From The Prestige (2006) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), these are the best suspense movies ever made.
Suspense films, designed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, often involve intense storylines and characters that are placed in life-threatening situations or are trying to uncover a mystery. Our perspective in these films is often subjective, as we experience the story alongside the characters, anxiously following them for likely clues to get to the truth. The possibility that this could be our story adds to the thrill. Ranging from psychological thrillers and horror movies to crime dramas, suspense films can be hard to pin down to a particular genre. These movies don’t usually involve political machinations or serial murders.
Alfred Hitchcock can evoke suspense in a scenario as simple as a bored man with a broken leg spying on his neighbor. No wonder the legendary filmmaker is hailed as the ‘Master of Suspense’. It was Mr. Hitchcock who showed filmmakers how to gently introduce chaos, instability, and uncertainty into a story all the while keeping the audience hooked. Well-crafted suspense movies also require two other vital components. Emotional investment and a perfect pay off!
Quickly then, we bring you some of the most thrilling and suspenseful movies, ranging from readily recognisable suspense classics to under-appreciated gems. They’ll have you gripping the armrests of your chair and holding your breath as the tension builds. So sit back, turn off the lights, and get ready for some heart-pumping action. These are the best thriller movies of all time.
Best Thriller Movies, Ranked
25. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Suspense in Manoj Night Shymalan’s Sixth Sense is achieved by delicately balancing the paranormal and the normal. Eight-year old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) sees and hears things no one else can. He’s too scared to discuss it with anyone including his single mother. But a determined child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) learns the boy’s secret and tries to help him. Despite a slow pace, Shymalan manages to create great suspense around Cole’s frightening visions.
Shymalan’s filmmaking style strongly reminds us of Hitchcock. Birthday party scene in particular maintains a creepy tone without any gore or violence. The filmmaker also brilliantly intersperses clues about the nature of Cole and Crowe’s relationship. This suspenseful build-up paves way for one of the most entertaining twists in cinema. In the end, the two central characters come to terms with their hard realities.
24. Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorsese’s twisted psychological thriller is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel. Shutter Island is set in 1950s Massachusetts as US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) heads to a remote island psychiatric facility for the criminally insane. He visits the facility with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient. The facility’s administration continues to hinder Teddy‘s probe. He interrogates several people including inmates, who offer different theories and conspiracies regarding the facility.
We wait in suspense for Teddy Daniels to unravel something shocking. Scorsese employs brilliant foreshadowing techniques through unsettling visual motifs. And when the time comes, the narrative reveals the truth behind Teddy’s quest. The answer to the mystery? It’s as awe-inspiring as the suspenseful build-up. Sound and music is cleverly used throughout the narrative. It constantly informs us that something is wrong with the character and his surroundings.
Where to watch: Netflix
23. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan has an incredible knack to deeply establish a suspenseful tone in both visual and storytelling techniques. A fine example of his supreme ability is The Prestige, an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel. Even in a familiar war drama like Dunkirk (2017), Nolan efficiently used mise-en-scène and music to keep us in the shoes of the tensed soldiers. In The Prestige, Nolan’s non-linear storytelling and dazzling visuals keep us invested in the jigsaw puzzle-like mystery.
The film tells the story of rivalry between two Victorian era illusionists. They start their respective careers at a London theater and work together, until a tragic accident creates a rift between them. Their rivalry peaks when one obsessed magician tries to find the secret behind the other magician’s mind-blowing vaudevillian act. The suspense Nolan builds throughout ends with a fantastic twist.
22. Sorcerer (1977)
American remakes of classics have often generated distasteful results. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a fine exception. It is based on Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel, which was already adapted by Henri-Georges Clouzot as ‘Wages of Fear’. Just like in Wages of Fear, four immigrants living in a South American town embark on a mission to transport unstable nitro-glycerine over a bumpy road for hundreds of miles. At the same time, Friedkin’s movie was more bleak and brutal than Clouzot’s take.
Friedkin shot the film in the unforgiving jungles of the Dominican Republic, which made the shooting process very painstaking and Friedkin went over budget. However, looking at it now, the gloomy atmosphere adds much to the suspense and thrills. It’s hard to resist comparisons with Wages of Fear. But Sorcerer offers a lot of gripping suspense sequences that sometimes outmatch the original. I still can’t get the great suspension bridge scene out of my mind!
21. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The era of paranoid thriller movies in American cinema sort of begins with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. It’s based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel and was shot during the Cuban missile crisis. And when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated a year later, the film’s eerie plot became part of conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. The story revolves around an American prisoner of war named Raymond Shaw, who is captured during the Korean War. He is unknowingly brainwashed by the Communists. Shaw returns to America and even wins a Congressional Medal of Honour.
But a use of a particular code phrase can turn Raymond Shaw into an assassin. John Frankenheimer’s spectacular mise-en-scène and intense location shooting keep the audience on edge the entire time. The way the bizarre conspiracies unfold build up suspense and political intrigue. Manchurian Candidate still has the same visceral impact after 60 years.
20. The Vanishing (1988)
Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer’s tense psychological thriller The Vanishing is based on Tim Krabbe’s novel. The author has also turned his story into a screenplay. The film deals with a case of mysterious disappearance. But it also works as a chilling character study of a sociopath. Amsterdam couple Rex and Saskia go on a cycling holiday in the south of France. Saskia disappears at a gas station. Police fail to find any clues. Three years later, Rex is still haunted by his girlfriend’s vanishing act.
The story suddenly shifts its attention to Raymond Lemorne, Saskia‘s kidnapper. He is a science professor and lives with his wife and two daughters in the peaceful French countryside. The intellectual Raymond is also a sociopath who loves exploring his ‘evil’ side. And thus begins an eerie cat-and-mouse between Raymond and Rex. What did Raymond do to Saskia? The answer will haunt you for days.
19. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is best known for smartly assimilating different genre set-ups into an otherwise straightforward revenge story. The intense Korean actor Choi Min-sik plays the ordinary Seoul businessman Dae-su. He wakes up one day locked up in a mysterious apartment. He’s kept imprisoned for 15 years without any explanations. One day, Dae-su is released and finds a cell phone and some cash. He has no clue why the abductor has released him now. Dae-su’s search for answers is the crux of this suspenseful and powerful visceral experience.
The striking visual composition, bold performances, and intricate sound design elevate every moment in Oldboy to a grander scale. Park effortlessly makes wild tonal shifts, while keeping us wondering about the reason behind Dae-su’s prolonged suffering. And all that building tension leads to a payoff that will sting long after the film’s ending.
18. Cache (2005)
Michael Haneke’s enigmatic French suspense thriller is sure to confound viewers. It’s a brilliantly provocative work which doesn’t offer a clear-cut answer to the creepy mystery at its center. An intellectual liberal couple’s – Georges and Anne Laurent – peaceful bourgeois existence is disturbed by a mysterious video recording. The video just shows the street view recording of the couple’s home. There are no threatening messages.
The pair then starts to receive more videos, anonymous phone calls, and macabre pictures drawn with childish hands. Georges can’t tell if it’s a mean prank or a voyeuristic menace linked to his past. Cache is full of interesting riddles and red herrings that give us space to come up with our own theories about the mystery. Haneke ratchets up the tension through unflinching wide, static shots. His mise-en-scène looks both banal and terrifying.
17. Rebecca (1940)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Gothic suspense thriller Rebecca is based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 eponymous novel. The narrative unfolds from the point of view of a meek young woman (Joan Fontaine) whose name we’re not told. She falls in love with a wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). After marriage, Mrs. Winter moves to his palatial countryside estate. At the estate, Max’s first wife the late Rebecca’s presence is felt everywhere, both literally and figuratively.
The film’s gothic suspense element is derived from expert production design and the remarkable mise-en-scène. The ornate Victorian architecture of the mansion and the sweeping shots of foggy forests surrounding it lend the story a tense atmosphere. The dark secrets are also revealed in a masterful way, offering us a profound psychological portrait of the characters. Rebbeca nabbed an Academy Award for Best Picture.
16. The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese is a versatile filmmaker, although time and again he is identified for his gritty, crime dramas. In The Departed, remake of Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Scorsese sets foot into the familiar gangster territory. An hour into the film, we know we’re in for a heart-pounding thriller. The narrative follows Billy Costigan who is offered to work undercover after finishing his training at Massachusetts State Police School.
Costigan’s family is known for its ties with the Irish mob. And so the police need him to nab the powerful Irish gang of Frank Costello. Interestingly, Frank has already planted his informant in the State Police. Both sides work to find the mole amongst their ranks. The narrative unfolds ferociously, escalating tension on both sides. And all that suspense culminates into a startling end.
Where to watch: HBO Max, Hulu
15. Deliverance (1972)
Based on James Dickey’s 1970 novel, British filmmaker John Boorman’s Deliverance was a landmark in suspenseful filmmaking. It revolves around four, white middle-class city-dwelling men. They are fixated on a canoeing trip to Cahulawassee River valley in Northern Georgia. Their peaceful weekend of male bonding is harshly intruded by a pair of hostile locals. Later, one of the locals is killed in self-defense. The stark difference between urban and rural America is exposed in the ensuing violent battle.
Right from the early guitar vs. banjo duet, Boorman elegantly sets up the conflict. Deliverance was interpreted as an allegory of US involvement in Vietnam. But more than the thoughtful social commentary and shocking visuals, the film has stood the test of time due to Boorman’s relentlessly tense mise-en-scène. In fact, it’s very much an action-driven narrative, where men with a bruised ego constantly try to overcome their humiliation.
14. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher builds up a sense of terror and tension in the opening scenes of Zodiac. It is July 1969, and a young couple are brutally attacked by a masked stranger. The woman is killed and the man survives. The killer strikes once again and later writes a letter to San Francisco Chronicle identifying himself as ‘Zodiac’. Journalists and cops dedicate a large part of their life in tracking down the killer who’s become a public sensation. Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist particularly obsessed with the case, tracks down every possible lead.
Fincher and his screenwriter James Vanderbilt consistently make us believe some random lead would reveal the killer’s identity. The heightened emotions of the cops and journalists are acutely palpable. And how can we forget that terrifying basement scene where we deeply dread the protagonist’s safety?
Overall, Zodiac gracefully visualizes a complex crime story through suspenseful storytelling.
Where to watch: YouTube
13. The Wages of Fear (1953)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s spine-chilling suspense thriller is based on Georges Arnaud’s novel. The film revolves around four destitute European men living in a small South American town. An American oil company foreman enlists the four unemployed immigrants to carry two big trucks loaded with highly unstable nitro-glycerine. The nitro-glycerine needs to be transported to put out the fire at an oil well. The journey is treacherous. The four men deal with their own personal fears as they try to drive 300 miles across rough terrain.
The entire second-half is pure, unadulterated terror. Clouzot has tight hold on the pacing and maintains suspense and thrills without any overly stylistic cuts. A particularly tense sequence involves a truck making a turn on a rickety wooden platform. The actors also brilliantly convey their characters’ restlessness and existential despair.
12. North by Northwest (1959)
Alfred Hitchcock’s action/adventure thriller focuses on the director’s pet themes: mistaken identity and betrayal. Writer Ernest Lehman’s story revolves around an innocent advertising executive Roger O’Thornbill (Cary Grant) being pursued by international saboteurs, who mistake him for a government agent named George Kaplan. Soon, Roger is caught in a conspiracy that takes him on a journey across the north-west United States. North by Northwest has a seemingly straightforward narrative for a Hitchcock flick.
Yet the master excels in creating suspense and terror through unpredictable elements. One such memorable moment is when Roger faces danger in daylight on a barren field. Hitchcock gradually notches up the suspense in the scene as our intrepid hero is chased by a crop dusting plane. The Mount Rushmore climax sequence is another thrilling sequence that’s now iconic.
Bernard Hermann’s extraordinary musical score perfectly aids Hitchcock’s suspenseful visuals.
11. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Acclaimed British actor Charles Laughton’s one and only directorial venture The Night of the Hunter is a creepy, suspenseful parable of good-vs-evil. It was based on David Grubb’s novel of the same name and was perfectly adapted to screen by James Agee. Set during the Depression in the Bible belt region of the American south, the narrative revolves around an evil preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).
Ben Harper, a death row prisoner, talks in his sleep about a hidden loot. His cellmate Powell overhears it and sets out to find it after getting released. He gets close to Powell’s widow to seek more information and eventually marries her. The two Harper children (John and Pearl), however, see through Powell’s vicious schemes. Soon, the kids are forced to embark on a terrifying journey to escape their malevolent stepfather. Shot in black-and-white, Stanley Cortez’s mesmerizing cinematography is a blend of suspense, horror and lyricism.
10. Chinatown (1974)
Roman Polanski’s fantastic neo-noir had one of the most taut scripts ever written and produced in cinema. In Chinatown, script writer Robert Towne and director Polanski right from the opening scenes hint of a nasty secret/conspiracy beneath all the deceit and murder. And the duo build up the ominous atmosphere in a striking fashion. Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, the narrative revolves around J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator hired by a suspicious wife Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to follow her husband Hollis Mulwray (Dwight Frye).
As Gittes delves deeper into the case, he becomes embroiled in a complex web of corruption and deceit involving the city’s water politics and a powerful conspiracy against Mulwray.
Chinatown employs plenty of clever suspense mechanisms in the screenwriting. The final big reveal and the closing line still have the power to haunt us.
Where to watch: HBO Max
9. A Separation (2011)
Asghar Farhadi, like his fellow Iranian filmmakers, makes humanist cinema that addresses sensitive socio-political issues. But unlike his Iranian contemporaries, Farhadi creates naturalistic suspense and tension through his intricate study of Iranian society. Farhadi’s fifth feature-film A Separation got him an international breakthrough. The narrative revolves around a couple who are faced with separation because they disagree over a decision to move overseas. The husband wants to stay back and treat his Alzheimer-afflicted dad.
Soon a complex moral conflict ensues when a woman is hired to take care of the ailing parent. The use of handheld cameras forces us to face the issues alongside the characters. A Separation, similar to other films in Farhadi’s oeuvre, doesn’t have heroes or villains. We encounter real people hailing from different spheres of the society.
Farhadi shows how a simple conflict can create ripples across the boundaries of class and gender.
8. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Coen brothers’ taut and suspenseful violent classic is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. A hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds $2million in the desert after stumbling upon a drug deal gone wrong. But it seems impossible for Llewelyn to get away with the money, since the cartel have brought in a ruthless hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to bring back the money. What follows is a tense and bloody cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Chigurh.
From the coin toss scene to the motel shootout scene, the calm and unwavering disposition of the psychopathic Chigurh’s is chilling. The lack of soundtrack and Coen brothers’ bleak visual designs also add to the dread. Apart from the cat-and-mouse chases, No Country for Old Men contains complex subplots which keep us intrigued till the end. The Coens’ also cleverly subvert our suspenseful wait for the catharsis in the climax.
Where to watch: HBO Max
7. Se7en (1995)
Se7en signaled the arrival of one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation. David Fincher. He joined forces with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker to make one of the most original and suspenseful thrillers ever made. Se7en tells the story of a mysterious killer who punishes his victims according to the seven deadly sins. Veteran detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and hot-headed young detective Mills (Brad Pitt) investigate the increasingly upsetting case. Just when the detectives wonder if they’ll ever find their killer, an unsettling incident occurs.
Though Se7en depicts horrifying murders, Fincher maintains suspense and thrill by showcasing a lot of things ‘suggestively’. The implied brutality of certain sequences haunts us to this day. I mean who can forget the ‘What’s in the Box?’ scene, where we’re left to imagine the gruesome final moments of Mills’ compassionate wife.
6. High and Low (1963)
The legendary Akira Kurosawa, under the guise of a kidnapping thriller, made the greatest portrait of class and social divide in post-war Japan. Kingo Gondo, a proud and decent business executive of a shoe company, receives an anonymous phone call that his little son is kidnapped. But wait! The son is playing outside. The stranger has mistakenly kidnapped Gondo’s chauffeur’s child. Caught in a crisis of conscience, Gondo must choose between keeping the money to save his own business or use it to ransom out his chauffeur’s son. Meanwhile, the detectives mount an impressive campaign to catch the kidnapper.
High and Low remains a master class in staging and blocking. The entire first-half is confined to Gondo’s sprawling living room. The human conflicts staged within this tight space keep us on the edge. And brace yourself for the unforgettable money exchange scene set inside a high-speed train! All the suspense culminates in a harrowing verbal confrontation.
5. Jaws (1975)
Jaws ushered in the era of summer blockbusters and turned Spielberg into a top-tier Hollywood filmmaker. But making it was an uphill task for him. The budget went out of control, the production faced a lot of logistical problems, and the two central performers had one too many clashes on the sets. The then 29-year old Spielberg feared if the studio executives would fire him. Despite working in such a tense and anxious atmosphere, Spielberg gave us an indisputably glorious suspense thriller of all time.
In a New England tourist town, a great white shark starts targeting and preying upon the visitors. And so, three men with different temperaments go on a voyage to kill it. The film was based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel. In Jaws, Spielberg creates suspense through effective and suggestive visual cues. The brilliant sound design in the suspenseful scenes adds to the tension.
4. Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong Joon-ho’s mystery thriller and social satire is based on the real-life case of South Korea’s first recorded serial-killer. The killings took place in the rural province of Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991. This was particularly a turbulent period in South Korean political history as there were nation-wide uprisings against the authoritarian regime. Local detectives, good at controlling the crowd or beating up ordinary citizens, are obviously incompetent when it comes to investigating serial-murders.
But things change when an intellectual Seoul cop comes to assist the case. Once they study the killer’s modus operandi, Bong Joon-ho stages pulse-pounding surveillance and investigation sequences. Unlike Hollywood cop protagonists, the characterization of Korean cops, who’re morally ambivalent, is very realistic. It especially keeps us despairing over whether they’d catch the right culprit. Besides, Bong’s bleak aesthetic persistently focuses on the chaos surrounding the case.
3. Rear Window (1954)
In Rear Window, Hitchcock masterfully sustains an atmosphere of tension by trapping us viewers alongside his wheel-chair confined protagonist. James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, a photojournalist recuperating in his apartment with a broken leg. The boredom and natural human curiosity turns into a voyeur. He spies on his neighbors through the windows of their apartments. His morbid enthusiasm, however, brings him trouble when he starts suspecting that a neighbor opposite his apartment has murdered his wife.
Jeffries seeks the help of his frustrated high society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly). This leads to extremely tense situations, even putting Lisa’s life in danger. Hitchcock’s camera doesn’t leave Jeffries’ apartment. And so, the limited viewpoint keeps us as emotionally invested in the mystery as Jeffries. We strongly feel the hero’s helplessness when Lisa is about to be attacked by the alleged murderer. And in the final confrontation scene, Hitchcock uses sound and darkness to create enormous tension.
2. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s psychological horror movie draws from Thomas Harris’ best-selling Hannibal Lecter book series. One of the finest thrillers in cinema history it nabbed 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film revolves around FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who is new to the bureau’s Behavioural Science Unit. Clarice’s superior sends her to question the imprisoned but dangerous serial-killer Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) to find clues about a serial-killer known as ‘Buffalo Bill’. Right from the first tense meeting between Clarice and Hannibal, the narrative maintains a suspenseful tone.
Much of the tension comes from Hannibal’s mind games with Clarice and other authorities. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography, particularly during the iconic elevator scene and final rescue scene, remain a masterwork in suspense. Howard Shore’s ominous score adds to our anxiety. The narrative also withholds a thrilling character arc for Clarice as she gradually conquers her own vulnerability with a soft-spoken but firm resolve.
1. Psycho (1960)
Psycho was the apex in the career of the ‘Master of Suspense.’ It was adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name. But what made Psycho an enduring work of cinematic art was the masterful way Hitchcock used sensory details to create suspense. From the monochromatic look to the extreme close-up shots and phenomenal foreshadowing elements, the film is a masterclass in tone and sustained tension.
Psycho begins in the film-noir territory as an ordinary woman named Marion Crane decides to embezzle $40,000 from her employer. She wants to start a new life with the man she’s madly in love with. Misfortune follows Marion when she stops at Bates Motel. She engages in a small talk with the good-looking caretaker, Norman Bates. However, the ominous feeling Hitchcock built right from the opening shot culminates in the terrifying shower scene, which further deepens the mystery around Bates Motel.
There you go! These are some of the best suspense movies of all time. There are plenty others that promise if not more, as much thrill, suspense and tension. Notorious (1946), The Third Man (1949), Purple Noon (1960), Blow Out (1981), Miracle Mile (1988), The Gift (2015), and The Handmaiden (2016).
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’