Who doesn't love a good psychological thriller? They deliver a level of abject horror which rivals that of gratuitously scary movies, but their suspensefulness and intriguing character studies—often nuanced, and featuring the mentally deranged—contain carefully plotted subtleties that teeth-gnashing, murderous monsters, and blood-soaked scenes don't fully capture. In the most understated tones, the best psychological thrillers deliver all the spine-chilling terror of horror movies, but they're also rife with plot twists and complex interpersonal relationships—and they keep you guessing every step of the way.
From the groundbreaking Hitchcock thriller Psycho, to the neo-noir Scorcese film Shutter Island, the plotlines of these 15 best psychological thrillers of all time will have you clutching your pearls, shaking in your boots, and dying of suspense. Here are our picks.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme's film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs (based on the novel by Thomas Harris) swept the 1992 Academy Award ceremony; it won five Oscars that year. The movie follows young agent Clarice Starling, an FBI cadet who seeks the help of psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an incarcerated serial killer, to catch another just-as-terrifying one who's on the loose by learning his modus operandi.
After a senator’s daughter is abducted, Starling must cut quid pro quo deals with her source to catch her man. Prequels include Red Dragon (2002), Hannibal Rising (2007), and even a sequel, Hannibal (2001), but none of them holds a candle to the original, with stellar performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.
In David Fincher's film noir Seven, homicide detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and old-timer William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) hunt a sociopathic serial killer who commits bizarre and brazen murders that follow in the vein of the Bible's seven deadly sins. A young Gwyneth Paltrow plays Mills' adoring wife.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
"I see dead people." The Sixth Sense features a troubled eight-year-old boy who's somehow able to see ghosts and commune with their spirits, and the successful, albeit stumped, child psychologist played by Bruce Willis, who tries to help him. The film earned its supernaturally-obsessed director M. Night Shyamalan two Oscar noms, and led to other well-received films, such as the science-fiction piece Signs (2002) and the period-thriller The Village (2004).
The Shining (1980)
Adapted from Stephen King's novel by the same name, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining embodies everything psychological thrillers are supposed to be; it's expertly acted, riveting, and terribly scary. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic with anger issues, decides to reconnect with his wife and son by taking a job as the winter caretaker of a historic resort deep in the Colorado Rockies.
Snowstorm after snowstorm seems to put Jack in a tenuous state, and the viewer is left to wonder whether increasing supernatural occurrences are all in his head. Strangely enough, the Oscars snubbed this one, but Shelley Duvall's performance as the browbeaten wife is spot-on.
Shutter Island (2010)
Based on the eponymous Dennis Lehane book, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island takes place in 1954 and begins with an investigation—conducted by a WWII-vet-turned-federal marshal—to find a murderer who escaped from an island-bound hospital for the criminally insane. (And you can just imagine what goes on in that hospital.) It's a beautifully-shot film with solid performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley—and its eerie plot twists will keep you on the razor's edge.
Considered one of the Master of Suspense's best films—and often cited as one of the best movies of all time—Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho paved the road for mainstream American cinema's inclusion and acceptance of violence, deviant behavior, and sexuality.
In 1960s Phoenix, Arizona, the real-estate secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) absconds with $40,000 cash she's meant to bring to the bank and proceeds to drive to California to meet her paramour. On the way, she shelters at the Bates Motel, wherein Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is the boyish proprietor.
Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher's Fight Club (based on the 1996 Chuck Palahniuk novel) follows an unnamed insomniac protagonist (Edward Norton) who has a chance meeting with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a badass anarchist soapmaker, on a flight.
Bored to death of his job and his life, the narrator moves in with Durden and the two create a men's-only underground club that holds brutal bare-knuckle fights. As the club blossoms in popularity, both the club and the narrator's relationship with those around him (and himself) increasingly spiral out of control.
Another of Hitchcock's film noirs that has achieved critical best-of-all-time status, Vertigo (based on the 1954 French novel, D'entre les Morts which is now published as Vertigo), follows former San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), who retires from the force early due to a case of vertigo brought on by his severe fear of heights.
Things go south (very south) after Ferguson goes on the hunt for his friend's wife, Madeleine (Kim Novac), whom he's been told is a danger to herself. As is typical of most Hitchcock films, Vertigo is, at once, romantic, glamorous, suspenseful, and weird.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
It all starts in L.A. with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallerist who's asked by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) to read his new book manuscript. As it turns out, it's violent and sad—and she just can't seem to shake the idea that it's a metaphorical, and in some cases, non-fictional, rehashing of their troubled relationship.
Ex Machina (2014)
Ex Machina is a riveting, mysterious science-fiction piece that's scarily truer to life than one would imagine. In it, young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a chance to spend a week in the mountains with his company's reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Once Caleb arrives, he's informed that he's also won the chance to participate in a groundbreaking experiment: interacting with the world's first humanoid robot with ultra-superior artificial intelligence, the beautiful Ava (Alicia Vikander). The Alex Garland-directed film also won an Oscar for its visual effects, which are stunning.
Take Shelter (2011)
From beginning to end, Take Shelter is permeated with a sense of unease and impending dread. When young Ohioan father Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) starts having bad dreams and apocalyptic hallucinations, he thinks he's going mad. Still, though, he sets out to protect his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter from a life-threatening storm he's seen in his visions, and becomes preoccupied (a.k.a. obsessed) with building an impenetrable tornado shelter in his backyard.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Scorcese's tour de force Taxi Driver is the story of Vietnam War vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a mentally unstable, lovelorn New York City cab driver.
Scene by scene, we watch as Bickle becomes increasingly sicker, fed up with the criminal element of, and "cesspool" that is New York City. Determined to save the world, Bickle hatches a plan to assassinate a politician and rescue Iris (13-year-old Jodie Foster), a child sex worker he meets in his cab.
Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman won a Best Actress Oscar playing Nina Sayers in Black Swan, a Darren Aronofsky film about a New York City ballerina whose obsession with dance takes over every aspect of her life.
To win prima ballerina status in the company's new production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, the lead must play both the role of the pure, innocent Swan Queen and the sensuous, cunning Black Swan. While Nina is a shoo-in for Queen, her competition, Lily (Mila Kunis), perfectly embodies the Black Swan. As the two compete for the lead, their twisted friendship slowly unravels.
Gone Girl (2014)
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike bring Gillian Flynn's novel to life as Nick and Amy Dunne, the husband and wife in Gone Girl, a thriller with some spectacular twists and turns. When Amy goes missing on the couple's fifth wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect—and a media frenzy ensues.
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho was adapted from 1991's sickening, satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis. (And for fans of Christian Bale, this one's a must-see.) Picture 1986 New York City: By day, Patrick Bateman (Bale) is an impeccably well-coiffed, wealthy investment banker who, by night, lives a secret life as a serial killer.
It's a surprisingly hilarious deep-dive into what makes a psychopath tick, and it's also profoundly dark and brutally honest—its portrayal of 1980s American materialism is uncanny. Its cast of characters (Jared Leto, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Justin Theroux) makes it super-juicy.