It’s mid-October, and with Halloween around the corner, ‘tis the season for scary movies. (We’ve got a few suggestions, as you may have noticed.) But wait, you might be saying. (It’s possible.) I like to be scared at movies, but I don’t like all the blood and guts that seem unavoidable in modern horror. What about me? Well, it would seem that you don’t like gore of horror, but you like the tension and suspense. Never fear; we’ve collected the 25 most suspenseful movies of all time, guaranteed to creep you out without grossing you out.
25. Jurassic Park
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster is mostly remembered (and rightfully so) as a CG-heavy action spectacle. But it also sported some of his most adroit suspense filmmaking since the glory days of Jaws — particularly in the jumpy sequence that finds our young heroes stalked by two velociraptors in an industrial kitchen. Spielberg constructs taut suspense out of an environment where every clang is deafening and every surface is reflective, and comes up with the film’s single most memorable set piece.
24. Carlito’s Way
Director Brian De Palma’s films tend to be dispersed into two groups: the heavily Hitchcock-influenced suspensers (and there’s more to come of those), and crime dramas like Scarface, The Untouchables, and this 1993 Al Pacino vehicle. But this one crosses over into the other category as well, thanks to an unbearably tense scene of Sean Penn waiting for an elevator (it’s better than it sounds) and a crackerjack climax, in which Pacino’s title character evades the hoods who want to kill him and slips through Grand Central in a virtuoso sequence that juices up on the filmmaker’s slick, relentless energy. It’s a tight, terrific scene that leaves the viewer breathless.
OK, maybe it’s a little early to start slapping this one on “best X ever made” lists, seeing as how it’s been out for a week and a half and all. But anyone who’s seen it can vouch for the relentless tension of Alfonso Cuarón’s white-knuckle “stranded in space” epic, and its downright merciless sequences of near misses and edge-of-your-seat peril.
The element of dread plays no small part in suspense, and there’s dread a-plenty in David Fincher’s 1995 serial killer procedural. But it really comes to a boil in the third act, when Kevin Spacey’s John Doe turns himself in, covered in blood, a resolution that cannot possibly be as simple as it looks. The million-dollar question (“What’s he up to?”) haunts the rest of the film, through their ride out to the desert, the sneering back-and-forth between Doe and Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills, and to the moment where Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset gets a look in that box and declares, “John Doe has the upper hand!” What’s in the box, indeed.
Rob Reiner’s 1990 Oscar winner is one of the few genuinely great movies adapted from Stephen King’s scary books, partly because of its deliciously evocative premise: the idea of being trapped in a bed, incapable of fleeing, by your “biggest fan.” It culminates in an effective if formulaic escape attempt (complete with a “she’s not dead yet” fake-out), but the film’s best scene is the notorious “hobbling” bit, in which Kathy Bates slowly and patiently explains exactly what she’s going to do, and then does it. Contrary to popular opinion, surprise isn’t a necessity for suspense; much more frequent is the agony of an audience waiting for the inevitable to occur.
20. Cape Fear
Like Misery, Martin Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller shoots the works a bit too much at the end, descending into an orgy of rain and blood and yelling. But there are some stellar sequences on the way there: Nolte crouching in a parking lot to watch De Niro get torn up, then having to sneak away quietly when it doesn’t go his way; the failed attempt to lure De Niro into Nolte’s home; and most of all, the unnerving scene that finds De Niro nearly seducing Nolte’s teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis).
19. Body Double
De Palma again, this time riffing on Hitchcock’s Rear Window with the story of an unemployed actor who thinks he sees a murder through the open window of a shapely neighbor. That provides plenty of fodder for De Palma’s taut suspense sequences — as does the film’s other debt, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, translated to a lead character’s claustrophobia (which leads to a harrowing scene in which said character is buried alive).
Sure, Halloween is classified as a slasher horror movie, and thus (presumably) the kind of film you’re looking to this list to escape. But don’t let its imitators (or its own sequels, for that matter) fool you; John Carpenter’s 1978 smash is more interested in tension than gore, and its murders are surprisingly bloodless affairs. Carpenter is a practitioner of deft composition, shock edits, and surprising background action, and his breakthrough picture is closer to Psycho than Friday the 13th.
Even if the action of Spielberg’s hit wasn’t terrifying — and it is — it would hardly matter, since John Williams composed the single most hauntingly suspenseful music cue in modern history, a slow, menacing build to utter mayhem that plays like a musical realization of the entire suspense movie ethos.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 favorite is acclaimed these days more for its psychological complexity (and personal subtext) than its suspense. But that’s not to say there isn’t any; it does, after all, concern a hero with a crippling fear of heights, which means plenty of action in high places only accessible via creaky, bending wooden steps.
15. The Vanishing
Hitchcock famously differentiated suspense and surprise with his example of a bomb under a table, ticking away for two minutes and exploding. Surprise is when we don’t know it’s there and the bomb goes off, providing a momentary shock; suspense is when the audience knows, and goes out of their mind as the people at the table chatter away about nothing. In other words, it’s all about what we know. George Sluzier’s 1988 thriller doesn’t make the identity of its villain a mystery; instead, it makes us fully aware of who he is and what he’s capable of, and builds its suspense from that information.
De Palma had spent most of his career making subversive comedies like Greetings and Hi Mom! before he made this, his first Hitchcockian thriller. He took to the genre immediately, trotting out wildly effective split-screen photography and point-of-view compositions to tell this twisty tale of a model and her murderous twin sister.
13. Blow Out
In 1981, De Palma took on Antonioni’s Blow-Up, with allusions to Watergate, Chappaquiddick, and the assassination of JFK thrown in for good measure. It’s a terrific little mystery, with generous helpings of tension tossed in by John Lithgow’s creepy serial killer, whose clever method of hiding his strangling wire leads to several genuinely scary moments.
The Coen Brothers’ 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel presents one of the scariest villains of recent cinema, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh — and lets us know that anyone who comes in contact with him (whether it’s Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn, Tommy Lee Jones’s Ed Tom Bell, or Woody Harrelson’s Caron Wells) will not come out of the confrontation in an advantageous position. And then the film carefully sets up all of those encounters, each one more unnerving and worrisome than the last.
11. Blood Simple
No Country was seen as something of a departure for the Coens, but they’d been doing this kind of nail-biting stuff since their debut feature. Their 1984 neo-noir thriller Blood Simple features two ace suspense sequences: Ray’s nightmarish attempt to clean up and dispose of his boss’ body, and private eye Visser’s attempt to kill Abby in her home. Both are electrifying, visceral sequences, filled with ingenious visuals (how about those shafts of light through the bullet holes) and nightmare logic.
10. Mute Witness
This criminally underrated 1994 thriller tells the story of Billy, a mute woman working as a makeup artist on a low-budget horror flick, who stumbles upon an after-hours shoot for a snuff film. When she’s discovered, she spends the rest of her film basically running for her life, attempting to evade her murderous pursuers. Scary, tense, chilling stuff.
Hitchcock again, adapting Frederick Knott’s play about a jealous husband who blackmails a shifty character to do in his wife for cheating. Ever the master, Hitchcock spins tension and thrills out of such everyday concerns as the location of keys, the timing of telephone calls, and identical raincoats.
One of the few credible arguments against Hitchcock’s surprise/suspense theory is Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic, which keeps its bombshell from the audience until the last possible moment, spending its first two hours building up an atmosphere of unexplained fear and dread, leaving us uncertain of what, exactly, is wrong with Rosemary’s firstborn — until we find out. Oh boy, do we find out.
7. The Descent
Darkness, unexplained creatures, and dangerous climbs from high distances, all longtime cornerstones of suspense filmmaking, come together in properly terrifying fashion in Neil Marshall’s 2005 film, an utterly relentless movie-watching experience that will put you off of spelunking forever. (Not that some of us needed much convincing.)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 twisty thriller goes for both the long and short game: the early disappearance of a key character from a drained pool provides a disturbing pall that hangs over the entire narrative, while that plotline’s resolution results in one of the most terrifyingly suspenseful sequences in all of moviedom.
Alfred Hitchcock created two of his most iconic and nail-biting sequences in this elegant 1959 spy picture. Midway through, protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) finds himself in the isolated countryside, pursued and nearly killed by a crop-dusting plane; at the film’s conclusion, he finds himself dangling from Mount Rushmore with the villain’s shoes crushing his fingers. They didn’t call him the Master of Suspense for nothing.
Dial M for Murder wasn’t the only Frederick Knott play to transition from the stage to our nightmares; in 1967, director Terence Young adapted his stage hit into an Audrey Hepburn/Alan Arkin vehicle, wherein Arkin plays a ruthless criminal terrorizing Hepburn’s poor little blind girl. The climactic sequence, in which Hepburn finally evens the score by cutting all the lights in her apartment, remains one of the most exciting thriller conclusions we’ve seen.
3. Rear Window
One last Hitchcock, this one a potent exploration of the themes of voyeurism and passivity that would fascinate the filmmaker throughout his career. Full of great scenes and tense moments, but few as agonizing as the one that finds James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photog watching helplessly as the man he suspects of murder returns home early — while Stewart’s girlfriend is snooping through his apartment.
Jonathan Demme’s iconic Oscar winner ends, memorably, with a return to Wait Until Dark territory, as Jodie Foster’s cub FBI agent finds herself alone with a serial killer in his basement lair — and at a distinct disadvantage in the dark, which he is able to puncture with his night-vision goggles. Your film editor saw this one under the best possible circumstances: in a darkened theater on opening night, totally unaware that its climax would serve as nightmare fuel for years to come.
You may have seen killers pursue innocents, or man battle the elements, but you haven’t known true suspense until you’ve watched four men try to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerine over rough road, around boulders, and across rotted-out platforms. Upon its release, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote, “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.” Sounds about right.