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A beginner's guide to psychological thrillers

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The psychological thriller. A film that gets under your skin and into your head through the warping of the perception, reality and mental state of its characters.

Our morbid fascination with scaring ourselves has made this disturbing and haunting genre a vast and popular one, so much so that it can be a challenge knowing where to start.

Due to its popularity, many films have tried (and failed) to jump on the psychological thriller bandwagon, making it hard to tell between those that are worth the watch and the ones that are better off ignored. In an attempt to make your viewing life easier, here is a list of 5 must-see psychological thrillers for both newbies and loyal fans of the genre alike.

Vertigo (1958)

Could this list even be taken seriously without mentioning the man who may as well have invented suspense? Many of Alfred Hitchcock's films could have made this list, Psycho (1960) and Rear Window (1954) to name a couple, but it is his 1958 film, Vertigo, that is renowned for its contribution to the genre. This film is ground-breaking for various reasons; its innovative cinematography, the ever-present and unsettling score, and its creative use of lighting and colour are just a few things that continue to make it stand strong alongside others in the genre. If you’re looking to get into psychological thrillers, Vertigo is the place to start. It’s an original, unpredictable and enigmatic whirlwind that will really mess with your mind and get you thinking.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

A film about cannibalism and serial killers is one that’s bound mess with your mind. In this case however, it’s Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter that well and truly gets under your skin (excuse the pun) and makes this film a staple addition to the psychological thriller genre. The film follows trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she interviews the notorious Hannibal Lecter in the hopes that he can help capture a serial killer by the name of Buffalo Bill. Hopkins’ calm and collected mannerisms, even when delivering deeply disturbing lines, gives the film a highly disconcerting tone that gets increasingly prominent as the film progresses. Likewise, the film’s suspense continually builds up until it reaches its pinnacle in its infamous night-vision scene that will have you holding your breath and hungry for more.

Se7en (1995)

This 1995 David Fincher classic is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Seven is yet another gripping psychological thriller about murder and detectives but don’t be fooled – it is very different to The Silence of the Lambs. In an almost cat-and-mouse like chase, the film follows two detectives (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) as they search for a highly dangerous serial killer whose murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins. The more they uncover, the more they realise they are playing right into the killer’s hands. With Fincher’s incredible eye for detail, this film doesn’t miss a beat and unfolds so meticulously that the shocks don’t stop coming. Discovering things only as the detectives do, you’re kept in constant suspense as your mind frantically tries to piece together the details. Seven is a truly captivating film that will stay with you for hours after the credits roll, making it another vital addition to the genre.

Shutter Island (2010)

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island follows U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of a dangerous inmate from Ashecliffe insane asylum. The film deserves a place on this list for its perspective alone. Various story elements are weaved together in such a way that your perception of reality is just as warped as the film’s main character and you begin to question everything. This film will get your head spinning as it gradually builds to its equally enigmatic and ambiguous ending and its colour scheme and immersive cinematography ensure there is a notably unnerving tone throughout.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a British-American psychological thriller that showcases some of the best performances of this decade from both Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. This film is no doubt the most harrowing and disturbing film on this list. Chopping between different stages in Kevin’s life, the story is told through the eyes of his mother, forcing you to live each horrifying moment alongside her. The film’s striking use of colour, moving and compelling performances and disorientating structure makes for a psychologically wearing watch but one that’s not to be missed.

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