Psychological horrors put the audience right inside the nightmare, either giving us an insight into the tortured psyche of the victim or into the twisted mind of the killer.
The best psychological horrors like Manhunter or Copy Cat do both by exploring the hero’s journey into the ‘mind of madness’ to catch the killer and prevent and further crimes. These movies use sounds, color, and design to represent the hero’s internal journey. Here are ten of the best psychological horrors:
1 Dressed to Kill
A mystery ‘woman’ brutally butchers a female patient of psychiatrist Robert Elliott (Michael Cain) in an apparent rage triggered by the victim’s sexual promiscuity. Call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) stumbles across the body and catches a glimpse of the killer, unwittingly becoming the next target.
Director Brian De Palma loves making disturbing psychodramas that look to Hitchcock for inspiration and Dressed to Kill (1980, US) is no exception. It takes its cues from Psycho but is still an affecting and frightening slasher in its own right. Dressed to Kill gives a whole new meaning to Psychoanalysis.
2 A Tale of Two Sisters
After returning from a mental institution with no memory of the incident that put her there, Su-mi is reunited with her sister Sue-yeon. The pair rebel against their stepmother, whose actions towards Sue-yeon in particular, have become increasingly abusive. Their usually loving father turns a blind eye.
A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim, 2003, KR) is a disturbing story of abuse and supernatural horror with a massive twist at the end. The ghostly figure scratching and hiding under furniture is particularly effective. It was loosely remade for American audiences as The Uninvited although the plot differs significantly.
3 The Vanishing
Rex and his girlfriend Saskia have a fight during a drive to their holiday destination. They stop at a service station where Saskia goes missing. Rex blames himself and searches obsessively for years. He starts a new relationship but can’t move on until he knows the truth about what happened to her.
The Vanishing (Sluizer, 1988, NL/FR/DE) is chilling because it really feels as if it could happen to anybody. The movie’s portrayal of the man who kidnaps Saskia is unsettling because he is shown to have a normal close and loving relationship with his own family. The Vanishing was remade in America with Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges.
4 Jacob’s Ladder
Jacob (Tim Robbins) and his combat unit suffered a heavy attack during the Vietnam War leaving many dead but affecting others in unusual ways. Back in America, Jacob tries to rebuild his life but continually suffers horrific visions and flashbacks. He searches for the truth about what happened to him during the War.
Jacob’s Ladder (Lyne, 1990, US) is like one long fever dream and equates combat PTSD with being haunted. The movie’s visuals do an incredible job of representing the never-ending nightmarish insanity and horror of War and inspired other surreal horrors like Silent Hill.
5 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Beautiful teenager Laura Palmer has been murdered. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) helps the local police to identify the killer; which is a tall order in a town full of eccentrics and secrets.
The Twin Peaks TV series was the Stranger Things of its day. The first series, focused around the death of Laura, was a massive hit but the second lost its way. The show was canceled without time to tie up a satisfying conclusion. Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, 1992, US) revisited the story to reveal more details about what happened and why.
Director David Lynch is the undisputed King of disturbing dream imagery and psychological narrative and Fire Walk with me is a must see.
While working on new content for his TV station Max Renn (James Woods) becomes obsessed by a mysterious satellite signal broadcasting ultra-violent and hypersexual snuff images. The more Renn watches the feed the more strange hallucinatory experiences he has.
Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983, CA) is a visually unsettling yet exciting body horror. Renn’s viewing experiences seemingly cause physical as well as psychological transformation. The movie features musical icon Debbie Harry and comes closer visually to a video art project in some respects, earning the movie cult status.
7 The Babadook
Amelia and her son lead an increasingly isolated existence after the death of her husband. Amelia struggles with Sam’s strange behavior, is looked down on by her relatives, and is exhausted by work. Sam finds a book about a black monster called the Babadook who starts to come to life after the book is read to him.
The Babadook (Kent, 2014, AU/CA) has the fear factor but is also a fascinating exploration of grief and mental illness. The Babadook itself represents the mother’s state of mind, becoming more powerful and threatening towards her son as their isolation increases.
Criminal Psychologist Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) lives as a shut-in in her upmarket apartment. She suffers from agoraphobia after an attack by serial killer Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick Jr.) The cops need her expertise to catch a new serial killer who imitates the crimes of others but her involvement draws the killer’s unwanted attentions.
Copycat (Amiel, 1995, US) is a stylish horror/thriller. The outside world is Helen’s sweaty, panicked nightmare and her apartment is a sanctuary until she is targeted by the killer and the walls start closing in around her. Copycat features some impressive set pieces.
Agent Will Graham is tasked with tracking down a serial killer who murders entire families in their homes and then poses the bodies. Graham is famous for getting inside the heads of killers, having put notorious cannibal Hannibal Lector behind bars. Graham’s job puts himself and his family in danger.
Manhunter (Mann, 1986, US) is an adaption of the book Red Dragon and was the first to feature Hannibal Lecter. Manhunter is far superior to the later movie adaption Red Dragon as it is far more stylish, powerful and chilling.
Director Michael Mann uses architecture and color to illustrate Graham’s journey into the mind of a psycho and William Peterson is one of the best actors of his generation.
10 Don’t Look Now
After the death of his toddler daughter, John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) wanders the back streets of Venice in pursuit of a figure wearing a similar red raincoat to the one his daughter wore when she drowned. His wife (Julie Christie) tries to persuade him to leave.
Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973, UK/IT) is a deeply unsettling movie. The sequence of events that lead to the child’s death in the opening of the film are incredibly realistic and tragic. The labyrinthine streets of Venice are imposing and the message seems to be that; unless we are able to come to terms with our grief it will destroy us.