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Listology: Great Thrillers of Yesterday and Tomorrow by Natalie Zutter

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Each decade seems to bring more and more films classified under the genre of thriller, especially as people now interpret them as erotic thrillers, psychological thrillers, and disaster thrillers. So there’s no way that I could peg every single one — which is where you’ll come in, by including your faves in the comments — but here I’ve presented the ones that have captured my attention over the years.

The Birds (1963)

Though I’m not gonna be going decade-by-decade, I have to give it to Hitchcock for crafting such tension through a straightforward film whose premise, in other hands, might seem laughable: killer birds! Then things get progressively less funny: birds that can follow boats, will kill themselves to get through doors, and can swoop in at a very specific spot on your head? Shit. I went camping in Bodega Bay five years ago and was so scared to look up. A good thriller sticks with you.

Cape Fear (1962)

Part of what makes the original so ominous is its unwillingness to articulate the characters’ fears, most notably Max Cady’s (Robert Mitchum) threat to rape Sam Bowden’s (Gregory Peck) innocent daughter. Mitchum slithers through town, smoothly evading Bowden’s police allies even as you see the murderous urge in those dead eyes. The climax, on an enclosed boat on the humid river, speaks to the film’s claustrophobia.

Cape Fear (1991)

These are two very different animals, so I have to consider them separately. Robert De Niro matches Mitchum’s oily performance and then elevates it with his obsession with justice (going so far as to tattoo key passages over his scarily-buff body). Just like doe-eyed Juliette Lewis, you’re caught in his stare and can’t move as he makes his way through the Bowdens’ lives. Scorsese’s update is prone to larger explosions and fight scenes, but it never gets campy.

The Game (1997)

You may think of geeks with duct-tape swords when you hear the phrase live-action role-playing, or LARP, but David Fincher’s mindfuck has Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) participating in a twisted version of his own life, where ordinary people are accomplices and he can’t trust anyone. When Van Orton thinks that he’s lost everything — his accounts, his lover, his family — you actually believe it.

π (1998)

Darren Aronofsky’s haunting film has it all: paranoid hero wracked by physical manifestations of his genius; the union of math and religion; a corporate conspiracy; and a shocking solution to the problem. Such a compelling, crazy portrait of human nature.

Run Lola Run (1998)

Nonlinear narratives ftw: This German breakaway hit (hee) is like Sliding Doors set to a techno soundtrack and with greater stakes. Lola (Franka Potente) must gather 100,000 marks in twenty minutes, or her boyfriend Manni will be murdered. I don’t want to say anything more about the structure, but the movie does an excellent job of exploring chance and resourcefulness.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

If it were so easy to be someone else, would you be able to resist temptation? It’s great to see the meek inherit, except when they do it with terrifying calm, like Matt Damon’s titular trickster. Scariest is how easy it becomes to fool everyone involved in the life of the man that Tom Ripley is impersonating. Plus, the sexual tension heightens the suspense and conflict.


No, this post isn’t an excuse to feature shirtless men — rather, we find that in the best thrillers the characters are willing to not only get under their nemeses’ skins, but also their own. Due to losing his short-term memory, Leonard Shelby must continually tattoo himself with the details of his wife’s death — information about the alleged killer’s whereabouts, reminders of what tools are at his disposal, and seemingly inconsequential details. That the film is also shot backwards plants you right in Leonard’s head, so that you, too, can barely comprehend the mysteries unfolding around you.

Shutter Island (2010)

Marin Scorsese’s adaptation of the best-selling 2003 novel stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo as two U.S. marshals investigating the disappearance of an inmate from a Massachusetts state hospital in the ’50s. From the trailer we can see that the film will deal heavily in manipulative wardens, eerie cells, and lurid hallucinations — showing that the line between sane and committed is more blurred than the marshals realize.

Shutter Island is in theaters February 19.

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