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15 Best Horror Thriller Movies of All Time

December 28, 2017
14 min read

Over the passage of time, the horror and thriller genres have emerged as one of the favourites of movie lovers. Like thrillers, the horror films have the capability of creating a physiological reaction and racy heartbeat. Through the use of fear and shock, thriller films share a close relationship with horror films – both provoking tension and pressure. When these two genres of filmmaking collude, the atmosphere bursts with tremendous tension and horror, elevating the suspenseful atmosphere.

This list contains films which have the capability of merging thrillers and horrors with legendary masterfulness. Some not be an exclusive part of a thriller or horror, but evoke the mental fear with spine chilling suspense. With that said, here is the list of top scary thrillers of all time. You can watch some of these best horror thriller movies on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.

15. Donnie Darko (2001)

Directed by Richard Kelly, ‘Donnie Darko’ is about the titular character’s troubled visions of a man in a large rabbit suit who manipulates him to commit a series of crimes. The film applies disturbing imagery and takes inspiration from veteran director David Lynch’s cinematography techniques. The film draws the scares upon the narrative techniques, crafted by the director himself. Scrutinizing the character’s tortured and anguished soul and mind. The film is like a maze where one tends to misinterpret reality with illusion. While Kelly’s direction and writing combined with the cinematography and the acting performances are applauded for their tremendous efforts, the musical score by Michael Andrews shaped the intense and disturbing atmosphere with brilliance.

‘Donnie Darko’, since its release, has gained a cult following both critically and commercially. Among its gallon of awards, Richard Kelly won the “Best Screenplay” at the San Diego Film Critics Society and the “Grand Jury Prize” at the Sundance Film Festival, to name a few.

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14. Misery (1990)

Stephen King is a pioneer of scary thrillers and ‘Misery’ is just one of the many examples of his masterful grasp in freezing the spine with psychological adroitness.  Directed by Rob Reiner, this 1990 film is about a famous author, who after being rescued from a car crash by a fan of his novels; gradually comes to realize that the care he is receiving is only the beginning of a nightmare of captivity and abuse of an obsessive fan.  With a stunning performance by Kathy Bates as psychotic Annie Wilkes, the film is a nightmare to watch. The film completely bases itself on two aspects – the acting and the screenplay.

Written by William Goldman, the American screenwriter dexterously moulded King’s novel and portrayed it as a “chess game” between the artist and the fan, as complemented by the director. Elevating the solid screenplay is the aforementioned performance by Bates who transformed her sweet demeanour into complete lunacy seamlessly. One of King’s favourite adaptations, the film went on to revive accolades at every level, and Bates’ brilliant performances won her the “Best Actress” awards at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.

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13. Alien (1979)

‘Alien’ is a conclusive proof that alien life is not supposed to be explored. Conceived by respected Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, ‘Alien’ is the story about a man-hunting extra-terrestrial creature that stalks and attacks the crew of a spaceship. Although the film is primarily of the science fiction genre, this 1979 flick embraces the suggestiveness of a thriller with terrifying warmth. Preserved by the Library of Congress, the film set a benchmark for the horror genre which still hasn’t been surpassed.  ‘Aliened’ is brilliantly symbolical, amalgamated the classic mystery of the fear and an unpleasant social construct. Directed by Ridley Scott, this sci-fi horror film is vividly visual, intensifying the inner fear of the human and fear of a grotesque reality.

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12. Seven (1995)

There are few films which manage to garner critical praise for its atmospheric darkness, and ‘Seven’ or ‘Se7ev’ seamlessly garnered immense praise for darkness, brutality and themes. What makes this 1995 David Fincher film such a menacing watch is its dark undertones. Employing Christian and religious themes, the movie traces the two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, who in the pursuit of catching a serial killer come across the killer’s shrewd and depressing references of the seven deadly sins.

Establishing a film in bold narrative techniques, ‘Seven’ is a masterful merger of the detectives’ thriller hunt for the killer, and the horrifying undertones of religious dogmas. Unlike other films on this list, ‘Seven’ carefully separated the horror and thriller without alienating them from each other. Film critic Roger Ebert famously said, “None of Fincher’s films is darker than this one.” And he couldn’t be more right, with Fincher bringing a cat and mouse chase to an extremely unnerving dark ending, the flick is bound to send shivers down the spine.

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11. Split (2016)

With ‘Split’, M. Night Shyamalan officially announced his return to cinematic brilliance. Another deft amalgamation of psychology and horror, the film stars James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering for dissociative identity disorder who has 23 different personalities. One of his personalities, “Dennis” kidnaps Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey Cooke. Things go bad to worse as Crumb’s 24th personality is about to activate which is “The Beast”. To begin with, the film itself stars with a classic Shyamalan absurdity as it is a standalone sequel to ‘Unbreakable’ (2000). The film is teeming with thrilling elements which is the result of a sold script by the filmmaker. The film’s financial and critical success has now successfully spawned a sequel titled ‘Glass’ and essentially gifts us with a potentially definitive trilogy.

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10. Black Swan (2010)

Black-Swan

Darren Aronofsky is the modern ambassador of analytically drawing the most depressing and disturbing analogies with a frightening perfection. Starring an ensemble cast of Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, ‘Black Swan’ chronicles the story of a committed dancer who wins the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. However, all merriness turns into sour hell when she starts to struggle to maintain her sanity whilst engaging in an unhealthy obsession in understanding her role. The movie finds itself in the core of human psychology and the minds’ fixation of obtaining perfection. Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival, ‘Black Swan’ glacially seeped in the unripe veins of the audience to transform into one of 2010’s best films. The film completely rests upon a historic performance by both Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey, for which the former won the “Best Actress” awards at the Academy Awards.

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9. Battle Royale (2000)

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, ‘Battle Royal’ is petrifyingly berserk and absurd. Set in dystopian Japan, the film chronicles Japanese government’s anarchical capturing of a class of ninth-grade students and forcing them to kill each other under the revolutionary “Battle Royale” competition. A shadow of many allegorical themes, the film is interpreted in many perspectives.

Placing Tatsuya Fujiwara’s Shuya Nanahara as the central character, this 2000 flick portrays the terrifying thriller from his outlook. Adapting Koushun Takami’s bestseller novel of the same name, the film has been analysed for its intense grotesqueness by academic scholars and researchers. Cited as being a social commentary of the Japanese economy during the “Lost Decade”, criticism of the Japanese educational system and the socio-political differences between generations; the film is a modern day masterpiece. The film has spawned off a variety of adaptions, films, books and has had a huge impact on post-modern filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright.

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8. The Sixth Sense (1991)

‘The Sixth Sense’ is about a young boy named Cole Sear who is able to “see and talk to the dead”. In order to cure this situation, his family calls in an equally troubled psychologist named Michael Crowe, played by Bruce Willis. ‘The Sixth Sense’ introduced the world to Shyamalan’s indulgence in twist endings which acted as an archetype for future Shyamalan projects. A cunningly crafter work, the film set a definitive path for indulging the audience into thinking cerebrally, while gasping for air in horror. The film is cleverly directed, with the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto poking our inner fear for death. Often cited as being a historical film is employing “twist endings”, this 1991 flick has received massive praise for its screenplay and has been inducted in American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies”, “100 Years…100 Movie Quotes” and “100 Years…100 Thrills”.

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7. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

The second Darren Aronofsky feature, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ is the darkest corner of life one can fathom. A psychological drama, the film explores the murky reality of drug addiction and how it sinisterly entangles an individual to completely vanquish its life. Applauded for being the “second best film of the decade after The Lord of the Rings” by film critic James Berardinell, this 2000 flick holds the grim and unsettling distinction of portraying the vulnerability of the mind. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique neatly created a nauseating effect which was restrained to a fulfilling level. Accompanying the oddly satisfying queasy cinematography is Clint Mansell’s music which essentially raised the questions of the harmful effects of drugs. Although screened out of the “2000 Cannes Film Festival”, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ has since maintained a high esteem among critics and cult followers.

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6. Eraserhead (1977)

‘Eraserhead’ is teeming with frightening imagery, giving the chills. Viewers are made uneasy from the very beginning, with the cranium of Henry Spencer, the man whose life is shown on the screen, releasing a strange object, twisted in some unsettling contorted manner from his mouth. A surrealist body horror film, this 1977 flick was David Lynch’s first feature film.Packed with motifs, recurrent characters, images, configurations and techniques that create puzzling images in the mind, the film is a pioneer of Lynch’s renaissance influences. Produced with the assistance of the American Film Institute, the film’s black and white imagery added to the hallucinating aura.

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5. Taxi Driver (1976)

Directed by Martin Scorsese, this 1976 neo-noir psychological thriller is about a mentally unstable veteran, who works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City to cope up with his chronic insomnia. Things start spiral down further when his mental instability causes him to react against the state that causes him a fury for corruption, prostitution and mental filth.

The film creates a haunting atmosphere, questioning the inner distress one feels which cannot be seen with the naked eye. The screenplay seems to have been written with some objective, an objective of communicating with the viewers. Selected by the National Film Registry, ‘Taxi Driver’ is spearheaded by the exceptional performances by Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel. The film is often cited as being one of the greatest films of all time, creating a haunting parable of blood, violence and grotesqueness. The flick went on to win prestigious awards such as the “Palme d’Or” at the Cannes Film Festival, three awards at the LAFCA Awards and three BAFTA Awards.

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4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Adapted from Ira Levin’s novel of the same name, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is the story of a pregnant woman, who upon mysteriously giving birth suspects that an evil cult wants to take her baby for practice in their rituals. Directed by the besieged Roman Polanski, the film is brimming with a certain melancholic tone. A classic, the film permeated the cultural beliefs of women due to its subject matter.

With an impressive team of performances, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Angela Dorian and Clay Tanner; this 1968 flick is a terrifying psychological allegory. With cinematographer William A. Fraker, and composer Krzysztof Komeda; Polanski created a chilling and gloomy atmosphere with froze the bones of audiences and critics alike. Another example of a vibrant narrative, the screenplay is entirely based on the book, which makes it so visually explanatory. An instant classic at the time of its release, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ won Ruth Gordon an “Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress”, “Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture” and was placed ninth on American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Thrills”.

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3. The Shining (1980)

Although ‘The Shining’ has developed an appreciation among critics over time, it has still not acquired the praise it deserves. A film crafted to be commercially feasible and artistically articulate, ‘The Shining’ is the story of the Torrance family who in an endeavour to have a fun holiday check in a hotel. However, things now go for a haywire when an evil entity engulfs the father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and the son stars to see horrific premonitions from the past and of the future. Adapting the story from a Stephen King book, the film creates an aura of complete helplessness, nudging the innate fear of all.

Veteran director Stanley Kubrick intricately blurred the lines between the horror and thriller genres. While the suspenseful outcomes created a thrilling experience, the pure berserk phenomena of the human mind created the extreme chilling fear. This 1980 flick was initially miles away from critical praise though, with it winning the “Razzie Awards” for Stanley Kubrick’s direction and Shelley Duvall’s acting. However, through detailed research and analysis, critics have found an intricate framework of allusions, references, motifs and symbolism, and have since been recognised as one the greatest horror films of all time.

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2. Psycho (1960)

A pioneer of infusing horror with thriller, Alfred Hitchcock revolutionised cinema with his 1960 psychological horror film ‘Psycho’. When this movie released in the theatres, critics and audience were shocked by the film’s inventive concept, music and cinematography. Setting a new tone for violence, reclusive behaviour and sexuality in American films; ‘Psycho’ is the story about Marion Crane, a real estate secretory, who upon absconding from her boss after embezzling money, comes across a remote motel run by a cloistered young man. Things seem fine until the man’s obsessive mother turns up to ruin her life.

While the film was shot in low budget, the resulting atmosphere worked wonders for Hitchcock’s sensational slasher flick.  With a cunningly chilling performance by Anthony Perkins who brought out an unsettling nuance to motel owner Norman Bates, the film comfortably established its primary objective on the shoulders of the newbie. The veteran director set the primary theme of the film, horror; and carefully knit the plot though a gradual suspenseful detour. The film successfully set Alfred Hitchcock as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and has since been one of the most endeared movies despite the quite controversial concept material.

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1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

When Anthony Hopkins described his favourite dish of eating a man’s “liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”, the world gasped in horror. ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ enmeshed a gripping thriller with gut-pulling horror – a thematic representation unmatched and unparalleled.

Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film traces the story of a young F.B.I. cadet, Clarice Starling, who is obligated to receive the help of a blemished and precariously manipulative cannibal killer, Dr Hannibal Lector, to catch a serial killer, Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, a madman who skins his victims as his trophy. The film powerfully costumed the foundation on a gripping screenplay, adapted by Ted Tally from Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name. The movie is arguably one of the most terrifying thriller set pieces, with the candle burning on both sides – the manipulative Hannibal the Cannibal and the satanic Buffalo Bill; and stirred the plot with Clarice Starling’s pursuit of catching the killer. What makes ‘Silence of the Lambs’ such an eventful landmark of cinema is its dexterity of juggling multiple themes and concepts while scrutinizing the plot with the perfect measure. The crew’s efforts earned the film quite a many achievements. Among its barrel of awards and critical success, the flick became the first and only horror film to win the “Best Picture” Oscar and was the third to win awards in all the top five categories – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

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