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Who doesn’t love a scary movie?  But what makes a good psychological thriller?

A psychological thriller focuses on the inner makeup of its characters and their unstable mental states.  According to British director John Madden, a good psychological thriller book focus on story, character development, choice and moral conflict; with fear and anxiety driving the psychological tension in unpredictable ways.

Sounds good to me.  But as a psychologist and novelist, I would add that psychological thrillers don’t necessarily involve a murder. 

Why are Psychological Thrillers Popular

Readers enjoy psychological thrillers because of their signature ingredients: secrets, deception, betrayal and dilemma.  The psychopathology or mental instability of at least one character fuels the conflict between protagonist and villain.  While some psychological thrillers may overlap with other genres, notably crime fiction and horror books, the presence of psychological instability and its impact on the plot places the story in the thriller genre.

So let’s go to the movies.  Here are ten classic psychological thrillers and the reasons I love them.

  1. 1.     Rosemary’s Baby – Based on one of the best horror novels of all time by Ira Levin, this deliciously creepy film lives on the corner of horror and thriller.  The plot device is supernatural: Rosemary (played by Mia Farrow, sporting an iconic Vidal Sassoon haircut) is impregnated by (gasp!) Satan.  But the psychological chills come from her husband’s callous betrayal and Rosemary’s increasing isolation and desperation to convince someone – anyone – that she’s a victim, not a paranoid.  So, there’s a dollop of the domestic noire genre here, to boot.  Bonus Goose Bump Factor:  Roman Polanski directed.

  • Rebecca –Based on the best-selling Gothic novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, this award-winning classic thriller film,adapted by Hitchcock,features a naïve,young female narrator – poor, shy, anxious and nameless.  She meets and swiftly weds the dashing, moody millionaire Maxim De Winter (an exquisitely broody Laurence Oliver).  As if hubby’s crankiness weren’t disturbing enough for the insecure bride, she is manipulated to the edge of reason by a spooky, psycho housekeeper who remains fanatically loyal to her deceased mistress, the first Mrs. De Winter (the eponymous Rebecca).  The secrets emerge slowly in this hypnotic film.  Favorite line:  “Why don’t you?”

  • The Talented Mr. Ripley – The adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 psychological thriller novel of the same name by Anthony Minghella – a pitch-perfect portrait of a psychopath who stumbles into becoming a serial killer as his lies and manipulations catch up with him.  Atmospheric scenes of the Italian coast and great acting (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) make this a don’t-miss spellbinder.

  • The Silence of the Lambs – I hereby crown this the sine qua non of psychological thriller movies.  The film swept the top five awards at the 64th annual Oscars (director for Jonathan Demme, writer, actor and actress and best picture).  Played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lecter was the incarnation of evil – psychopath, serial killer and cannibal.  And yet his devil’s bargain with FBI agent Clarice Starling (he’ll help her catch Buffalo Bill if she’ll open her psyche to him) allows Clarice to find the killer, save his captive and make peace with her own inner demons.  Aren’t we glad when Lecter escapes?  Favorite line:  “People will say we’re in love.”

  • The Shining – Back to the corner of horror and thriller movies for Stanley Kubrick’s rendition of Stephen King’s story of possession. The evil spirits haunting the Overlook Lodge arise from the supernatural, but resonate with the inner monsters clawing at the alcoholic protagonist, Jack Torrance (played by a snarling Jack Nicholson).  His precarious balance of sanity and sobriety topples into murderous rage directed at his wife and child. Trapped.  Snowbound.  And that creepy music!Favorite line (all together now):  “Here’s Johnny!”

  • Vertigo – Back to Hitchcock, the father of the on-screen psychological thriller.  And does this one ever fill the bill.  Jimmy Stewart holds the title role and diagnosis – retired cop Scotty, a trauma survivor who can’t handle heights.  As if the poor guy didn’t have troubles enough, he’s got a friend who’s happy to exploit his disability.  Throw in a noire heroine, Kim Novak with a double identity, and the stage is set for treachery.  Favorite line:  “You were a very apt pupil.”

  • Chinatown – Back to Roman Polanski for another noire classic at the corner of crime and psychological thriller films.  Note the parallels to Vertigo.  Yes, a woman with secrets.  But look at the two protagonists.  Like Scotty, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson again) is a cop who retired when the job got to him.  Like Scotty, Jake failed to save someone he cared about (and fails again – epically – at the film’s climax).  And like Scotty, he’s used precisely because of his vulnerability.  I have a friend who swears he stopped going to movies after he saw Chinatown because the ending was so sordid and excruciating.  I’m torn between two favorite lines:  “My sister,my daughter” or “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”

  • Fatal Attraction – This dark little psychological thriller film and morality tale, directed by Adrian Lyne, gets its juice from the deranged villain.  Glenn Close, starring opposite Michael Douglas as the errant husband, does a nifty job of playing a woman scorned (with a Borderline Personality Disorder straight from hell).  Look out!  Lock up your pets!  Trivia question:  Do you know the earlier, lesser-known film, Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut?  It could have been the precursor for Fatal Attraction.  Another one night stand turned stalker.  Favorite line (from Fatal Attraction):  “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.” 

  • Red Dragon – The prequel to Silence of the Lambs brings back Hannibal Lecter (or, rather, takes the viewer back to the psychiatrist and serial killer in the days before he met Clarice Starling).  This time Dr. Lecter plays cat and mouse with FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), coaxed out of retirement to find a particularly nasty murderer of families.  Keeping the psychology in the classic psychological thriller, the major conflict is within the killer himself (a superb Ralph Fiennes), torn between the commands of his inner beast and his tender feelings for a beautiful blind woman.  And once again, we have a memorable turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Favorite line:  “Send her in.”

  • A Clockwork Orange – This stunning, disturbing film directed by Stanley Kubrick (from the Anthony Burgess novella) puts a perverse spin on the notion of a psychological thriller film.  It plays with your head.  A story about classical conditioning, Clockwork Orange works the same manipulation on the viewer as it does on the protagonist.  In a dismal, dystopian city of the future, Alex and his gang of Droogs cavort like Charlie Manson’s understudies, prowling by night to enjoy “a little ultra-violence.”  Alex is a predatory psychopath and sadist.  His crimes are terrifying and revolting.  Betrayed by his Droogs, Alex goes to prison, where he clearly belongs, and qualifies for an experimental program that promises to cure him of his violent ways.  And it does, turning him into a helpless victim at the hands of his avengers.  The viewer goes from horror at Alex to horror for him and ultimately is left in a moral vacuum.  No favorite lines, but I cringe whenever I hear Singing in the Rain.
  • That’s a wrap for my ten classic thriller films.  More in the future on the movies, directors and actors who keep us in suspense.

    Looking for a riveting psychological thriller book?

    Check out Shrink Rapt, a medical and crime thriller book and Tell on You, a domestic thriller – both psychological suspense novels that depict characters driven to the edge and then forced to let go.

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