The 1990s were a great decade for movies in general but particularly the psychological thriller genre, as these 10 brilliant movies demonstrate.
Everyone loves a good mind-bender now and again, and psychological thrillers can serve up a double dose. This genre cranked out some memorable hits dating back to the 1930s, but it was the 1990s that truly began to capitalize on the theme.
That decade saw a number of extremely memorable (and disturbing) films that had audiences on the edge of their seats with no fingernails left to chew on. Here are ten of the best, ranked by IMDb for their artistic merit and heavy entertainment value.
10 Breakdown (1997) – 6.9
Every good husband dreads the thought of his wife disappearing without a trace, and Breakdown brought that reality to the screen. Kurt Russell played Jeff Taylor, a man on a cross country trip with his wife Amy. When their Jeep breaks down, a trucker offers to drive Amy to the nearest phone to call for help.
When Amy goes missing, Jeff begins a frantic and panicked search that turns up nothing but dead ends. Soon he learns that the vehicle breakdown was a ploy to ransom Amy for $90,000 dollars if he ever wants to see her again. It’s the ultimate nightmare scenario, and gripping to the final act.
9 Basic Instinct (1992) – 7.0
Acclaimed director Paul Verhoeven courted incredible controversy when he dropped the erotic psychological thriller Basic Instinct which catapulted Sharon Stone to stardom. The film was rife with highly explicit sex scenes that shocked audiences who expected a traditional erotic thriller.
The film influenced many thrillers moving forward while simultaneously etching the memory of uncrossing legs into each and every viewer. Whether sexy or sadistic, nothing about Basic Instinct could be un-seen.
8 Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – 7.5
Tim Robbins creeped audiences out with this psychological thriller about a former Vietnam vet who returns home to suffer horrifying and disturbing visions that threaten the fabric of his own sanity. As he attempts to get control of himself, he spirals further into madness.
The pacing and tension are incredibly gripping, and the on-screen visions are enough to creep viewers out long after the end credits run. It all ends on a somber note with the tragic reality of Jacob’s predicament finally revealed in the third act.
7 Primal Fear (1996) – 7.7
Richard Gere played a hotshot Chicago defense attorney with little regard for whether his clients are innocent or guilty. He takes on the case of a young altar boy who supposedly murdered an Archbishop, believing he is in fact an innocent man.
As the story progresses, the audience becomes caught up in a web of systematic sexual abuse, cover-ups, and the dirty details of a court case. It all builds to the final shocking scene that left both Gere’s character and the audience in complete disbelief.
6 The Game (1997) – 7.8
David Fincher brought a masterful directorial eye to this nail-biting suspense thriller starring Michael Douglas as Nicholas van Orton, a wealthy investment banker whose younger brother delivers the ultimate birthday present. Nicholas learns that he’s to be part of a game that integrates fully with his personal and professional life.
Before he’s out of the gate, Nicholas’ life begins coming apart at the seams as “the game” becomes something far more sinister and ultimately terrifying. The entire 128 minute running time is a series of scares and paranoia that last right up to the final twist of the story, which is trademark Fincher.
5 Misery (1990) – 7.8
Rob Reiner directed this suspense horror flick based on the Stephen King novel and turned it into an incredibly memorable success with a little black comedy thrown in for good measure. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a writer attempting to kill off his romance novel character so he can pursue different work.
After suffering a near-fatal car crash, Sheldon is nursed back to health by Annie Wilkes, a mentally unstable former nurse who just happens to be his biggest fan. When she learns of her beloved character’s death in Sheldon’s latest novel, she begins a campaign of violence and terror against him.
4 Perfect Blue (1997) – 8.0
Perfect Blue utilized the adult anime genre to craft a masterful suspense film that took audiences on a psychological roller coaster whilst grasping them by the throat the entire time. The film centered around a pop start who believes she’s going insane after pursuing a potentially lucrative acting gig.
The story is loaded with disturbing imagery including murder and sexual assault which are both used to highlight the rabbit hole the main character is tumbling through. It builds to the final act when the true killer is revealed, which changes everything.
3 The Sixth Sense (1999) – 8.1
M. Night Shyamalan made a name for himself as a horror movie director when he dropped this gem on audiences at the end of the century. The Sixth Sense blended genuine scares and nail-biting tension together with a great story buffed by solid performances from Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osmont.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s follow-up works were hit or miss with the director having trouble duplicating the runaway success of his first classic film. The smash success of Split, and the critical failure of Glass, are both a testament to this unfortunate fact.
2 Se7en (1995) – 8.6
Serial killer movies were quite a rage in the 1990s, and many attempted to do something inventive and thought-provoking with their antagonists. Se7en was able to strike a good balance between drama, tension, and sheer outright horror thanks to a series of great performances.
This film centered around a killer who believed he was doing divine work by killing his victims based on the seven deadly sins. In each case, the punishment fit the crime to extremely-gruesome effect, right up to the final tragic scene that is right up there with the most shocking in history.
1 The Silence Of The Lambs (1990) – 8.6
Few psychological thrillers can even come close to matching the sheer tension and horror of The Silence of the Lambs. It became a pop culture icon unto itself with dozens of quotable lines and a primary antagonist who would send chills up the spines of moviegoers.
The concept of an FBI agent consulting one deranged serial killer in order to catch another was a stroke of genius, and a top-notch performance by Anthony Hopkins helped paint an uncomfortable light on the seedy underbelly of psychosis.
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