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9 Killer Psychological Thrillers to Watch This HalloweenheroImage

9 Killer Psychological Thrillers to Watch This Halloween

10/15/2020 • 5 min read

It’s nearly Halloween, and you might be looking for something thrilling to watch alongside the out-and-out horror classics. Keeping that in mind, we have some suggestions for thrillers with a severe psychological bent. These movies eschew the actual monsters and buckets of blood seen in many horror movies and emphasize ideas that are more subversive and inward-focused. There are still monsters, but just like in real life, these creatures of the night might look like you or me. Ready to watch (and scream)?

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Misery (1990)

Few storytellers can plumb the depths of psychological terror in the same way Stephen King does. MISERY is one of his very best stories. Written in response to the fan outcry following the release of one of his novels, MISERY concerns itself with a super-fan (Kathy Bates) who rescues her favorite author (James Caan) from a car accident. Her actions aren't entirely altruistic, however. She soon turns him into her prisoner, forcing him to write the novel that she craves. Full of frosty tension and at least one sequence that has gone down in history as among the scariest of all time, MISERY is amazingly tense. It's also the only King adaptation to win an Academy Award, for Bates’ zealous, finely tuned performance. Chilly in both an atmospheric and tonal sense, MISERY will make you jump out of your skin and rethink your relationship with your favorite author.

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Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Director Adrian Lyne, coming off the huge success of the cheating husband thriller FATAL ATTRACTION, stayed roughly in the same genre while going even bigger and weirder. JACOB’S LADDER follows a Vietnam vet (Tim Robbins) whose wartime experiences follow him home, resulting in increasingly intense and unsettling hallucinations and a number of harrowing near-death experiences. The screenplay was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, whose script for GHOST would win him an Academy Award. And, in a way, JACOB’S LADDER is the evil inverse version of GHOST. Where that movie was a celebration of lost love and an attempt to ascend to heaven, JACOB’S LADDER is a metaphysical quagmire and slow descent into hell — and it will scare you senseless and keep your head spinning with a particularly impressive ending.

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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Few psychological thrillers are as influential and unforgettable as Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which took home every major Oscar and launched a mini-franchise that eventually included several spin-offs, sequels, and television series. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, based on the chilling novel by Thomas Harris, follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she assists an investigation into murders perpetrated by a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who has gained national attention by abducting a senator’s daughter. Her work leads Starling to form an uneasy alliance with incarcerated murderer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), one of cinema’s all-time greatest boogeymen. With inventive staging, a mastery of suspense, and his trademark intense close-ups, Demme elevates the story into something grandiose and gorgeous. This is the alpha and omega of modern psychological thrillers.

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The Sixth Sense (1999)

In 1999, nobody knew who M. Night Shyamalan was. Then THE SIXTH SENSE became a total phenomenon. Taking an emotionally realistic approach to a tale of the supernatural, the story follows a child psychologist (Bruce Willis) as he works with a young client (Haley Joel Osment) who claims to see ghosts. Creeeeeepy. What could have been a quaint ghost story turns into something much more unnerving thanks to Shyamalan’s sturdy, clever direction, the images from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, the peerless performances — not just from the leads but from an array of supporting actors, including Toni Collette and Donnie Wahlberg — and a twist ending that recontextualizes and deepens everything that came before it. Some thrillers are spent after one watch but this one is enhanced by repeated viewings. THE SIXTH SENSE crossed over into the mainstream, securing 6 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Spooky!

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Black Swan (2010)

BLACK SWAN is wild. Darren Aronofsky’s insane thriller, which was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director), combines character doubles in the style of Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock-style, the physical intensity of Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER, and the psychological complexity of the very best character studies. That's all wrapped inside a nightmarish, amplified logic. (Aronofsky also borrowed heavily from PERFECT BLUE, a Japanese animated film that is also very much worth watching.) Natalie Portman plays a young ballerina who cracks under the emotional and physical pressure of competitive performance, particularly when it comes to her relationship with the artistic director (Vincent Cassel) and her relationship with a fellow ballerina (Mila Kunis). Portman won the Oscar for her performance as the fractured dancer, which becomes more and more intense as the movie wears on, leading to a truly shocking climax. Dance 'til you’re dead, indeed.

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Shutter Island (2010)

Martin Scorsese rarely crosses over into the territory defined by scary movies. SHUTTER ISLAND makes us wish he would do it more often. Adapted by James Cameron protégé Laeta Kalogridis from a novel by MYSTIC RIVER author Dennis Lehane, the story follows frequent Scorsese stand-in Leonardo DiCaprio as a U.S. Marshal who travels to a remote asylum for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who killed her children. On the island, things start to go sideways, and the Marshal's grasp on reality starts to slip. He suffers violent flashbacks to the liberation of a concentration camp during World War II; meanwhile, his investigation becomes increasingly knotty and unhinged. Scorsese’s rococo direction, which piles on loads of visual references to classic thrillers, leads to an intentionally old-fashioned climax that could almost be comical... if it wasn’t so tragic. Only Scorsese could weave a thriller this gorgeously designed, incredibly acted (the supporting cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Max Von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, and Michelle Williams) and deeply felt.

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Gone Girl (2014)

Not all psychopaths look like Hannibal Lecter or even Kathy Bates’ character in MISERY. Sometimes they look like a perfectly composed woman who decides she’s had enough. That is the case in David Fincher’s masterful GONE GIRL, based on the hugely popular novel by Gillian Flynn. Rosamund Pike stars as Amy Dunne, a rich woman who loses her job at a glossy magazine and becomes fed up with her boring, cheating husband (Ben Affleck). So she decides to frame him for her murder. What makes this thriller from Fincher and Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay) so taut and excruciating is that, for a long time, you don’t know whether or not Affleck is innocent. Then, once the truth is revealed, it gets even more thrilling and things go from bad to worse. Featuring exemplary supporting performances from actors as varied as Carrie Coon and Tyler Perry, GONE GIRL turns the story of a sour marriage into a white-knuckle thrill ride (and back again). It’s a hoot.

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The Guest (2014)

THE GUEST might be the perfect Halloween movie. While set in New Mexico, it exists in a kind of perpetual neon-drenched Halloween-time. So skeletons, pumpkins and and other types of Halloween miscellanea are in almost every shot. The vibe of the movie is in line with the setting. Dan Stevens, unrecognizable from his DOWNTON ABBEY roots, plays David, a veteran who, after being discharged, goes to visit the family of a dead fellow soldier. This is no good-natured call, however. David quickly weasels his way into the life of each member of the family. It’s like having the Terminator come to stay, just without the sci-fi stuff. Stevens plays a charismatic psychopath and the movie, directed by Adam Wingard and written by frequent collaborator Simon Barrett, is constantly surprising, forever folding in on itself and revealing new layers. And it’s so much fun. This movie didn’t have a wide release and was sort of a sleeper, but now is the time to catch up with it. You won’t be disappointed.

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Get Out (2017)

Some of the best psychological thrillers, especially those with an element of the phantasmagoric, play off of our deep-seated cultural or societal fears. That was certainly the case with GET OUT, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning masterpiece debut about a young Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who visits his white girlfriend’s family out in the country. It doesn't take long before everything goes wrong. Peele combines scathing satire of faux progressive liberalism ("I would have voted for Obama for a third term") and the fantasy notion of a "post-racial" United States with elements of the fantastic that would be at home in "The Twilight Zone." There's body-swapping, fringe science, and cosmic hypnotism. With a stellar cast that includes note-perfect performances from Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, it felt like an all-time classic even as the credits rolled. (Peele’s follow-up, US, is shaggier but far more ambitious.) Few films deliver thrills and cultural commentary with equal effectiveness. But GET OUT does. Big time.


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All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios, Universal Pictures.

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