1) West of Zanzibar (1928)
This silent pre-code Lon Chaney film’s revenge plot is lurid in the extreme. I won’t spoil it for you with details but the tale involves a junkie doctor, a white girl turned prostitute in the steamy tropics and a white man fooling the local natives into believing he is a demi-god. Yikes!
This movie was remade with Walter Huston and Lupe Velez as the 1932 talkie Kongo. I prefer the Chaney version.
2) The Walking Dead (1936)
Fresh off of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff starred in this interesting yet underrated Universal Studios revenge tale, still looking very much like the Frankenstein monster courtesy of Jack Pierce’s make-up and haircut. A good Universal semi-horror film you may have missed — and a chance to spend some more time with an old friend.
3) Gaslight (1944)
This film became so popular that “gaslighting” someone became a verb. This tale of perceived madness stars a breathtakingly beautiful Ingrid Bergman, plus Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and a saucy Angela Lansbury.
4) The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Mute servant Dorothy McGuire discovers there is a murderer in the large, spooky house in which she works. She thinks she knows who it is — but can’t tell anyone! This fine thriller also features Ethel Barrymore and Elsa (Bride of Frankenstein) Lanchester. Better, I think, than the blind girl variation on this theme, Wait Until Dark.
5) Nightmare Alley (1947)
Tyrone Power’s own personal favorite among his many roles, this lurid movie spends half its time in a seedy carnival that features a “geek” (the original meaning of the term: an alky who dresses up like a wild man and bites the heads off of live chickens in exchange for a bottle of cheap hooch) and the other half in slick nightclubs with a mentalist act that ends up crossing a very important line. Joan Blondell and Colleen Gray are terrific, as is Power. Another of Dave Stevens‘ favorite films.
6) Pretty Poison (1968)
This little sleeper garnered much critical acclaim upon its release. It stars the always interesting Anthony (Psycho) Perkins, with a superb Tuesday Weld as a sexy high-schooler. Is Perkins the creepy psycho everyone thinks he is?
7) Silent Partner (1978)
This Canadian film’s screenplay won the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, and deservedly so. Elliott Gould is a bank teller who gets involved in a bank robbery executed by psychopath as portrayed by the brilliant Christopher Plummer. Despite his dire situation, Gould’s character never falls to playing the victim; he is constantly one-upping the murderous Plummer. The always-sexy Susannah York is the main female lead. My favorite on this list. Warning: this film has scenes of intense graphic violence.
8) Night of the Juggler (1980)
Shortly after this obscure little gem begins, this James Brolin thriller launches into one of the most suspenseful chases ever caught on film. Mandy Patinkin has a great cameo as a Puerto Rican cab driver. Not the nicest portrait of New York City.
9) The People Under the Stairs (1991)
This little Wes Craven thriller really touched me personally, as it tapped into recurring dream/nightmare images I had as a kid. I only met Wes once and we never talked about my dreams’ subject matter, so he came up with all that stuff coincidentally on his own. For those reasons, this movie simultaneously fascinates me and creeps me out.
10) Collateral (2004)
For my money, the best film Michael Mann ever directed with the best performance ever by Tom Cruise. Tom’s a hit man who forces cab driver Jamie Foxx to take him to each of Tom’s hits. This film sustains a great mood and it revealed to me and my fellow Angelenos that we actually have a subway system (Who knew?). My favorite scene is the Miles Davis one.
11) Tell No One (2006)
Here’s the set-up to this twisty-turny you-can’t guess-what’s-going-to-happen-next French thriller:
A doctor and his wife, crazy in love with each other, are vacationing at their cabin in the woods. While skinny-dipping in the lake, the wife realizes she has forgotten something and swims to shore. Her husband hears her bloodcurdling scream. He swims to shore as fast as he can, where he finds the battered bloody body of his wife. WHAM! He’s hit in the head and goes unconscious.
It’s years later. The horrible crime never solved, the doctor’s still very much feeling his loss. He checks his morning e-mails. There’s an odd one. He clicks on it and up comes a live video feed from a Paris metro exit. While wondering who in the heck sent this to him, when out of the streaming crowd walks his wife. She looks directly into the camera and says “Tell no one”, then disappears back into the crowd.
12) Point Blank (2010)
Not to be confused with the John Boorman/Lee Marvin Point Blank, this French thriller is like Alfred Hitchcock on steroids. The tales uses the classic Hitchcock “wrong man” theme. The more our innocent guy tries to extricate himself out of his terrible situation, the deeper into it he sinks. Yes, there are subtitles, but this highly visual film moves so damn fast it seems like there’s only about ten minutes of dialogue. The lead actor in this film is played by the same actor who is the street criminal who aids the doctor in Tell No One.
13) The Prey (La Proie) (2011)
This one’s a cheat: I haven’t seen the entire film yet — but what I’ve seen so far is incredibly compelling. And the fact that reviewers have found this film even better than Tell No One and Point Blank, made me want to include this one on my list.
I have the Blu-ray ordered. I haven’t been able to watch the whole film yet because when I try to stream this via Netflix, I only get to watch about a minute at a time; then, the movie goes into reload mode. Frustrating! And not the way to watch a taut thriller.
Here’s part of the film’s IMDB summary. I didn’t include the entire summary because there are some spoilers in it:
Bankrobber Franck Adrien serves a prison sentence after successfully robbing a national bank, but before he gets caught he manages to hide the money. His cellmate is a suspected rapist/child molester who claims complete innocence in regards to the crimes of which he has been accused. Someone gets a hold of Franck’s loot; Franck must bust out of prison if he has any hope in retrieving his dough.
If you’ve got favorite obscure thrillers of your own, I’d love to hear about them!