Thrill Me…Chill Me…
I love thrillers. I read them. I watch them. I eat them with a spoon. If I was forced to choose a single genre in which to indulge it would be the thriller. Made for TV, released directly to video, found on the quarter rack at the book store, there is something about just the possibility that I could stumble upon a great thriller that makes me keep reading, keep watching, keep renting. Unfortunately, more often than not, the thriller in question is of dubious quality. Not that those can’t be entertaining, for they certainly can, in their own Bloody-Knife-No-One-Could-Protect-Her kind of way. But the best surprise – a tight, tense, captivating thriller – is a thing of beauty. These films keep me on the edge of my seat – literally. I tend to sit through them wide eyed and stupid; watching with childlike (childish?) glee as the story unfolds, surprising me, scaring me, giving me the creeps. These are films of suspense, not necessarily horror. They are scary not because they shout BOO, but because they whisper watch your back. Most of my selections are very contemporary, as this is where my tastes tend to run, but the suspense genre spans the history of film. This list of ten is a mere drop in the thriller bucket, but is, in my opinion, a suspense smorgasbord – an all you can eat creepy crawly buffet. Serve it up!
Christopher Nolan was not exactly a household name before he took control of the Batman franchise, but he should have been. For he is the creator of one of the most ridiculously confusing cinematic gems to ever hit the screen. Nolan gives us Lenny (a pitch perfect Guy Pearce), who as the result of an accident has virtually no short term memory. He forgets things as soon as they are over, only remembering fragments based on his own cryptic scribblings. He takes pictures, gets tattoos, writes notes, all in an effort to pull it together enough to solve the murder of his wife. The film is in reverse, each scene showing what happened directly before the scene preceding it. Even the description is hard to understand, yet the film manages to pull off this tremendously difficult sequencing. The end result is that the viewer is in the same position as Lenny. He has no context, we have no context. He must rely on his own imperfect recording system, as must we. While we recognize some things that he does not, we still must try and unscramble his world. Memento is a testament to unconventional storytelling at its best.
Dead Again (1991)
Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were once one of Hollywood’s premier power couples. They burst onto the
American film scene in 1991 with the Branagh directed thriller Dead Again. The film runs two plot lines, with Branagh and Thompson each playing double roles. In 1949 we have the story of Roman Strauss and his wife Margaret.Their lives are filled with intrigue, uncertainty and ultimately murder. In the present we have the story of PI Mike Church and enigmatic amnesiac Grace. Through a rather shady hypnotist known to Church, Grace hopes to recover her memory as well as an explanation for the nightmares she has about the murder in 1949. Somehow these people are connected, but how? Branagh directs both stories with a flair for the dramatic and a feel for the intricacies of such a complicated plot. He and Thompson have a tense and dynamic chemistry on screen that adds depth to the characters and the relationship. The film manages the double story line without difficulty, swirling the two together expertly into a stylish and suspenseful whole.
Pretty, pretty Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman star as detectives trying to uncover the fiend behind a series of gruesome murders. Oh, yes, this has been done a thousand times, but Se7en manages to raise the bar on the police procedural/serial killer/very attractive policeman formula to new heights. The killer is bent on painting a bloodied, grisly portrait of the weaknesses of mankind, and uses the biblical “Seven Deadly Sins” as his palette. Pitt and Freeman are grim and tortured as their characters sink into the horror left in the killers wake. The film is dark and graphic, with characters both familiar and gruesomely unfathomable. Director David Fincher pulls out the stops and gives up a detective story that blows other detective stories away by a mile.
I suppose I could make a whole list of just Hitchcock films, but I think everyone has their favorite and this is mine. Rebecca is the first Hitchcock film I ever saw, and almost certainly the first really good thriller. The story revolves around the young Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine), new wife of the fabulously wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Unfortunately for the young bride – whose first name is never given, her new home holds hostility and mystery, as well as the palpable imprint of the late first Mrs. de Winter. The hostility is perfectly rendered by Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, loyal servant to the first Mrs. dW. She hovers, blusters, sabotages and undermines our young heroine while Maxim fights his own demons. There is no elaborate set up here for thrills and chills, no easy foreshadowing of cause and effect – we’re nearly as surprised as that young bride at the way things go awry, and are certainly as surprised by the outcome. It’s hard to go wrong with Hitchcock, and Rebecca is a wonderful example of his artistry.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Yes, this is an easy, easy pick. Jonathan Demme made the thriller – the horrific thriller – Oscar friendly. This film swept
the awards, garnering recognition for acting, writing, and direction. So what makes it so great? The story isn’t really all that groundbreaking. Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, FBI agent working on a serial murder case. She is sent to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), serial killer extraordinaire, in order to gain insight into the case she is working. Big whoop. Except that Foster and Hopkins create characters and a relationship that are utterly fascinating. Both smart, both driven, both with demons and secrets, these two do a gripping, absolutely compelling dance as each tries desperately to maintain the upper hand. The duo is well balanced by the murder case at hand, and both stories are well served. The Silence of the Lambs is tight, fast, has great characters and will scare the daylights out of you.
Primal Fear (1996)
There’s nothing like starting your career with a home run. This is exactly what Edward Norton did with the film
Primal Fear. Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy who stands accused of viciously murdering a priest. Along comes Martin Vail (Richard Gere), a high profile defense attorney who smells the opportunity for personal gain and takes this impossible case. As the trial plays out, there is of course more to the tale than initially meets the eye. It isn’t the story here that makes this film so jaw droppingly tense. It’s the performance of Edward Norton. I imagine that this film was originally intended as a star vehicle for Gere, but his tried and true vain and arrogant character is completely overshadowed by the young, frightened and thoroughly captivating Norton. Based on the novel by William Diehl, the twists and turns the story takes are made infinitely more credible with Norton leading the way. He plays off of Gere like a seasoned veteran and the final scene, fantastic in the book, is made even more so by Norton’s considerable presence in the film. Primal Fear is worth every smug Richard Gere smirk for the opportunity to see Edward Norton play him like a violin.
Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher strikes again with a not-quite-as-pretty Brad Pitt in Fight Club. This time, Pitt is paired with Edward
Norton, who narrates our tale. He lives the proverbial “life of quiet desperation” – until he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt). At this point he has already been seeking comfort from support groups for ailments from which he does not suffer. It doesn’t take much to push him just a bit further into a strange downward spiral of solace through fistfights. The film sounds absolutely absurd – and it is. It is also a brilliant commentary on the emptiness of contemporary culture and the extremes people will go to in order to find some sense of meaning in an increasingly shallow society. The suspense is nicely established and maintained by an easy segue from the outlandish antics of the early Fight Clubs to something far larger. Fight Club is a film in which I had absolutely no interest – until I saw it. It’s now firmly entrenched as one of my favorites of any genre. Extra points to Fincher, Pitt and Norton for all appearing on this list twice.
Joy Ride (2001)
Joy Ride is part of what I call the silly thriller sub-genre. There is a perverse kind of beauty in a film that manages to make you laugh one minute and gasp the next. Here we have the story of a road trip gone nastily awry.
Paul Walker stars as good kid Lewis who is just driving out to pick up friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski). As a good kid, he stops to bail brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) – not such a stellar kid – out of jail. When Fuller decides to join in for the ride, he pushes all Lewis’ buttons and manages to involve him in a rather cruel prank with the CB radio. They find out the hard way that it isn’t a good idea to mess with the love lives of psycho truckers. The great thing about Joy Ride is that it is filled with one liners that are actually funny. Zahn provides a great deal of the comedy with a dead pan delivery that is perfect for the role. Fuller is the classic good natured screw up and Zahn is the highlight of the film. The scares are abundant, with their adversary being a truly creepy disembodied voice. Even with the comic relief, the suspense here is high, without reliance on a lot of manufactured idiot moves on the part of the protagonists. You can feel their anxiety rise throughout the film. Funny, creepy and downright scary, Joy Ride, with special credit going to Zahn, is a fun ride indeed. This one has a very fun DVD commentary track with Zahn – apparently as funny ad lib as he is scripted.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
I love Kevin Spacey. I know he’s made some less than perfect films over the years, but his trademark sardonic style
never wears thin for me. In The Usual Suspects, Spacey is decidedly out of his normal caustic mode. He’s Verbal Kint, physically disabled, rather pathetic con man. As one of the only survivors of a massive explosion, it is Verbal who tells the story of an elaborate con gone wrong. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, and Kevin Pollack along with Spacey, the plot twists and turns as we learn of the ominous influence of the uber-powerful, nebulous, villainous, perhaps fictional Keyser Soze. Soze is feared, revered, and always, always in control. Or is he? The Usual Suspects, with its story told in flashback, keeps a tight hold on the viewer while its characters and story spin wildly out of control only to whirl back together in a tight, picture perfect ending. Director Bryan Singer puts together a con game extraordinaire that doesn’t disappoint.
I am an unabashed super-fan of this film. While not the most famous film on this list, it may well be my personal favorite. Bill Paxton directs this story of a family falling apart as the father – played by Paxton – becomes deeply convinced that he has a mandate from God to eliminate the demons among us. His fervor is both captivating and mortifying for his two young sons, who are at the mercy of their ever more feverishly determined father. The story is told to the FBI by grown son Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) who fears brother Adam may have committed recent crimes as a result of their traumatic past. McConaughey and Powers Boothe as FBI agent Wesley Doyle create an edgy dynamic under which the story of the past comes out. Paxton as the father is truly frightening in his unmovable conviction. McConaughey delivers a performance that is far more subtle than I thought him capable. His Fenton is emotionless, almost dreamily telling of his tortured childhood. The dark religious themes, hint of the supernatural and abundant gothic imagery lend the film a suitably moody tone, all enhanced by a wonderful score. Paxton does an admirable job putting together a film with generous dashes of horror intermixed with a compelling and unique story. Strong performances from Paxton himself, McConaughey and the young actors who play out the bizarre family history fill out the film and the result is a thriller where all the ingredients meld into a tense, surprising and fabulous whole.
The Pledge (2001) – Sean Penn directs Jack Nicholson. Great story, great atmosphere, great performance from Nicholson.
The Boys From Brazil (1978) – Laurence Olivier and Nazi schemes. How can you lose?
Fargo (1996) – The Coen brothers’ ultimate silly thriller.
The Game (1997) – Another David Fincher, with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn playing a wicked mind game.
Kalifornia (1993) – Pretty Pitt strikes again with Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. Pitt at his grungy, disgusting best.
Eye of the Needle (1981) – Ken Follett’s novel of WWII intrigue brought to life by a compelling performance from Donald Sutherland.
And there you have it. A fistful of films that will hold you fast with masterful suspense, excellent performances and tense and satisfying conclusions. There are undoubtedly thousands of other suspense films out there to suit the taste of just about any fan of the genre, and the thrill of the chase is always present. You never know when the next great thriller might come along, whispering watch your back…………….
photos by gdcgraphics, Georges Biard, Towpilot, David Shankbone, Yvwv, Vanessa Lua