10 Best Psycho Thrillers

Monday, January 31 by Alan Rankin

The 10 best psycho thrillers all share one quality: an unforgettable central character. It may be true that every movie needs a good guy we can identify with, but for these ten films, another old Hollywood saying is equally true: The bad guy is the most interesting character in the picture.

  1. “Psycho.” Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film is not the first psycho thriller ever made, but it set the standard for all the shock cinema to follow. Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates was the ordinary-seeming guy with a lot of dark secrets on his isolated motel property. The character was based on real killers like Ed Gein, and the film still holds up surprisingly well after fifty years of sequels, remakes and imitators.
  2. “M.” Fritz Lang’s 1931 German classic was likewise based on an actual child killer who once stalked the streets of Düsseldorf. Lang’s clever twist was to have a criminal gang track the psycho when the city’s police have failed. As the man marked “M,” Peter Lorre launched a long career as a star player in horror and mystery movies.
  3. “Halloween.” A psychotic killer in a featureless mask stalks suburban teens in this creepy classic. The success of John Carpenter’s low-budget 1978 masterpiece ushered in a new generation of horror movies in the years that followed. “Halloween” itself has been remade, sequelized and imitated numerous times.
  4. “The Shining.” Stanley Kubrick’s much-debated, influential masterpiece put the “psycho” in psychological horror. Veering widely from the book, famously annoying Stephen King in the process, Kubrick nonetheless created a host of unforgettable images. The meanings behind those images have inspired many a late-night film discussion, web site and dissertation.
  5. “Misery.” Another from the mind of Stephen King, this 1990 thriller presented a writer’s worst nightmare. Novelist James Caan is captured by Kathy Bates, a psychotic fan who uses torture to shape and critique his next manuscript. The terrifying role transformed Bates from Broadway’s best-kept secret into an Oscar-winning movie star.
  6. “Cape Fear.” Martin Scorsese’s 1991 psycho thriller was actually a remake of a 1962 film. Demented ex-con Robert De Niro makes life a living hell for attorney Nick Nolte and his family. De Niro’s scary and influential performance won him numerous awards.
  7. “Seven.” Director David Fincher’s 1995 film redefined the psycho thriller for a new generation. Detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman track a killer who’s a little too obsessed with the Seven Deadly Sins. Kevin Spacey’s chilling turn, combined with another in “The Usual Suspects,” launched him into movie stardom.
  8. “Zodiac.” Serial killers practically define the psycho thriller genre. What’s often forgotten is that one man defined the “serial killer” as we think of it today – and the police never caught him. Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhall star in the 2007 adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s book about the chilling real-life crimes of the Zodiac Killer.
  9. "Red Dragon.” FBI agent Edward Norton catches one psycho killer, then sets out to catch another one. This is the second film version of the Thomas Harris novel that introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Of course, that makes it a prequel to what many consider the greatest psycho thriller of all time.
  10. “The Silence of the Lambs.”Director Jonathan Demme, like Hitchcock and Kubrick, took the psycho thriller to a new level with this grand tale of horror. FBI agent Jodie Foster forms an unlikely alliance with a killer persuasively played by Anthony Hopkins. The movie swept the 1991 Oscars, a feat equaled by few films in history.