My Top-10 Thriller Films

Thriller films, in case you’re unfamiliar, are suspense movies lodged somewhere between action, horror and adventure film genres. They’re movies with a heavier emphasis on characters and plot-development and, as mentioned, suspense to add tension, the proverbial thrills, to a movie.

I think thrillers don’t get nearly as much recognition as they perhaps would deserve, probably because it’s a genre where the movies tend to genre-hop a lot, but also because thrillers will often be lobbed in some other genre. These are my ten favourite thriller films which I hope demonstrate the versatility and variety of this genre.

I will also give an honourable mention to the Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston star-feature The Bodyguard. Even if you’re not a Whitney Houston fan, you should check it out for the sheer good plot-writing and the excellent suspense.

Now let’s get on with the list…

10. The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan may not be everyone’s favourite experimental director-man anymore, but the man has at least a couple of solid Bruce Willis efforts to his name. The other is the down-to-earth superhero film, Unbreakable, but the better and by far his best effort is the paranormal thriller the Sixth Sense.

Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist who tries to get to the bottom of why a young boy, played by Hayley Joel Osment, thinks he’s seeing dead people. However, as the story progresses it turns out that Osment really can see the recently deceased and Willis’ character begins to suspect that everything isn’t as it should be.

The film’s low-key mood, excellent dialogue and subtle horror atmosphere give the movie an excellent energy. What makes the movie so good and worth seeing though is the ending, which I won’t spoil for anyone.

9. First Blood

When people hear Rambo, the first thing that usually comes to mind is Sylvester Stallone screaming with his distorted face while blasting away with machine gun. A shame really, because the first Rambo movie is actually one of the best thriller films and also one of my personal favourite movies of all time.

John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran who now wanders aimlessly around the country with nothing to do. He becomes harassed by the sheriff of a small town who doesn’t want Rambo passing through. While being maltreated by the police, John snaps, escapes into the woods and the police go after him. Things escalate when Rambo kills one of the officers in self-defense which is when the battle between Rambo and the cops becomes personal.

First Blood is an intense film. Its gritty look and scenery, as well as its dark mood make it an excellent thriller flick. Rambo doesn’t just mow his enemies down like he does in every other movie but instead uses his wits and cunning. If you’ve overlooked the first Rambo movie for any reason you should definitely pick it up and give it a watch.

8. Mindhunters

Director Renny Harlin has made two of my favourite thriller films. The lesser known but definitely a movie worth checking out is his island, booby-trap killer mystery, Mindhunters. A group of hopeful FBI profilers are trapped in a simulated small American town on an island during a training exercise and begin dying one after another from elaborate traps.

As the story escalates, it becomes clear to the group that the killer has to be one of them which amplifies the excitement when none of the main characters trust each other. The gritty and dark feel of the film is a far cry from Harlin’s cheesy 1990s efforts and this also helps sell the peril and the truly chilling atmosphere.

Mindhunters is a forgotten gem of a movie. If you’re skeptical because the film features LL Cool J in the cast (who was also in Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea) fret not. Mr. Cool J pulls off a charismatic and believable performance as do the films more (Val Kilmer, Christian Slater) and less illustrious actors.

7. After the Rain

I recommend grabbing this practically unknown 1999 drama-thriller flick at your earliest convenience (not to be confused with a movie with practically the same name released the same year). What starts off as a quaint and quite heart-warming character drama about a white woman’s and a black man’s friendship in apartheid era South-Africa turns into a nerve-wrecking hostage flick with the entry of the woman’s jealous, angst-ridden soldier boyfriend.

The film is both beautiful and intense with well-written, authentic sounding dialogue. The film really delves into the personal story-arcs of the individual characters well. The movie’s latter half, however, is where its excellence lies – with the crazed Paul Bettany really gets your heart racing when no-one can guess what he’ll do.

Aryon Bakare, who plays the film’s black lead Joseph a.k.a. Vusisizwe, is superbly talented and its a shame that this movie is almost his only feature-length effort, with Bakare having drifted mostly into TV work. This is an under the radar movie that really deserves recognition and is absolutely worth seeing.

6. The Fugitive

The 1993 Harrison Ford film is one of the quintessential must-see flicks of 1990s cinema. Loosely based on the 1960s TV series by the same name, but infinitely superior, Ford gives a brilliant performance as the doctor on the run, accused of murdering his own wife and trying to find the real culprit, the infamous one-armed man.

Tommy Lee Jones also gives an excellent and serious I-don’t-take-shit-from-anybody performance as the merciless US Marshal trying to bring Ford’s character to justice.

The movie has a brilliant atmosphere and clever writing. You really sympathise with Ford’s character, who for once isn’t a gung-ho space smuggler or an unbeatable, whip-wielding archaeologist. This time, he only has his wits to rely on and that’s what makes The Fugitive such an excellent movie.

5. Manhunter

Anthony Hopkins brought Hannibal Lecter into public consciousness in his academy award-winning performance in the 1990 thriller-detective movie Silence of the Lambs. However, a Lecter movie had already been made four years earlier which never received similar recognition and was unfortunately forgotten by most. Unfortunately, because it’s probably my favourite Lecter movie.

Manhunter was based on the very first Lecter novel, The Red Dragon, and follows its storyline faithfully. The movie delves into the mind of the Tooth Fairy serial-killer, as a pre-C.S.I. William Petersen tries to figure out the identity of the murderer. Scottish actor Brian Cox portrays Lecter in the pre-Hopkins Hannibal piece, admittedly not as well, but neither the novel nor the movie was really about Lecter to begin with, so this doesn’t bother me so much.

Admittedly, it would have been fun to see Brian Cox really let it rip in the role, but Hopkins is so attached to the part now that it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than him. However, Manhunter with its 80s Neo-Noir atmosphere and excellent pacing far exceeds even the 2003 Hopkins-remake, The Red Dragon (this time with Ralph “Voldemort” Fiennes” as the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon killer), in its chiller feeling.

4. Taken

Liam Neeson kicks ass and takes names in the 2009 French action-thriller. Neeson plays an ex-CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped by a human-trafficking ring while on holiday. The beat-down and depressed agent decides to save his daughter and kill anyone who stands in his way.

Taken may be a little over-the-top in places, but it also relies on excellent writing and character drama. You really sympathise with the modestly living ex-agent who can’t compete for the attention of his daughter as his ex-wife and his rich husband shower his daughter with gifts. But when push comes to shove, he’ll do anything and go to any lengths to save her.

Taken blew me away and instantly became one of my favourite movies ever. It’s dramatic, well-written and will keep you at the edge of your seat until the very end.

The sequel is coming soon and even if it won’t be as good as the first, Neeson will make it worth a watch.

3. Cliffhanger

By far, Renny Harlin’s best movie has to be his mountain-climbing epic Cliffhanger. Sylvester Stallone plays a mountaineer, haunted by the death of a friend whom he fails to save. When a group of plane hijackers crash-land in the mountains with cases of newly printed US greenback lost, Stallone and his friend become their hostages and forced to work for the criminals in order to navigate the mountain safely.

What makes Cliffhanger so awesome are its beautiful mountain scenery (actually filmed in the Italian Alps) and the truly extreme feeling conditions as Stallone has to get by, much like in First Blood, on his wits alone, without the comfort of an automatic weapon. In addition, the character drama works brilliantly.

The film is admittedly a bit cheesy in places, but the suspense and pacing make it work. Even John Lithgow makes for a surprisingly good villain for this mountain hopping thriller. Without a doubt, my favourite Harlin picture which is able to combine a serious story with his trade-mark over-the-top but kick ass action and suspense.

2. Angels & Demons

To be honest, I never really cared for The DaVinci Code. The Knight Templars/Jesus conspiracy mystery flick’s story was done so much better in two different video-games I’d already played and didn’t offer anything substantially interesting in comparison to those two (namely Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Gabriel Knight 3). However, the sequel pits Tom Hanks against an invisible enemy as The Illuminati are apparently getting ready to rise from the shadows of history, at the eve of the Papal Conclave and the discovery of the Higgs-Boson (alias the God Particle).

Angels & Demons succeeded in what The DaVinci Code failed at in my view, which was to keep the audience guessing what was really going on until the last minute. As Hanks plows through Rome for clues to the Illuminati, he has to stay on his toes as people begin to die around him in disconcertingly high numbers. The film takes you on a wild ride and the real mastermind isn’t revealed until the very end.

Angels & Demons is a prime example of a sequel that does almost everything better than its predecessor, including the suspense which really started to wither away with everyone pulling a gun on Tom Hanks every 15 minutes in The DaVinci Code.

1. Rear Window

My favourite Alfred Hitchcock movie and no mistake. Jimmy Stewart plays a bed-ridden reporter who can’t leave his apartment and is forced to kill time by spying on his neighbours through his and their Rear Windows. Very soon, Stewart begins to suspect that a man living across from him has murdered his wife and is disposing her body piece by piece.

Rear Window is a deliciously simple yet exciting concept for a movie. The film follows the activities of an entire apartment building and this gives it a unique complexity by telling so many stories with simple visuals rather than through special-effects or even complex dialogue. The excitement stays with you until the very end and the well-written dialogue between Stewart and the people who visit his apartment is also brilliant.

Rear Window is an absolute must-see for serious Thriller buffs, but generally speaking I consider it a movie everyone should see.