal involving a desperate director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) and a mysterious woman named Rita (Laura Harring), who is an amnesiac recovering from a head injury she sustained in a car crash up on the notoriously curvy Mulholland Drive above the Hollywood hills. The paths of Betty, Adam, and Rita converge in uncomfortably unavoidable ways.
Robin Williams is terrifyingly convincing as Sy Parrish, an intensely lonely middle-aged man who works as a lab technician at a one-hour photo store in a suburban mall. He forms a delusional parasocial relationship with the Yorkin family, especially matriarch Nina (Connie Nielsen) and her adolescent son Jake (Dylan Smith), who routinely drop off their film to Sy for developing. What they don’t know is that ever since Jake was a baby, Sy has been obsessively tracking the family by making duplicates of all their photos and keeping them for himself. But when he uncovers some unsavory information about Nina’s husband Will Yorkin (Michael Vartan), Sy appoints himself a holy crusader aiming to right all that’s wrong with the family—with predictably disastrous results.
Ten complete strangers get stranded together at a dilapidated Nevada motel in the middle of nowhere after a rainstorm floods out all the surrounding roads. One by one, they get murdered, starting with room 10 all the way down to room 1. One of the people stranded at the motel is Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a convict who is facing the death penalty. But things aren’t what they seem, and the ending of Identity is regarded as a favorite for its surprising twist.
Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a lathe operator at a local factory who hasn’t slept in a full year and is growing gaunt and emaciated as a result. Like the character in Memento, he is also tormented by memory loss and is constantly scribbling little yellow notes to himself. As Trevor tortures himself for no apparent reason, he slowly is able to look himself in the mirror and realize exactly what happened that has made him lose sleep for so long.
Hayley Stark (Elliot Page) is a smart and charming teenage girl. Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is a handsome and charming fashion photographer. For weeks they’ve flirted online using screen names. When they finally meet in real life at a coffee shop, Hayley persuades Jeff to allow her to come back to his studio for an impromptu photo shoot. But Hayley has different plans—and they all involve the torture and humiliation of a pedophile named Jeff.
Directed by William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist), Bug (2006) features Ashley Judd as Agnes, a lonely waitress living in a run-down motel room. Agnes forms a desperate relationship with a disturbed drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon), and the two of them drift into an increasingly delusional headspace of government conspiracies and bug infestations as they isolate themselves in Agnes’s room. Bug is claustrophobic and disturbing, and it isn’t talked about enough as a gem of mid-2000s psychological weirdness.
In this dark and brooding psychological thriller by Martin Scorsese, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a World War II veteran who is psychologically scarred by his experiences in helping to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. He is also deeply traumatized by the loss of his wife due to a case of arson. When he is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a killer who’d been confined in a hospital for the criminally insane from an island off the Massachusetts coast, he finds himself stranded at the mental hospital after a raging sea storm cuts off all power to Shutter Island. But coinciding with the storm is a series of migraine headaches for Teddy, who slowly comes to suspect that the island’s psychiatrists are treating him more like a patient than like a visiting detective.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a financially desperate young man who accidentally stumbles into the world of ambulance-chasing freelance broadcast journalism when he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a reporter for a local TV station. Nina is impressed at Lou’s enthusiasm and budding talents as a trash-TV journalist. But Lou’s enthusiasm gets the best of him, as he solves a murder before police do, gets the killers on tape, but then withholds the evidence and demands that he can also film the police arresting the killers. Lou doesn’t realize that although this may be how tabloid journalism works, it’s not how the law works.
Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is a small-town guy who’s made it big as a magazine reporter, but his wealth and influence are overshadowed by that of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), who is clearly more intelligent than he is and has inherited a vast trust fund. On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick reports to the police that his wife has gone missing. As the search for his missing wife unfolds into a national story over the next few days, Nick finds himself a prime suspect in Amy’s murder. Is he the victim of a setup, or is he far less wholesome than his public image would have suggested?
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young computer programmer who is recruited by the eccentric CEO of tech company (Oscar Isaac) to evaluate his latest project, an advanced and beautiful android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). But despite their high intelligence and technological savvy, neither Caleb nor his boss are emotionally prepared to be romantically manipulated by a beautiful and brilliant AI robot.
Simon Callem (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to LA after Simon takes a new job. Shortly after relocating, Simon bumps into Gordon “Gordo” Moseley (Joel Edgerton), a former high-school classmate from Chicago. Almost immediately, Simon begins dropping by their house unannounced to deliver gifts such as koi for their pond and bottles of wine. Although Simon suspects Gordo’s motives, Robyn appreciates his generosity. But when she finds the koi dead and her dog missing—and when they discover that their new home actually belongs to someone else, they both realize that Gordo is up to no good.
In Jordan Peele’s breakout film as a horror director that many have likened to a modern-day retelling of the 1960s race-themed classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is invited by his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) out to her family’s mansion in upstate New York. At first Chris appreciates the Armitage family’s friendliness. Then he slowly becomes uncomfortable with it. Then he realizes to his horror that he may be the next victim of the family’s sinister scheme.
A tale of class war in modern-day South Korea, the Kim family are poor and live in a basement apartment in a working-class district of Seoul. The Park family are rich, affluent, and snobby. But when an ambitious member of the Kim family lands a job as a tutor for a teen female member of the Park family, machinations, backstabbing, and intrigue explode into a struggle of the plebs versus the patricians. Who exactly in this equation will turn out to be the real parasite?
Adam Sandler takes a rare dramatic turn in his role as Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler whose gambling and sexual addictions find him deep in debt and surrounded by rapacious loan sharks. With his family and career on the rocks, he is briefly optimistic when he finds a rare uncut opal from Ethiopia which, if he acquires it, may lift him out of debt. But a famous NBA star (Kevin Garnett) also has designs on the rare gem, possibly thwarting Ratner’s last hope at going legit.
In Todd Phillips’s uniquely unsettling origin tale of comic-book legend The Joker, Joaquin Phoenix won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a deeply unhappy and maladjusted wannabe comedian trapped in the grim urban realities of early 1980s New York. Although Arthur has a pure heart, he lives with his bitterly abusive mother and is continually beaten down by the world’s bullies and sadists. Then one day, all of the abuse becomes too much for Arthur to bear, and he strikes back—using a gun. His mental illness then becomes a lethal weapon as he instantaneously transforms from a broken loser to the Clown Prince of Crime.
More Psychological Thrillers
- We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – Tilda Swinton is Eva, a mother whose relationship with her malevolent son Kevin (Ezra Miller) reflects her own self-loathing.
- Stoker (2013) Following the death of her loving father, a girl is left with her unstable mother.
- The Girl on the Train (2016) – Emily Blunt stars in this twisty murder mystery as an alcoholic divorcée who becomes involved in a missing-person case.
- Personal Shopper (2016) – Part ghost story and part psychological thriller, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a woman whose commitment to making contacting her deceased brother may have opened the door for a dark presence to make contact instead.
- Nocturnal Animals (2016) – Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) life is shaken when a novel written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) brings up unpleasant memories and dark secrets.
- Split (2016) – From M. Night Shyamalan, Split stars James McAvoy as as man with 23 distinct personalities.
- You Were Never Really Here (2017) – Often compared to Taxi Driver, You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as a severely traumatized private detective who tries to keep his mind together when he is thrust into a conspiracy involving the kidnapping of a senator’s young daughter.
- Burning (2018) – Steven Yeun (Glenn in The Walking Dead) costars in this thriller about an aspiring writer, a beautiful woman from his past, and the mysterious man who may be a danger to them all. Directed by Lee Chang-dong, writer/director of the South-Korean classic Peppermint Candy (1999).
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) is a surreal, creepy psychological thriller about breaking up with someone.
- The Invisible Man (2020) – Celia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) thought her abusive ex-boyfriend was dead, but it becomes increasingly clear to her that he has used his scientific brilliance to turn himself invisible so he can continue to torment her. The trouble is, no one believes her.
- Deep Water (2022) – Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck play a couple in a loveless marriage that might involve murder.
- Don’t Worry Darling (2022) – Alice’s (Florence Pugh) idyllic life begins to feel like a prison in this thriller from director Olivia Wilde.