These movies might keep you up at night.
What’s the last horror movie that kept you up at night? That you found yourself thinking about days later? The best kind of thriller is often one where there’s no monster; instead, it’s an exploration of human nature that fills us with dread and makes us question if there’s any good in the world. These movies stumble down some dark avenues. Surprise! The monster is (usually) us.
The best thrillers on Netflix
Hush is an hourlong cuticle-ripper. The 2016 film centers on Maddie (Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the screenplay), a deaf and mute author who lives in a secluded cabin in the woods. And there’s a killer on the loose, wearing a creepy white mask. This premise might sound awfully well-tread, but Hush upends the typical home-invasion thriller by letting us see the threat (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) unmasked, forcing the tension to build as Maddie finds different ways to thwart his murderous advances. By immersing us in Maddie’s silent world, the tension is even more palpable, and the fact that she’s a writer of fiction allows the film to expand in some inventive directions, even as her fate remains unsure.
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel didn’t see much movement in theaters, but then it’s not really a movie for everyone. Ballard’s tale of an apartment building that devolves into class warfare, floor by floor, is still pretty relevant in 2016, and Wheatley (who previously directed the impeccable Kill List) adds his trademark dread and style to the proceedings, which include decadent parties and dead dogs. Tom Hiddleston, as lightly chilled protagonist Robert Laing, attempts to break down what this literal class warfare means but gets lost in the mania, narcissism, and the need to belong. It’s a beautiful set piece, even if it lacks some of the novel’s philosophical corners.
In this update on the techno-thriller, a teen named Tom (Bill Milner) is inadvertently turned into a vigilante superhero after an accident leaves smartphone shards in his brain. Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and Penny Dreadful’s Rory Kinnear co-star. Forget the rush that comes with all the chase scenes; the real terror is that you know this kid has a phone lodged in his head.
4) It Follows
David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film plays on an idea that could have unending sequels: A curse is transmitted through sexual intercourse, and once you have it, the curse follows you until you pass it on to someone else. In It Follows, a young girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) discovers this terrible premise and starts to investigate what exactly “It” is. The cinematography allows for scenes to feel at once innocent and suffocating, and the minor-key soundtrack adds a layer of dread.
5) The Babadook
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailers/YouTube (Fair Use)
In Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, the mother is supposed to be the protector, but she might be the monster, too. This tangled duality pushes The Babadook, a film that takes the idea of a bogeyman and draws a thick black line to the depths of our subconscious. Essie Davis is wonderful as Amelia, a single mother who’s slogging through life with her troubled, high-strung son. Their relationship starts to shift after a creature in a children’s pop-up book starts appearing outside the pages and becomes a terrifying metaphor for grief and depression. It joins a handful of recent horror films (The Witch, It Follows, Ex Machina) in which women aren’t just prey or victims.
6) We Need to Talk About Kevin
A companion piece of sorts to The Babadook, Lynne Ramsay’s film explores another aspect of motherhood: What if you feel no bond with your child? And what if that child goes on a murderous rampage? Tilda Swinton plays Eva and Ezra Miller (who more recently starred as the Flash in Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman) is her teenage son, Kevin, who is often shot as her psychic mirror. In his review, A.O. Scott pointed out that Eva and Kevin, as they get older, look more and more like each other and less like the humans around them, “a pair of predatory reptiles incongruously housed with the fluffy, friendly animals.” When a mother’s worst nightmare comes true, disentangling from her child becomes a source of psychological terror.
After years of Jake Gyllenhaal playing detectives and obsessive cartoonists, his turn as morally bankrupt hustler Lou Bloom is refreshing. In Dan Gilroy’s film, we see Bloom in his preferred setting: Los Angeles at night. When he discovers he can make money by filming fresh crime and accident scenes, he starts to really shine and turns it into a horror business. Nightcrawler is as much a commentary on the state of media as it is our modern need to document everything.
8) The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film is a masterclass in unease. From Jack Nicholson’s slowly unraveling performance as Jack Torrance to the ominous Overlook Hotel, which takes on a life of its own, the film is one about its parts—father, mother, son—as much as its sum. It’s an entry on psychic terror, and all the Kubrickian hallmarks are there.
9) Mulholland Drive
David Lynch’s 2001 film is about Hollywood dreams, but it also exists in its own dream space, bringing us under covers and through doors into an alternate reality. Mulholland Drive was supposed to be a continuation of Twin Peaks, and it took a long road to becoming a feature. But the hallmarks of the series are there: the blonde (Naomi Watts) and brunette Rita (Laura Harring) dynamic, ominous figures, and subconscious imagery. Billy Ray Cyrus makes a cameo, and it features a scene that will make you never want to go near a dumpster again.
10) The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the British mathematician who cracked Germany’s Enigma code during World War II. Turing’s team (filled out by Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode) offers strong support to Turing’s dogged pursuit, and the film gives us a historical sketch of the time and political climate—and how one’s sexuality could be used against them.
When the Zodiac Killer began communicating, San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith started decoding. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the fresh-faced Graysmith, opposite soused reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), in David Fincher’s retelling of the still-unsolved case. San Francisco is the gloomy gray backdrop for the film, which (mostly) only hints at the violence but amplifies the game of cat and mouse.
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12) The Good Neighbor
James Caan has played some intense characters, but this one deserves an award for raising blood pressure. Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) and Keir Gilchrist (It Follows) play two bored teens drawn into a prank that involves bugging neighbor Grainey’s house with cameras. Grainey (Caan) lost his wife, and the boys rig it so it seems like he’s being haunted. But after watching a little too long, a boundary is crossed.
13) The Craft
This isn’t just a Halloween movie. It should be essential viewing the entire year. The 1996 film about teenage witches has endured as cult classic, and it also features pre-Scream Skeet Ulrich and one of the best death scenes ever.
14) The Road
This is a bleak, devastating film, with no real sweet spot. If that appeals to you, then The Road—adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name—is a solid look at humanity in upheaval. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee play a father and son traversing a terrifying, no-rules dystopia after an unnamed event has devastated the country. Director John Hillcoat set the tone with 2005’s The Proposition.
15) The Third Man
The original Pulp Fiction, this 1949 film concerns a pulp novelist in Austria trying to unravel the death of his friend, the wonderfully named Harry Lime (Orson Welles). It’s a classic film noir, casting long shadows on post-war Vienna and its fractured identity. And it uses ferris wheels to great effect.
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17) In the Shadow of Iris
Jalil Lespert’s Iris goes missing early in the film, but her disappearance is tied up in some nasty details. In the Shadow of Iris was inspired by Hideo Nakata’s 2000 film Chaos, which added some intricate layers to the psychological thriller. A kidnapping gets turned on its head, and then some.
Ennui, violation, ham-fisted vengeance: It all comes together in Macon Blair’s directorial debut, starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as two amateur detectives looking for justice in a world gone mad.
19) Small Crimes
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore’s Macon Blair once again tackles the crime-thriller with this film adaptation of Dave Zeltserman’s novel of the same name. Co-written by Blair and Evan Katz (Cheap Thrills), Small Crimes focuses on Joe (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a former cop who served time for murder and has just been released. He doesn’t believe in second chances, and he just can’t help but fall into old habits again.
You never know where you’ll find cannibals, so don’t ever wander into a small town looking for medical assistance. That’s basically the lesson of Drifter, which tries to reheat the post-apocalyptic cannibal tale, this time with two brothers who are trying to survive via robbery. If you can look past the cannibalism and focus on the camera work, Drifter’s not half bad.
Four shorts make up this anthology series from directors Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, and Roxanne Benjamin. It’s an homage to classic horror films but also signals a shift away from women as objects, victims, or survivors. And it points to an influx of exciting new directors (and ideas) in the horror genre.
22) Shimmer Lake
This Netflix original film walks through a crime story backward, bringing Rainn Wilson, Adam Pally, and more with it. The details of a bank robbery are retraced and an ensemble cast trotted out to dust off some small-town true-crime tropes. Shimmer Lake doesn’t always hold together, but its pacing makes for a wild ride.
23) Lucid Dream
A South Korean riff on Inception, Lucid Dream follows a journalist, Dae-ho, working to find his son, who was kidnapped three years earlier. The investigation has gone cold, but an experimental technique allows Dae-ho to relive the day his son was taken through lucid dreaming. For a premise as inherently grim as a parent searching for a lost child, Lucid Dream is surprisingly fun. The investigations taking place in dreamland and the real world intersect in interesting ways and the story is constantly upping the stakes. —Eddie Strait
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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