Given how stress-inducing the real world can be at the best of times, movies that rely on tension as a driving force might seem like an odd entertainment choice to some.
But who are we to judge? Perhaps spending 90+ minutes sweating and wincing in front of the TV screen is actually a cathartic way to let off some steam. At the very least, a suspense movie is always a great way to get the ol’ heart rate up.
But what actually is a suspense movie? How is it different from a thriller? Well, both will get your pulse racing, but we’d argue that suspense films also come with a little bit of dread thrown in for good measure. Movies like this sit somewhere at the intersection of thriller, horror, and mystery, filling you up like an uncomfortably long-held breath.
If that sounds like something you’re looking for, we’ve scoured Netflix to track down the best of them. Those with a nervous disposition should tread lightly, and if you’re after some more traditional thrills, hit up our list of the best Netflix thrillers.
1. Bird Box
Bird Box‘s premise is a simple but effective one: After a mysterious apocalyptic event, human beings can no longer open their eyes outdoors. If they do, they’ll die by suicide. As you can probably imagine, this threat alone is more than enough to dial up the movie’s background tension, while sequences like Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie rowing blindfolded down a river with two small children cranks the stress-o-meter into overdrive. Based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name and directed by Susanne Bier, Bird Box is not without its criticisms — but when it comes to suspense, the story is impressively nerve-jangling. Plus, with those creatures constantly circling, it’s also one of the best monster movies on Netflix. — Sam Haysom, Deputy UK Editor
2. The Call
Not the 2013 Halle Berry film or the revenge-based horror film of the same name, but based on Matthew Parkhill’s 2011 supernatural horror film The Caller, Lee Chung-hyun’s The Call is a dark, chilling South Korean mystery that you can’t hang up on. When Kim Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) visits her family home, she loses her phone, then starts getting weird, disturbing calls and finds a connection to a woman called Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo). Where this film twists and turns from here, you’ll never predict, so paying light attention is not an option. Strong performances, unnerving use of sound, stunning cinematography, and a well-woven structure make this one surreal and disturbing journey through time and reality. — Shannon Connellan, UK Editor
3. The Clovehitch Killer
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What would you do if you began to suspect a family member might be guilty of some horrendous crimes? That’s the premise of Duncan Skiles’ dark domestic nightmare, which sees a seemingly perfect family torn apart when their teenage son, Tyler, finds a link between his dad and the infamous Clovehitch Killer — a man who tortured and murdered 10 women but was never caught. Dylan McDermott is spectacularly creepy as the Scout leader dad in question. This one will appeal to fans of Stephen King (who, incidentally, was also a fan of this movie) and coming-of-age crime thrillers like Summer of ’84. — S.H.
4. Gerald’s Game
Channeling the single room claustrophobia of Misery, Gerald’s Game is a Stephen King novel that writer/director Mike Flanagan used to think was “unfilmable”. It’s not difficult to see why, either. The story follows a woman handcuffed to the bed of her remote lake house after her husband dies of a heart attack during a sex game. The vast majority of the action plays out in her own mind and memories. Still, Flanagan had a go at it, and the result is just as teeth-grittingly tense as the source material. Carla Gugino puts in a brilliant lead performance as Jessie. Bruce Greenwood is suitably horrible as her husband Gerald, and Carel Struycken is perfect as the ominous figure Jessie glimpses in the shadows of her room at night. Fair warning, though — this one has some pretty dark and disturbing moments. — S.H.
As a simple, terrifying scenario, Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel’s Hush makes a strong horror-thriller elevator pitch: Siegel plays Maddie Young, a successful horror author, who is deaf and cannot speak, and who lives by herself in a house in the woods. When a murderous masked man starts threatening Maddie, things get seriously scary as she tries to keep her tormenter out of the house — all without being able to hear him. It’s a comparable level of sound-based survival suspense you’ve lived through in A Quiet Place. Every movement counts and there’s a perfect “behind you!” moment to make a pantomime proud. The key to Hush, however, is the Siegel-Flanagan team. The married duo have worked together on Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, and the aforementioned Gerald’s Game (see above). Hush is Siegel’s first screenplay (co-written with Flanagan) and it’s genuinely terrifying. She puts everything into her performance as Maddie, dealing with this horrific, violent threat almost in real-time, balancing circumstantial vulnerability with primal courage. It’s the most suspenseful “what if” you’ll see in an age. — S.C.
6. I Am Mother
The problem with robots is you can never tell what they’re thinking. This is a lesson we’ve had drilled into us time and again in the sci-fi space, and Grant Sputore’s futuristic mystery — about a girl being raised by a robot in a post-apocalyptic bunker — is no exception. Starring Hilary Swank, Clara Rugaard, and Rose Byrne, the suspense in this one comes hand-in-hand with the blank, impenetrable gaze of Mother (the robotic carer in question), before cranking into overdrive when a stranger’s arrival casts suspicion on the metal guardian’s real role. — S.H.
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7. The Guilty
Credit: GLEN WILSON/NETFLIX
Following a cop with an anger problem during a 911 dispatch shift, The Guilty sees Jake Gyllenhaal at his vein-bursting best in this twisty thriller about a kidnapped woman.
“With the camera focused on him for almost the full 90 minutes in The Guilty, Gyllenhaal combines all [his] skills into one excruciatingly tense performance,” I wrote in my review. “He throws himself into the role of detective-turned-911-dispatcher Joe Baylor with so much anger, pain, and sadness that you’re forced to go through every single emotion with him.” — S.H.
A futuristic twist on the fear of being buried alive, Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen is a claustrophobic nightmare about a woman who wakes up in a cryogenic box with no idea of who she is or how she got there. The good news? She’s able to communicate with the outside world via a robotic medical unit called M.I.L.O. The bad news? Nobody she speaks to seems willing to come clean with her, and her oxygen reserves are quickly spiraling towards zero percent. Mélanie Laurent perfectly captures the short-breathed dread of this role, and Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay has enough twists and turns to keep the story racing along at a heart-pounding pace. Just tread carefully if you have a fear of tight spaces — this one won’t be a fun watch for claustrophobics. — S.H.
9. The Platform
Prison cells are stacked one on top of the other, with holes in the floor and ceiling. Randomly-assigned levels change each month. And a platform of food gets slowly lowered from the very top, getting sparser and sparser with each floor it descends. This is the concept at the centre of Spanish director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform, a disturbing sci-fi thriller that wears its capitalist analogy plainly on its prison garb sleeve. It’s one of those rare gems where the execution is as strong as the idea at its core, driven by an excellent screenplay from David Desola and Pedro Rivero that’s dripping with horror and suspense. If you’re a fan of movies like The Cube or Saw, this is well worth checking out.* — S.H.
10. The Power of the Dog
Credit: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX
Set in 1925 Montana, The Power of the Dog follows the tense relationship between a bullying, grim-faced rancher and the timid son of his new sister-in-law.
“The menace threaded through the film mesmerizes,” writes Kristy Puchko in her review. “Ari Wegner’s searching cinematography weaves this mood into an aching vulnerability. His tightest close-ups grapple with their subjects, refusing to be shut out from the most secret emotions. His long shots linger, inviting us to take in the gorgeous but hostile environments that surround this fraught family, and illustrate how frail they are by contrast. In all of this, Campion creates a dance of fractured souls, all broken by savage loneliness. Even at their worsts, she holds a dogged empathy for her heroes and villains, who cower and bite with passion.”
11. Uncut Gems
Not many films with a two-hour-plus runtime can maintain levels of tension higher than most horror movies, but Uncut Gems manages it with painful ease. The Safdie brothers’ crime thriller follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a motor-mouthed jeweler with an impressive capacity for bullshitting and a horrible run-up of gambling debt that he’s trying to pay back via the riskiest means possible. It’s a hectic, chaotic film that’s perfectly complemented by Daniel Lopatin’s discordant score. Just make sure you’re braced for some seriously stressful viewing before you go in. — S.H.
12. Under the Shadow
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Tehran in the ’80s during the Iran-Iraq War is the last place you’d expect to be facing a djinn, but in Under the Shadow, that’s exactly what’s up. The directorial debut of Iranian-born, London-based filmmaker Babak Anvari, this modern version of a haunted house horror film centres around medical student Shideh, whose family’s apartment building is hit by a missile during the conflict. But that’s not the only thing to worry about, with a shadowy presence threatening Shideh and her daughter. It’s a bonafide masterclass in tension building. * — S.C.