Psychological thrillers belong to the tradition of truly unhinged films. Even the genre’s definition refuses coherence; somehow these movies can be horror, mystery, or even action films, but they are all united under the same organizing principle: There are always characters who are mentally tortured or situations that are disturbingly removed from reality. A revenge fantasy or a political drama that raises your heart rate and fills you with a suspense-ridden dread is probably a psychological thriller.
Luckily for us, we live in the age of overstuffed streaming services. So, if you’re down to be stressed for anywhere between 90 minutes to three hours, this list of movies is guaranteed to give you enough anxiety and creeping thrills that you may even forget the worries of the world for a moment. That said, one of the best parts about psychological thrillers is their ability to reveal systemic issues in our society or function as elaborate thought experiments. Totally fun, chill stuff!
While these movies aren’t as escapist as they seem on their face, they are—in our humble opinion—the best psychological thrillers of all time.
This list wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock, who may be one of the pioneers of this genre. If you haven’t already seen Psycho, it’s not a spoiler to say that the famous bathroom stabbing sequence is a nail biter.
This anime from director Satoshi Kon about a pop-star-turned-actress still manages to give me chills. After Mima Kirigoe leaves her Japanese idol group for a bit part in a TV show, she discovers an obsessive fan who continues to stalk her. The movie is about fame and feminism, while being weirdly prophetic about the future ubiquity of internet blogs and social media impersonation/catfishing.
The jury is out on what genre Get Out belongs to, but I do know this—there has never been a better psychological examination of the racism that white liberals employ in the name of their upholding their supremacy. And that reality is genuinely unsettling.
There’s luscious cinematography, a slow-burn of a plot, and ill-fated trips to the countryside in Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning. Also, Steven Yeun is kinda hot in it.
Unreliable narrators (read: Naomi Watt’s character) lead us astray for over two hours in this movie, the most Lynchian David Lynch work to ever emerge. He gave us Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Eraserhead, so it’s no surprise that Mulholland Dr.’s tale of an aspiring actress who befriends an amnesiac goes off the rails, fast. There’s no way to distinguish what's a dream and what's reality.
Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning masterpiece–his Academy Award sweep is also known as the only good thing that happened in 2020–tells the story of a desperately cash-strapped and destitute family who all gain employment at the home of insanely rich people. But the circle cannot hold because poor people can simply never catch a break in the world as we know it.
Okay, okay, this may or may not be more of a political thriller, but the movie delves into the psychology of fascism, so I’m giving myself a free pass to include it. Marcello Clerici is an agent working in Mussolini’s Italy, charged with assassinating his old college professor. Clerici craves the stability of conformism and ultimately sacrifices everything for acceptance in the order that fascism affords, all to the backdrop of pristine architecture and decadent set design.
A guy loses his mind while stuck at home with his family. Sound familiar?
Perhaps one of the most terrifying movies on this list, Rosemary’s Baby follows Rosemary (Mia Farrow) as she comes to believe that her child may not be a normal human baby. Both her weird elderly neighbors and husband are acting especially suspicious–can they be launching a satanic-slash-cultish plot involving the child?
Francis Ford Coppola didn’t miss in the seventies (um, have you seen The Godfather or Apocalypse Now?), and this film proved just how original his vision can get. The Conversation tells the story of a paranoid surveillance expert who is hired to tail a mysterious couple. Haunted by a previous job that went wrong, the guy grows more and more crippled by the case as the movie chugs along. Nothing is as it seems.
Part psychological thriller, part romance, The Handmaiden tells the story of an elaborate deception from the perspective of the conwoman and the noble woman being conned. The two also fall in love in this story set in Japanese-occupied Korea. It’s also a genuinely fun watch.
Ma is on its way to becoming a canonical cult classic. Just watch it.
This movie is mostly just vibes, but it’s also a series of quiet mind games. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, Persona is the story of an actress who becomes mute after she experiences a blackout during a performance. After a recommendation to go recover at the beach with her nurse, she begins to lose track of where she ends and the nurse begins.
Who doesn’t want to watch a movie about a 60s-era fashion photographer with a messy sex life who accidentally stumbles upon criminal activity?
Just writing “Laura Dern” would suffice, but I’m feeling slightly overachieving. David Lynch’s movie is about a pair of young adults who team up to investigate the case of a loose ear that they find abandoned in a field. Throughout their detective cosplay, they encounter an underground world populated by a lounge singer and a weird, sexually depraved Dennis Hopper.
Two women, united by their mutual hatred, successfully plot to murder the abusive boarding school headmaster, only to misplace his corpse.
Set in 19th century America, Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe lose their minds at a lighthouse in the middle of the sea. Unsurprisingly, Pattinson’s character somehow hooks up with a mermaid...?
This classic film starring thee Glenn Close (author’s note: watch her in Dangerous Liaisons!!) is about a married man who begins an affair with Close’s character. However, she can’t seem to let him go, so, naturally, she must violently stalk him. They just don’t make chaotic and off-the-rails movies like this anymore!
If you want to be on the edge of your seat and seriously worry about the well-being of a young woman, then this is the movie for you. Manicurist Carole has been abandoned by her sister for an Italian holiday, so she must fend for herself, dealing with her suitors and repetitive job. But what if she becomes too stressed to work and all men suddenly give her the ick (plus terrifying hallucinations)? So, she goes a little mad.
One of Marty’s more underrated films (that’s Martin Scorsese for you locals), Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a U.S. Marshal charged with investigating the escape of a murderer at a remote island asylum. But can the marshal escape with his own sanity intact?
'Stranger by the Lake'
This movie tells the story of Franck, who cruises at a nude beach in France. He eventually meets Michel, who may or may not be murderous.
'No Country for Old Men'
Don’t stumble on a hitman while out hunting. It won’t end well.
I have never felt such massive and continuous pangs of anxiety over an extended period of time until I watched the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. But, is it a psychological thriller? Quite frankly, all I know is that Adam Sandler’s portrayal of gambling addict Howie is spot on, the electronic score took years off my life, and there is no winning for anyone in the post-recession global neoliberal economy of 2012 (except for maybe the mob and, like, other rich people IDK).
After his wife’s brutal rape and murder, Leonard resolves to track down the perpetrator. The only problem–his lapses in memory make for a difficult manhunt as he cannot remember anything from fifteen minutes in the past.
Brad Pitt plays Tyler Durden, a traveling soap salesman who befriends a lonely and depressed man (Edward Norton). Together, the two men form a secret underground club in David Fincher’s mind-bending movie.
Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who slowly loses it while she battles for the prima ballerina spot for a production of Swan Lake.
'Dirty Pretty Things'
Two immigrants in London contend with squalid conditions and the illegal organ trade in Stephen Frears’ topical film. The dark underbelly of the city, and reality of exploitation, make for a disturbing ride.
Businessman by day, serial killer by night, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) keeps himself busy.
'Silence of the Lambs'
Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI agent who is studying the psychology of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector for insight into an open case. But could Clarice be the key for Hannibal’s prison break? The film took home five Oscars in the top categories–including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting honors.
After Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) becomes a suspect in her disappearance. As secrets begin to surface, we see who the couple truly are behind their facade.
Before The Talented Mr. Ripley, there was Purple Noon. Tom Ripley is an opportunistic social climber who gets paid to go to Italy and persuade his happy-go-lucky friend to return home. But why send your friend back to his father if you can comfortably live off his money indefinitely? Or even steal an identity?
Alicia Vikander plays a robot who slowly betrays her sentience. Domhnall Gleeson stars as the programmer who must participate in a Turing test to determine the robot’s capabilities. It gets a little Westworld-y.
'Eyes Wide Shut'
Tom Cruise plays a bitter doctor who grows upset after his wife (Nicole Kidman) admits to fantasizing about other men. In a huff, he wanders around a gritty New York City, where he eventually stumbles upon an underground sex club. Obviously, he can’t hang.
Martin Scorsese’s classic movie about a veteran who obsesses over New York City’s criminal activity dives into the psychology of vigilante’s and our cultural fascination with them.
'We Need to Talk About Kevin'
This movie about a disturbed child who eventually commits unforgivable sins features Tilda Swinton as a bohemian-woman-turned-housewife Eva. After she becomes a stay-at-home mom to take care of her son, she watches him grow into a troubled teen, forcing her to deal with the consequences of his actions.
This Stephen King adaptation follows a famous author as he's taken in by his biggest fan after an injury, which is made all the more claustrophobic by Kathy Bates' epically creepy performance.
In this twisted South Korean film, a young man's brother returns home after a 19-day abduction with no memory of what happened. Soon after, the man's whole family starts acting strange, setting off a plot where every twist and turn is a surprise.
'The Invisible Man'
After learning that her abusive ex is dead, a domestic violence survivor starts experiencing supernatural events. Is she losing it, or has her ex learned how to become invisible?
A married woman has to battle her own psyche after her husband dies from a heart attack during sex, leaving her handcuffed to a bed in a secluded cabin.
'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'
A respected heart surgeon's life turns upside down after he starts mentoring a young boy whose his father died during an operation.
Zoe Guy is the digital fellow at Marie Claire, where she covers pop culture, hot celebrity gossip, movies and TV. She’s obsessed with Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence, anything written by Jesmyn Ward and stan Twitter.
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