Everybody knows movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense, two examples of effective big-screen thrillers which are among the more popular movies of our time. However, for every one of those, there are many thrillers which for some reason or other failed to reach an audience. For this article I wanted to highlight ten thrillers which got lost among the herd.
The movies in this list are light on car chases, shootouts, and serial killers, but they are not short on tension, suspense, desire, atmosphere and originally compelling characters. Some are about deeper issues within our society such as mental illness, loneliness and domestic violence. Some are just wonderful entertainments, but they all have something to offer and yes, plenty of “spill the popcorn bowl on the floor” thrills.
Killing Me Softly (2002)
Killing Me Softly, a kinky thriller starring Heather Graham (as Alice) and Joseph Fiennes (as Adam) sat on the studio shelf for nearly a year before it saw a limited release in 2002 — and most critics wished it had stayed there. Personally, I liked this atmospheric erotic mystery about two people who meet, sleep together and then get to know each other. Filmed in London in late 2000, this little-seen thriller by director Kaige Chen (Farewell, My Concubine) certainly looks polished and well crafted even if its script is as soggy as a crumpet left in the tea for too long. But who cares? When Heather and Joseph stare at each other with “I don’t know you but let’s go to bed now!” expressions who wouldn’t want to see where this pairing will go. At least I did.
Both actors are capable of displaying vulnerability on-screen (Graham was Twin Peak’s Annie Blackburn for goodness’s sake not to mention her heartbreaking turn as Boogie Night’s Roller-Girl) and are capable of generating chemistry on-screen (Fiennes with Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love) but there is little chemistry between these two here. In fact, both seem to have better chemistry with Adam’s beautiful sister Deborah (Natascha McElhone). The thriller aspect doesn’t create much in the way of thrills either but there’s just something about this movie I really like – sort of like how wearing your favorite leather jacket on a rainy day makes you feel. London looks great, Graham is stylish and charming and this movie features a lush music score by Patrick Doyle in the style of Ennio Morricone. It’s not the best erotic thriller around (and It might be the worst movie in this list) but it is watchable with two compulsively likable actresses on hand to make it enjoyable even if the ending is dumber than a bag of biscuits.
Romeo Is Bleeding (1994)
While Basic Instinct went on to become the biggest moneymaking movie of 1992 and Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammel is now the stuff of bad girl cinema legend, 1994’s Romeo is Bleeding featuring a just as wicked performance by Lena Olin, was hardly seen by anybody. I hate to be that guy to insult general moviegoers taste but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that when this movie came out in the spring of 1994 the movie earning the most money was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I’ve written before how quality movies from that season were ignored because of Jim Carrey’s talking butt.
So why is Romeo here? Well, it is a stylish, sleek, down and dirty item that is probably most noted for Olin’s maniacal, malicious and thoroughly entertaining performance as Mona Demarkov, a sexy, vicious, and Machiavellian hit woman for the mob. Besides scheming her way to fortune, Mona’s other “interests” including outsmarting crooked cops (here played by Gary Oldman), mob bosses (Roy Schrieder) and just about any other man she knows she can weaken—which comes as easy to her as breathing.
Director Peter Madak (now 82 and still working) crafted a twisty, smutty yet elegant piece of work with this movie which features supporting roles from Annabella Sciorra, Juliette Lewis and Michael Wincott but again, it’s Olin who steals the movie as a character who laughs devilishly while strangling a man between her legs—a year and a half before GoldenEye’s Xenia Onnatopp would do the same.
One Hour Photo (2002)
2002 might have seen a strange year if you were a fan of the cuddly, flamboyant, motor-tongued Robin Williams who delighted audiences in Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Flubber. Between Insomnia, Death to Smoochy and One Hour Photo, Williams got to play three different levels of tortured, demented and dangerous that year although in Smoochy he still got to be outrageous Williams so that probably wasn’t too big a stretch for him.
I’m one of the few people around who kind of liked Smoochy and very much liked Insomnia, but for me, the real winner of 2002 was One Hour Photo, a flip-the-sexes version of Fatal Attraction featuring an all-time-best Williams performance. Williams plays Seymore “Sy” Parrish, a photo developer at a Walmart/Target type box department store who develops (get it?) an unhealthy and disturbing fixation on an upscale couple, The Yorkins (played by a sleek, modern, and stylish Connie Nielson and Michael Vartan). Sy lives a life of loneliness and has nothing outside of his work. In fact, the only “friends” he has are the extra photos of the Yorkins he has plastered all over the walls of his sad apartment. Sy’s seemingly innocent infatuation with the family ultimately turns dangerous however and soon lovable “Sy the photo guy” has become cinema’s creepiest stalker since Cape Fear’s Max Cady. Director Mark Romanek (like David Fincher) started his career out as a music video director for artists Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Fiona Apple, and even Johnny Cash and there’s ample style and disturbing imagery throughout this movie.
One Hour Photo bears much in common with the “lonely man” movies of the 70s such as Taxi Driver and maybe it was difficult for audiences to see their lovable actor Robin Williams play such a character but this movie absolutely deserves to be sought-out because maybe, just maybe Sy was the closest to the actual Robin Williams ever captured on film.
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet opened one week after David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in August 1990, and although the two movies bear some similarities (two sexy lovers getting entangled up in a criminal scheme in dusty, sun-drenched locales) there are quite a few differences; Foley’s movie is probably the more accessible one for general audiences, (even though the audience pretty much stayed away) as it plays like an old-fashioned noir—a noir in blazing sunlight. Perhaps Foley wanted to do something brighter after making the moody At Close Range and no doubt probably wanted to forget about making 1987’s Madonna vehicle Who’s That Girl?
Jason Patric plays Kevin “Kid” Collins (or “Collie”), a former boxer struggling with mental illness after suffering too many blows to the head in the ring. As the film opens, Kevin has escaped from a mental hospital and is seen walking along a deserted dusty road where he enters the first bar he comes across. Inside he meets Fay (Rachel Ward), a quick-tongued beauty who takes pity on the very handsome Collie and offers him a place to stay on her property in exchange for doing odd jobs. Fay isn’t all alone though. Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern) always seems to be around and the two have developed a kidnapping scheme that they feel Collie would be perfect for.
To give away any more than that would greatly spoil the many twists in this exquisite, twisty, thriller. As I mentioned, audiences did not take to After Dark but oddly, seven years later, Oliver Stone made a similar sunlit noir, U-Turn, starring Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez. I liked U-Turn but for my money, Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet is the one I implore readers to track down. Foley most recently helmed the final two entries in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series and it’s striking how those big-budget supposedly kinky dramas are missing the two elements that make the tiny budgeted After Dark, My Sweet so engrossing: passion and brains.
Sea of Love (1989)
Al Pacino appeared in only five movies during the 1980s and only one of them (Scarface) is remembered as being anywhere near a classic. After a four-year-long absence from the big screen, Pacino surprised audiences with the sexy thriller Sea of Love in 1989, and boy was it worth the wait. Sure, the actor was 15 years older than he was when he made Dog Day Afternoon and maybe he couldn’t run like Frank Serpico anymore, but his mind and instincts had not slowed down one bit. Plus he still had those eyes—the ones that looked like they were reading you as sharply and thoroughly as a store security camera. In fact, they’re even described in this movie as “cop’s eyes.”
Pacino’s first attempt at playing a romantic lover during this decade was in 1982’s sickly sappy Author! Author! The result was not pleasant. But in Sea of Love Pacino is a tiger unleashed and it just so happens he’s paired with an actress (a terrific Ellen Barkin) who’s perfectly matched with him and just as animalistic. Barkin is as coy, seductive, tough, and smart as Pacino is and the chemistry between these two performers is undeniable. However, Sea of Love (directed with style by Harold Becker from a knockout script by Richard Price) isn’t a romance. It’s a thriller, and a damn good one. I don’t want to give much away but I’ll say it’s a movie with sex, humor, emotion, and atmosphere wrapped around a murder-mystery about catching a killer by way of personal dating ads. Sea of Love is so damn good I’m rather surprised it hasn’t yet been remade for the Tinder generation.
The Game (1997)
The Game is probably most commonly known as the forgotten movie David Fincher made between Se7en and Fight Club—but it shouldn’t be. It absolutely stands on its own as a mind-bending puzzler that features top-notch performances from Michael Douglas, Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger. However The Game’s real star is its atmosphere. It is certainly dark like Se7en but less grimy and more polished. While the characters of Se7en spend days standing out in torrential rain and thick gloomy air, the characters of The Game go for warm refinement and dry comfort, but soon even they find themselves prowling the uncertain night streets trying to make sense of a world gone crookedly oppressive and sinister.
There’s not much plot I could (or should) give away other than the fact The Game does revolve around a game—one which puts our main characters in peril and where if they win, they live and if they lose—well, they don’t. There are lots of twists in this game and if you’re a Fincher fan, it’s one you’ll definitely want to play.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Few people might have expected 76-year-old Roman Polanski to craft his most entertaining, engrossing, and brainy mystery thriller since 1974’s Chinatown when he released The Ghost Writer in 2010. But man, he sure surprised those people. The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, OIivia Williams and Kim Cattrall and is based on Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost. The story concerns a young ghostwriter (McGregor whose character is simply called the Ghost) hired to write the memoirs of a scandal-ridden, unpopular British Prime Minister (loosely based on real-life British PM Tony Blair) in a private location in Massachusetts (actually Germany for real-life filming purposes). However, as the writer delves deeper into the history of the PM, he finds himself threatened by several characters—threats which could cost him not just his cushy payday—but his life.
What makes The Ghost Writer so compulsively watchable is the plucky performance by McGregor as the writer who soon finds out he’s signed up for much more than he bargained for. Also Polanski’s direction hasn’t missed a beat from his Chinatown days. This is his tightest, most engaging, turn-the-screws on the audience entertainment in decades. Polanski in fact, keeps the surprises coming right up until the end credits. It’s a delicious treat from the director of Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenet, and Frantic and well worth watching.
Mortal Thoughts (1991)
Hardly anyone remembers this mystery thriller from early 1991 even though it starred the biggest movie star couple (besides Tom and Nicole) in Hollywood at the time, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. Moore had recently starred in the 1990 smash Ghost while Willis was Mr. Die Hard. So why is their only on-screen pairing, Mortal Thoughts not more well-known? It’s hard to say. Maybe Willis was still carrying some of that Bonfire of the Vanities stink on him or maybe the dark subject of this movie which explored the uneasy topic of domestic violence turned people off. Whatever the reason Mortal Thoughts is a terrific mystery with some truly great performances.
Moore plays Cynthia, a New Jersey hairdresser who watches helplessly as her best friend Joyce (a smashingly terrific Glenne Headly) marries Jimmy (Willis) a loud, coke-addicted bum who beats Joyce regularly. When Jimmy tags along on what is supposed to be a girl’s night out, things turn deadly and the two best friends are forced to cover their steps as two investigators (Harvey Keitel and Billie Neal) keep a fire lit under each of them in an attempt to try and trip one (or both) up. Will one of the women break from the other and spill what they know to the cops or will one of them snap in other ways to ensure the cops never find out the truth about what happened to Jimmy? Mortal Thoughts is a compelling dramatic thriller featuring some incredible actors providing their A-game throughout. And man, check out those early ’90s fashions!
Filmed in the fall of 1992, Malice certainly looks gorgeous (credit due to legendary Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis) however, even the prettiest outside shot can’t compete with the beauty on display from its human stars, Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin, and a young Gwyneth Paltrow in a small but key role.
Malice, written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men) and Scott Frank (Dead Again) is a story of a cocky hot-shot surgeon (Baldwin) just arrived in a cozy town and befriended by a local couple (Kidman and Bill Pullman) who soon realizes the good doctor is not as sharp as he’s reputed to be after an emergency procedure he performs on Kidman turns tragic. Don’t worry, that’s not the main surprise in Malice, a movie where it’s plot is so intricate and startling, it offers a new development practically ever few minutes.
Those who remember Malice may recall Baldwin’s “I am God,” speech but the entire sequence, a deposition scene, is eight minutes of sheer Sorkin brilliance which ends with a line from Kidman so scalpel sharp it could slice through the air.
Featuring minor but notable performances from George C. Scott, Peter Gallagher, and Anne Bancroft, Malice (another on this list from Harold Becker and this one featuring a memorable Jerry Goldsmith score) offers many twists (perhaps a few too many) but once it’s over, the biggest question you’ll be asking yourself is why the hell doesn’t Hollywood make movies like this for the big screen anymore?
Dead Calm (1988)
So Nicole Kidman has two movies on this list and both were worthy inclusions. For 1988’s Dead Calm, the actress had just tuned 20 and was a good two years away from her American film debut in Days of Thunder. Her co-stars were the then 40-year-old Sam Neill and 22-year-old Billy Zane. The director was a talented chap named Philip Noyce who with his three performers (pretty much the only three people in the entire film) made a tense, pulse-racing, nerve-jangler which put the cast and director on the map, even it the events on-screen took place in the middle of nowhere.
With echoes of Roman Polanski’s fist feature Knife in the Water, Dead Calm features a married couple (Kidman and Neil) alone at sea attempting to get past the death of their newborn, who come across a strange castaway (Zane) of a sinking ship, a castaway they bring aboard. Soon, the castaway exhibits some strange behavioral nuances which alarm the couple. When the husband decides to check out the abandoned ship, the events are flipped and the young grieving wife is left on their boat with a murderous and eccentric deviant. With nobody else around it’s a game of cat-and-mouse on the foreboding waters.
Dead Calm doesn’t skimp on the suspense or tension and maintains a level of dread throughout. Noyce would soon go on to direct the big-budgeted Jack Ryan series and 1997’s The Saint but his tiny-budgeted debut is a remarkable example that sometimes less is indeed more.
None of these movies were hardly what you’d call box-office smashes, which asks the question—why are thrillers so hard to connect with ticket-buyers? Perhaps viewers feel they can pay more attention to intricate story-lines at home, or maybe they don’t wish to worry about some jerk giving away a thriller’s surprise twist by shouting it out in a theater (my parents said this happened 30 years ago when they went to see Presumed Innocent—they were not amused). However you choose to watch the thrillers on this list there’s little doubt you’ll be vastly entertained and appreciative by each of them and that there was a time when studios actually respected audience’s patience and intelligence.