Psychological thrillers are character-driven suspense films that focus more on the mental state of the characters than on than plot. Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary British auteur, was the king of this subgenre.
Critics often cite Hitchcock's Psycho as the greatest psychological thriller ever. Actually, the film has more in common with modern-day slasher films than thrillers. One of his best psychological thrillers and one of the greatest works of cinema is the 1958 film Vertigo, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. Stewart plays Scottie, an ex-cop who suffers from agoraphobia (fear of falling). A wealthy pal hires Scottie to tail his wife, Madeline (Novak), whom he believes is possessed. Scottie scoffs but takes the job and falls in love with Madeline. Eventually Scottie witnesses what he believes is her suicide. When the distraught man meets Madeline's doppelganger, his mental stability comes into question.
The film explores Scottie's psychological state on several levels. His agoraphobia is the most obvious, twice leading to tragedy. The agoraphobia is symbolic. Scottie is obsessed with his debilitating fear of heights and the guilt caused by his inability to act because of it. He's also the scary kind of hopeless romantic, consumed with passion, which causes him to lose control.
Modern-day psychological thrillers proliferated during the 1980s and 1990s in Hollywood. Most were rather tawdry, using the machinations of the psychological thriller (and following Hitchcock's pattern of using obsession as character motivation) to expose many women's breasts. There were, however, some well-done thrillers during those years, none more celebrated than Adrian Lyne's 1987 film Fatal Attraction.
In this film Michael Douglas stars as Dan, a middle-aged family man who meets Alex, a vivacious book editor (Glenn Close), while his family is away. The two have a weekend affair. Dan wants it to end, and Alex absolutely does not. Alex becomes a stalker, acting out against Dan and his family with violence. As with Vertigo, this psychological thriller explores guilt, obsessive love and mental illness. Rather than have the events play out internally or through dialogue, the psychological turmoil manifests through action, mostly from the psychotic Alex.
These two films are fine examples of a classic and a modern psychological thriller. Several other films are also worth your two hours.
Film critics sometimes shrug off Brian DePalma as a Hitchcock impersonator. It's clear DePalma's work is heavily influenced by the portly gentleman; his 1976 film Obsession might be called a "reboot" of Vertigo. However, DePalma could have far worse directorial inspirations, and his 1980s trilogy of thrillers, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and Body Double, are slickly directed, intriguing films.
John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate is one of the great political thrillers of all time. The movie was one of many films of the 1950s and 1960s that commented on our national obsession with rooting out communists. Jonathan Demme remade the film in 2004. Roger Ebert explained the film's enduring popularity: "Seen today, The Manchurian Candidate feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes."
You can't discuss classic psychological thrillers without mentioning one of the genre's masters, Rod Serling, creator of the television series The Twilight Zone. Serling often packed taut character studies into the 30- and 60-minute suspense stories on those shows.