Like the old quote about pornography, it’s tough to define a psychological thriller, but you know it when you see it. An expansive genre that straddles the line between horror and drama, the psychological thriller has enjoyed many moments in the sun and produced some classic titles.
At its worst, the genre can provide an excuse for pretentious guff, a chance for writers and directors to show off all the research they’ve done about the intricacies of the mind and the conclusions they’ve drawn.
At their best, though, psychological thrillers can provide some of the most evocative and downright disturbing content a film can offer. The intent is to burrow deep into the mind of the viewer, to fire those synapses in wild and troubling ways, and to generate a reaction in both the head and gut of the audience.
The films in this list are great for all manner of reasons, but most impressive is how they manage to make us so uneasy, whether through concept, execution, or both. They play our emotions like a fiddle, and we love them for it.
10. Cape Fear
The 1962 original is the slicker, tighter film, but, for pure queasy scares, the Robert De Niro-starring Martin Scorsese remake takes some beating. It’s built around real adult fear, of your past coming back to haunt you and your decisions putting your family at risk, and anchored by a De Niro turn that stays just on the right side of camp.
Nick Nolte stars as a lawyer who deliberately withheld evidence that would support his heinous client Max Cady (De Niro). While serving hard time, Cady came to realise his attorney’s treachery, and 14 years later is out for revenge on Nolte and his wife and daughter (Jessica Lange and a revelatory Juliette Lewis, respectively).
The North Carolina heat is suffocating throughout, as is Cady himself, a villain fuelled by rage but with a far greater intellect than his targets imagine until it’s too late. The brutality is eye-watering, although the truly terrifying aspect is Cady’s Machiavellian nous, using the law against his former lawyer and playing with his prey, knowing he can strike at any moment.