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Underrated Suspense Movies That Will Have You On The Edge Of Your Seat

What are the key components of suspense? In film, suspense is the anxiety and anticipation that an audience feels while watching a film. All films want to create suspense of some kind: it's what keeps viewers engaged with the film, puzzling out what they think will happen next. 

Two genres that rely heavily on suspense are thrillers and horror. While many thrillers and horror movies are fast-paced, others usually employ a slow burn, with the tension in the film building as an underlying mystery reveals itself with an often surprising climax. Although modern films are more fast-paced, there is still something to be said for taking the time to build that tension and the delayed gratification of suspense movies.

Many recognize Alfred Hitchcock as the master of suspense, and watching his movies is like taking a class where you learn the film techniques used to create that cinematic tension. Filmmakers can use lighting and composition to make the audience feel off balance. Changes in POV and the audience knowing more than the characters build tension. Creepy music is a mainstay for eliciting emotions, as are unnerving color schemes and set design. The story can increase suspense through uncertainty and raising the stakes, while the performances can create anxiety.

If you're a cinephile, you've probably already seen the mainstays of the genre, so instead let's look at some underrated suspense movies that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Flatliners (1990)

Although "Flatliners" starred some of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, including Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt, it received mixed reviews (via Rotten Tomatoes). Despite a cool critical reception, the film was moderately profitable, probably because of the young cast's box office draw and the ubiquitous advertising campaign capitalizing on the film's memorable movie poster.

Four medical students in Chicago agree to help their classmate Nelson (Sutherland) explore "near death" experiences, hoping to discover what lies beyond the end of life. But by stopping his heart and reviving him after he achieves brain death, they embark on a nightmarish experience with unpredictable consequences. After self-styled player Joe (Baldwin), the cynical David (Bacon), and traumatized researcher Rachel (Roberts) have all taken turns visiting the other side, past traumas and lingering guilt over the people they have wronged haunt them.

Directed by Joel Schumacher, "Flatliners" is an interesting twist on "haunting" tropes, because it is the people who are haunted rather than a place. Schumacher uses eerie choral music, a Frankenstein-like laboratory under an abandoned monument, dark alleyways, flashbacks, and dreamlike sequences to build suspense, leaving the audience on edge while wondering if this group of medical students have upset the balance of nature by playing God. Despite the so-so reviews (and an absolutely terrible 2017 remake), the disparity between critic and audience scores on Metacritic suggests you should give this movie a shot.

Pacific Heights (1990)

When Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) buy their dream home, a Victorian in San Francisco, they resort to renting out the two downstairs units to fund the remodel. Their first tenants are a pleasant couple, but when Drake rents the second unit to Carter Hays (Michael Keaton) without running a credit check, things take a turn for the worse. Carter moves in before the wire transfer goes through, and turns their dream home into a living hell.

Before long, Patty and Drake are in a dispute with Carter, who is now protected by tenants' rights despite never paying a penny to move in. As they become embroiled in a legal battle with Carter, they realize he might ruin more than their credit, as tensions between Carter and Drake rise. This slow-burn suspense movie will make you fear becoming a landlord and being shackled by the law.

Although "Pacific Heights" was met with mixed reviews from critics, audiences love the film, giving it universal acclaim on Metacritic. Although it wasn't a runaway hit at the box office, it turned a respectable profit. The film uses interesting camera angles and shadows to increase suspense, and the score lends a hand. Keaton is incredibly creepy in this role, while Griffith and Modine actually make you feel sorry for the landlords. If you haven't seen this underrated domestic thriller, you can stream it on Peacock.

Dead Again (1991)

"Dead Again" is a compelling mystery involving a woman, played by Emma Thompson, with amnesia and the detective, Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh), who's hired to discover her identity. When Franklyn (Derek Jacobi), an antiques dealer who dabbles in hypnotism, offers his services to help discover her identity, the hypnotic-regression session takes her back to a past life, where Roman (Branagh) and Margaret Strauss (Thompson) were deeply in love before he was convicted of her murder. Mike and the woman, whom Mike has taken to calling Grace, are drawn into a murder mystery and a love story spanning lifetimes. A discredited psychiatrist that Mike consults, Dr. Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), suggests that Grace will regain her memory once they discover why Roman killed Margaret.

"Dead Again" was Kenneth Branagh's sophomore effort as a director, and it's his love letter to film noir. Critics and audiences warmly received the film, getting favorable reviews on Metacritic, but it's over 30 years old and many people have probably forgotten about this excellent film. The entire cast is fantastic. The cinematography, setting, and story are very suspenseful, and the score heightens the drama. If you haven't seen "Dead Again," check it out, and if you haven't seen it since the '90s, it's time for a rewatch.

Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

"Sleeping with the Enemy" follows a young woman, Laura (Julia Roberts), who fakes her own death to escape her abusive and controlling husband, Martin (Patrick Bergin). We quickly learn that Laura, who changes her name to Sara, was planning her escape, moving her ailing mother to a new rest home in Iowa where she would meet her.

Once Sara escapes and lets her guard down, enjoying a budding romance with her neighbor, there are moments of joy where it seems we are watching a romantic comedy. But these are contrasted with her hyper-vigilance: she is paranoid, constantly wondering if Martin will find her. Then Martin arrives, determined to get her back. Bergin's creepy performance, the score, and Roberts' jittery performance elevate the underlying tension in this domestic thriller.

"Sleeping with the Enemy" received mixed critical reviews, but has solid audience scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and did great at the box office thanks to Roberts' then-peaking star power. With a storyline geared toward female audiences, a poor critical response may be more indicative of the fact that male critics still outnumber female critics (per Variety) than the quality of the film, which is a startling portrayal of domestic abuse.

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Fallen (1998)

"Fallen" stars Denzel Washington as a homicide detective, John Hobbes, who must investigate a new string of murders resembling the MO of a serial killer, Edgar Reese, whose execution Hobbes witnessed a day before the murders began. Initially, Hobbes and his partner (John Goodman) think Reese must have had an accomplice who evaded them, but as the trail becomes more convoluted, people in the police department theorize that the new murderer might be a copycat or even a cop.

Hobbes' investigation brings him to a buried story about a disgraced police officer, who had his medals posthumously taken away after he died in a mysterious gun accident decades ago. After tracking down the officer's grown daughter and going through a series of strange experiences, Hobbes must contemplate the possibility that Reese was possessed by a malevolent entity, using a string of hosts to commit murders and taunt Hobbes in a demented game of cat and mouse.

Critics panned the film, but audiences didn't agree, giving it a respectable score on Rotten Tomatoes. With an estimated budget of $46 million (per The Wrap) and a box office gross of a little over $25 million, it was an expensive flop. Despite that disappointment, however, the film has a great cast and builds suspense throughout the film through a series of unsettling events. The twist ending is absolutely worth checking out.

Stir of Echoes (1999)

"Stir of Echoes" actually has pretty good scores with audiences and critics on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, but it didn't earn the box office numbers that it could have. That's because it had the misfortune of coming out the same year as "The Sixth Sense," making this film the less popular suspense movie about people who can see ghosts. 

After being hypnotized by his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas), Tom (Kevin Bacon) starts seeing things and behaving strangely. The violent visions unsettle him, and he becomes even more distressed after learning that the girl whose image he's seeing, Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), was reported missing months ago. The mystery is compounded when Tom and his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) learn that their young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope), can see her too. Tom is convinced that Samantha is a ghost and becomes obsessed with discovering what happened to her.

Bacon is great in the lead role, and the entire cast follows suit, delivering excellent performances. The mystery is compelling and rooted in a realistic tragedy despite the supernatural elements. Music is well used to heighten the tension in the film, as are the disturbing flashes that Tom experiences. "Stir of Echoes" is an engaging and underrated thriller about ordinary people contending with restless spirits seeking justice. Bacon's sweaty desperation sells the story and Cope's wide-eyed innocence is unnerving.

The Village (2004)

"The Village" is set in an isolated 19th-century hamlet in the Pennsylvania countryside, where the residents have a tenuous truce with the creatures who live in the woods surrounding Covington. The residents don't go into the woods, and the creatures do not enter the village, which is cut off from the world. But when Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is injured, his fiancée Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) asks her father and town leader, Edward (William Hurt), for permission to travel through the woods for medicine to save his life. Despite being blind, Ivy braves the wilderness, encountering the creatures that the village lives in fear of. As Ivy travels deeper into the treacherous woods, we learn more about the village and its founders, building up to a surprising climax that left some feeling cheated.

Although M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" was a commercial success, it marked a turn in public sentiment and critical response toward the director, who cemented his reputation with the success of "The Sixth Sense." While Shyamalan arguably set himself up for this backlash when audiences learned to expect an earth-shattering twist at the end of his films, this haunting film about the generational transmission of fear deserves another viewing. It has an excellent cast, is visually gorgeous, and exudes a menacing atmosphere that will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Skeleton Key (2005)

Caroline (Kate Hudson), a hospice nurse living in New Orleans, accepts a new position and moves into a crumbling plantation house on a bayou to care for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who was incapacitated by a stroke. After a series of unexplained incidents and underlying feelings of suspicion toward his wife, Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), Caroline questions her beliefs about Hoodoo (folk magic) as she becomes embroiled in a mystery surrounding the estate's violent history and the elderly residents she was hired to care for.

Jill (Joy Bryant) tries to convince Caroline to leave the position and come back to New Orleans. Instead, Caroline, who feels responsible for poor old Ben, seeks information about Hoodoo from practitioners in New Orleans while snooping around the creepy attic of the plantation house. Devereaux's estate attorney, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), flirts with the line between creepy and solicitous, leaving the audience unsure about his sincerity.

Although "The Skeleton Key" was received poorly by critics, it has solid audience scores on Metacritic, and did admirably at the box office, turning a small profit on the star power of the actors. This suspense movie is atmospheric, moody, and delivers plenty of supernatural thrills. The decaying mansion and the storyline set this film in the Southern Gothic tradition, exploring the sins of the South while delivering a fantastic twist ending that is too good to give away. If you enjoy Gothic horror, this unappreciated film deserves another viewing.

Stoker (2013)

India Stoker's (Mia Wasikowska) father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday, and Charlie (Matthew Goode), the uncle India never knew existed, arrives at the family estate unexpectedly after the tragic accident. Charlie moves in to help India's unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) cope with the transition from wife to widow. His presence brings a fraught dynamic into the family and unearths ugly family secrets about Richard and Charlie's childhood and their younger brother, who died under mysterious circumstances.

This film effortlessly builds suspense through unsettling performances, gorgeous cinematography, and voyeuristic changes in point of view. The score elicits tension and dread in the audience, while the disturbing story sucks you into the Stokers' strange world of family secrets, long-held resentments, and obsession.

The worldwide box office for "Stoker" just covered the production budget, making this a money loser, but don't let the financial information fool you. "Stoker" may have been met with mixed critical reviews, but it has much better audience scores on Metacritic. Acclaimed director Park Chan-wook and actor-turned-scriptwriter Wentworth Miller deliver a creepy domestic thriller simmering with unbearable erotic tension. The excellent cast turn in unsettling performances in this stylish exploration of psychopathy, reimagined as a Gothic coming-of-age tale.

Dark Places (2015)

"Dark Places" comes from the mind of Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the novel "Sharp Objects" and both the novel and script for "Gone Girl." Charlize Theron plays Libby Day, a woman who can't get past the trauma of surviving a massacre. When she was eight years old, Libby's mother, Patty (Christina Hendricks), and two older sisters were brutally murdered on their family farm in the middle of the night, with her brother Ben arrested for the killings.

Desperate for money, Libby agrees to revisit the crime with a true-crime group after Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), the group's treasurer, offers to pay her to investigate. Libby works her way through Lyle's case file, interviewing people about the night of the murder and the arrest of Ben, played by Tye Sheridan in flashbacks and Corey Stoll in the present. During her investigation, Libby questions her brother's sentence and begins to understand why people believe he was wrongly convicted because of rumors and Satanic panic in their rural Kansas community.

Although this film was a miss at the box office and with critics, it fared better with audiences on Metacritic, and it is worth checking out if you love dual timeline mysteries and a good twist ending. "Dark Places" has an excellent cast and uses flashbacks to draw out the suspense slowly, revealing a complex plot that explores the extreme choices people make to protect the ones they love.

A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Things get weird when a young executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by the board of the company he works for to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from a mysterious sanitarium. After being turned away by the director, Volmer (Jason Isaacs), because he arrived after visiting hours, Lockhart becomes an unwilling patient after sustaining injuries in a car accident while leaving the facility.

Searching the sanitarium for Pembroke, Lockhart meets a patient, Victoria (Celia Imrie), with whom he discusses the aquifer the sanitarium is built upon, its rumored therapeutic properties, and the dark history of the castle. He also meets an unusual young woman, Hannah (Mia Goth), who has lived at the facility for as long as she can remember, despite not taking the water cure as the other patients do.

This surreal fever dream of a film — visually lush, unsettling, and anachronistic — might be director Gore Verbinski's best effort since his 2002 horror outing, "The Ring." The art direction is incredible, and the location lulls you into a fantasy that quickly turns frightening and twisted. The disparity between critic and audience ratings on Metacritic suggests that you just might enjoy visiting this nightmarish retreat, where one is guaranteed a truly bizarre viewing experience.

The Manor (2021)

"The Manor" is an Amazon Studios original starring Barbara Hershey. After suffering a mild stroke on her 70th birthday, Judith, a vivacious retired dancer, moves into a care facility in a historic home near where she lived with her daughter and teenage grandson. When Judith arrives, she is troubled by the "no cell phone" policy and not being allowed to explore the grounds unaccompanied, but reluctantly hands over her phone anyway.

Judith has terrifying visions at night that the nurses dismiss as dreams, and her doctor says her mental faculties are declining at an alarming rate because of progressive dementia. After a failed escape attempt, Judith becomes convinced there is something nefarious and supernatural at work, keeping a core group of residents from aging while other patients die at alarming rates. 

Filled with things that go bump in the night and creepy visuals, "The Manor" is for viewers who enjoy Gothic horror and movies that make one question reality. Although it met mixed reviews from critics and audiences on Metacritic, the cast is excellent and the film is an interesting meditation on the fears of growing old. The film is less concerned with death and more focused on the infantilization many elderly people experience once they need more care than their families can provide. "The Manor" has the atmospheric dread of Gothic horror and a surprise twist ending worth streaming on Prime Video.

No Exit (2022)

The Hulu original "No Exit" follows Darby (Havana Rose Liu), a young woman who breaks out of rehab to drive to Salt Lake City after learning her mother was taken to the hospital. Darby is stranded at a rest stop with a group of strangers during a blizzard when she discovers a little girl, Jay (Mila Harris), tied up in a van in the parking lot. After promising to help the girl, Darby returns to the lounge to discover who the kidnapper is. With no phone service and the road closed, Darby tries to figure out who she can trust and if she has an ally who will help her save the little girl.

Despite mixed reviews, this psychological thriller is worth checking out and has a couple of surprising twists. Liu is fantastic as Darby, who transforms into a surprising heroine and finds untapped strength and courage when faced with a rapidly deteriorating and dangerous situation. "No Exit" capitalizes on the paranoia of the scenario and the group dynamic, with the entire ensemble turning in nuanced, multi-dimensional performances. The tight script and lean 90-minute running time keep the story progressing at a good pace, until all hell breaks loose in a memorable and violent confrontation.

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