10 Underrated Thriller Movies

In light of an upcoming talk I’m giving on ‘Introduction to Film’ I thought it might be useful to put up a couple of posts to give an idea on the movies I like…


As with the previous Horror films list, many of these movies are not ‘underrated’ exactly- a number of them received positive critical reviews, and in some cases, awards. However only two of the listed broke $20 million at the box office, both of which were the less appreciated critically.


The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

Movie poster of The Disappearance of Alice Creed
The Disappearance of Alice Creed

A three hander between Gemma Arterton as the titular Alice, and Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston as Vic and Danny, the low life criminals who kidnap her, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a low budget piece that depends on the quality of its’ performers. Luckily, they’re all on top form to do the tight and twisting script justice. What could work equally well as a play- pretty much a one location shot and minimal cast the piece ratchets up the tension and the revelations which emerge are well handled and timed. A fearless performance from Gemma Arterton, the movie is high on nudity, low on graphic violence, and if the director decided to change the ending because of initial test reactions, it’s still a nervy journey to get there.

Blue Ruin (2013)

Scene from the movie Blue Ruin
Scene from Blue Ruin

Jeremy Saulnier’s low budget sophomore feature film (shot on approximately $1 million), is by turns an average joe in a thriller situation, and a ‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’ tale- the two are deliberately not mutually exclusive.

At its’ most basic level, Blue Ruin sees Dwight, a down and out vagrant returning to his family home to seek revenge on Wade Cleland, the man who murdered his parents, and who is due out of prison any day. As Dwight goes about attempting to carry out his plan, he does everything we see the ‘innocent’ protagonists do in these situations so easily, but things go wrong at every stage, often in small scale, but ultimately gruesome ways. What starts out as a relatively simple revenge plot, uses clever and thoughtful plotting to twist its’ way into something much more interesting, and with the sort of character examination to be expected from an independent than a ‘thriller’. Relentlessly challenging, Blue Ruin acted as a calling card for Saulnier to move onto Green Room, and several big budget tv shows including True Detective.


Frailty (2001)

scene from the movie Frailty
Bill Paxton in Frailty

Frailty was the late Bill Paxton’s first feature movie, and sadly he only got to make one more before his death in 2017. He was working on an adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s The Bottoms at the time of his death, and based on the astonishing confidence Frailty shows, it would have been a perfect match.

As it is, we have Frailty, and it is great.

Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into an FBI office one night and informs lead investigator Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that he has information about the serial killer known as the God’s Hand Killer- who was, he says, his recently deceased brother. He was made into this murderer by their father (Paxton)’s delusions of being on a mission from God to destroy the demons in the world hiding in human form; their duty as god’s avenging angel.) Sceptical, Doyle goes with Meiks to where he says he has buried his brother’s body.

What follows is a brilliantly constructed twisting and turning plot with fine performances from the leads and young actors portraying the childhood brothers in flashback.

If asked to summarise, I’d say think of the scene in Se7en when Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman drive Kevin Spacey out to the desert because its’ the only way he’ll reveal his secrets and extend it to 100 minutes- that’s how tense I felt throughout, and the ending does not let down.


Shattered (1991)

Movie cover from Shattered

Shattered was quoted as Wolfgang Petersen’s Hollywood calling card- in reality he’d already directed the financially successful Never-Ending Story and the money loser Enemy Mine. To this end Shattered was a disappointment in Box Office returns- taking in only half of its’ $22 million budget, and highly divisive in its’ critical response, many of which depended on the viewer’s reaction to its’ twist- indeed many viewed it as being nothing but one big twist, and many suggesting Peterson was ‘slumming’ it after his brilliant magnus opus Das Boot

For me? I loved it on first viewing, and although it has been a long time since I’ve seen it, the ending still stays with me.

Plot wise it’s true that to give any more than the very most basic of details is either to deceive, fudge the detail or potentially give too much away. So, as a very brief summary:

The movie starts with a wealthy couple (Greta Scacchi and Tom Berenger) crashing their car on the way back from a New Year’s Eve party on one of those twisty turny mountain roads that apparently exist purely for the purpose of Hollywood car crashes. The wife is thrown free, but the husband suffers massive injuries, and ends up in a deep coma with horrific injuries.

Surviving he emerges with extensive surgery and a swiss cheese memory with selective amnesia. As he tries to piece his life back together he starts to believe that those around him were not necessarily the friends he thought he had. Hiring a Private Investigator (Bob Hoskins) he begins to investigate who he can trust, and whether it really was an accident, or a murder attempt.

True the movie is pure popcorn fayre, with more plot contrivances than you can shake a stick at, but it is a fun ride before that ending.


Buried (2010)

Movie poster of Buried

Buried was Rodrigo Cortés’ first English Language feature, starring Ryan Reynolds and…well, that’s it. It’s no spoiler to say that this is the ultimate one location movie shoot. In this case, in a space the size of a coffin as Paul Conroy (Reynolds), an American non-military worker in Iraq, wakes to find himself buried alive. With only a cigarette lighter and a rapidly diminishing mobile phone, which he uses to call various never-seen outside contacts he has a limited time to try to escape, as the sand starts to fill the coffin and his resources start to diminish. A film which plays on two of the greatest fears- being buried alive and suffering from terrible customer service on the phone.

Even more so than the later 127 hours, Buried plays cleverly within its’ highly contained limited story telling circumstances.

Summed up neatly by one of its’ tag-lines: 170,000 SQ miles of desert. 90 minutes of Oxygen. No way out. Buried is a stripped back, lean, incredibly claustrophobic thriller made by Reynold’s performance.




The Handmaiden (2016)

Poster for The Handmaiden a film by Park Chan-Wook
The Handmaiden

Chan-wook Park is, for me, one of the best film-makers working today, and I could easily have put many of his movies in this list- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, Oldboy, Thirst, or Stoker as starting examples. After the disappointing reception of Stoker, his Hollywood debut, Park returned to Korea (and Japan) to make The Handmaiden, inspired by the novel ‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters.


Set in 1930s Korea, during Japanese occupation, a new handmaiden is taken on to work in service for a young Japanese heiress living in a cut-off existence in a country mansion, under the watchful eye of her overpowering Uncle. We soon learn that the handmaiden is actually working in the position as a pickpocket brought up by a Fagan-like crook who is using her to help him seduce the heiress in order to elope with him, to steal her fortune. What follows is a sensuously filmed and acted piece with a host of twists.


Very different from the violence of many of his earlier pieces, the film is not for those offended by nudity and/ or strong sexual scenes, Handmaiden is a sumptuous example of

Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, a beautiful score, and most of all, Park’s ability to slowly ratchet up the tension with a slow burn plot.


Identity (2003)

Movie poster for Identity John Cusack, Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet

If Shattered wasn’t universally liked Identity was generally pummelled by critics.

My eyeballs were doing some serious rolling of their own at the general ineptitude of this failed mating of Friday the 13th and Ten Little Indians.” according to one.

During a torrential rain, ten strangers find themselves stuck together in an out-of-the-way motel. This forced together crowd include a convict sentenced to death for his murderous ways, his lawyer, a pair of newlyweds, and a chauffer (John Cusack) and his client amongst others, all of whom have their own dark secrets and reasons for being, or not being there.

What follows, in true b-movie horror style (or indeed the aforementioned Ten Little Indians), is a bumping off one-by-one as stories come to light and the murderer’s identity remains in the shadows.

If the cast isn’t ‘star studded’ it is certainly largely recognisable, with the likes of Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina and others along for the ride. Directed by James Mangold (Cop Land, 3:10 to Yuma and Logan amongst others) and written by Michael Cooney whose film credits are less impressive…) Identity is, like Shattered, a movie that doesn’t bear too close an examination on some points, but at the same time makes for an interesting second viewing to appreciate some of its’ slyness and clues that may have been missed (they certainly were by me), the first time round. As a big John Cusack fan, I would say it’s disappointing how many decent movies he has made after this one.


Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Movie Poster for Shane Meadow's Dead Man's Shoes
Dead Man’s Shoes

Directed by Shane Meadows and starring Paddy Considine, and written by the two of them, Dead Man’s Shoes shares the most basic context and budget size with Blue Ruin- here Richard (Considine) returns his role as a paratrooper in the military service to his small British town looking for vengeance on the local gang who have been making his mentally disabled younger brother Anthony’s life a misery. The gentle and caring interplay between the two brothers is contrasted with Richard’s escalating acts of violence as he reeks his idea of justice on the thugs. Graphic in its’ action and dialogue (116 uses of the word ‘fuck’ for those interested). Dead Man’s Shoes is more ‘plot’ based than much of the director’s work with a conventional revenge story which some may find slightly predictable, but the atmosphere, jet black humour mixed with deep pathos, and performance (particularly from Considine) are very much vintage Meadows.


Frequency (2000)

Movie Poster for Frequency starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel

Classified as crime/drama/mystery there’s more than a dash of soft science fiction in Gregory Hoblit’s 2000 movie, but it’s played softly enough to make it almost a McGuffin.

During an atmospheric anomality, a high functioning alcoholic New York Police detective digs out his dead for thirty year’s father’s HAM radio and finds himself talking to his dad back in the ‘60’s. Together they manage to avoid his father’s untimely death, but through changing history find themselves having to fix things doing so triggers- most notably the serial murderer The Nightingale Killer and his impact on their family, even if they have to do so across a 30 year time gap.

Dennis Quaid is at his most grinning, all-American guy, and Jim Caviezel is strong in what could have been a thankless ‘self-pitying’ role. The constantly changing timeline is handled interestingly, and some of the effects (both narratively and visually) are effectively used- Looper went on to use similar methods for certain key sequences some 12 years later. Of course, Frequency is not wholly original itself, with borrows from as wide a range as It’s a Wonderful Life, to Back to the Future, to Quantum Leap, but as a whole it’s an enjoyable romp, and a surprisingly touching commentary on Father/ Son relationships.


The Vanishing (1988)

Poster for the original version of The Vanishing
The Vanishing (original version)

Like Michael Haneke and Funny Games, George Sluizer remade The Vanishing for Hollywood consumption. Unlike Haneke, Sluizer was told he would be given ten times the budget of his original version to make it but had to make certain major plot changes for it to be accepted in the US. One plot change in particular provides one of, but not the only, reason the remake is so insipid compared to the original.

The plot is, at its’ heart, a simple one- a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia are on holiday in Nimes, France. When they stop at a service station for a break, Saskia disappears. Rex spends several years doggedly, but fruitlessly, searching for her…until he receives postcards from someone claiming to be her abductor offering to tell Rex what exactly happened to Saskia…with certain conditions attached.

To say any more (other than what a truly creepy character the supposed abductor, Raymond Lermorne is) would be to spoil the journey Rex finds himself on. Suffice to say,

Entertainment Weekly rated the film as the 25th scariest movie of all time, and no less than Stanley Kubrick described it as the scariest film he had ever seen at the time of its’ release.

Just make sure you see the original…


Thoughts? Leave a comment!

 If you enjoy a tale with a twist ending, or with a bit of thrill in it you might like to check out Basement Tales– available now for Kindle and in Paperback from 27th July. 

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