12 underappreciated thrillers worth checking out

Looking for a pulse-pounding evening's entertainment? Then maybe you should give one of these 12 underrated thrillers a watch...

Certain thrillers never go out of style (Bruce Willis will surely one day play John McClane abseiling  out of a nursing home) but others somehow slip under the radar. Poor publicity can often be blamed on a lack of star power or budget, but there are also some top-notch, celebrity-filled movies which have been inexplicably lost among the flurry of inane, conventional popcorn flicks. Here’s a roundup of some of the little gems which have been forgotten or just don’t get enough love, goshdarnit.

12. The Disappearance Of Alice Creed (2009)

By now we’re all familiar with the “Kidnapping isn’t as simple as we thought it would be” thriller, but this Brit flick is especially effective; the storytelling is so taut and the actors so skilled that you’ll barely notice that the entire cast consists of three people. Eddie Marsan is the experienced professional criminal, Martin Compston his brash young apprentice, and Gemma Arterton  their kidnappee; her daddy has money and she’s an easy target.

The film isn’t perfect; there are a couple of improbable moments (“Ooh, someone’s unconscious, let me get the little bottle of reviving essential oils I keep handy for just such a purpose, because splashing someone’s face with water might require too many re-takes….”). The nudity from Gemma Arterton serves no purpose other than livening up the first ten minutes (and possibly getting the movie financed) but things soon get more interesting.

From the introductory scenes of wordless, methodical preparations for the crime, J Blakeson’s directorial style is all about showing, not telling. The result is almost unbearable tension throughout, and plenty of surprises, twists, and betrayals to keep you guessing. Add to this a satisfying ending, and a memorable scene involving a toilet and a bullet case, and you have proof that even the most basic of sets and budgets can make a fantastic film noir.

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11. Burning Bright (2010)

This is a film about two kids trapped in a house with a hungry tiger. What’s that? You like it already? Briana Evigan (the young Demi Moore lookalike from Sorority Row) stars as Kelly, a teenager loaded with adult responsibilities. After her mother dies, she is left with an autistic brother  who needs a lot of extra care, and a useless stepfather who siphons off her college fund to, er, buy a tiger. The night of a bad hurricane, Kelly and her brother Tom stay in the barricaded house while their stepfather is killing time at the pub. And then they realise they are not alone…

The big cat is the real star of the show; he is stunningly beautiful, which means you’re less likely to react with the screeching of “JUST KILL HIM!” which usually accompanies horror films (or is that just me?). He lacks the menace of the lions in Val Kilmer classic The Ghost And The Darkness, partly because he seems somewhat inadequate in basic tiger skills. For instance, he can walk around a room quite unable to spot or smell his live, trembling prey. However, he is fantastic at battering down doors. In fact, he can get through the average door in a matter of seconds, although it does take him a while to crash through a flimsy slatted closet.

Essentially, this is a Grimms’ fairy tale with all the trappings of a modern thriller (that is, a lithe young woman running around in her underwear) and some genuinely great shocks. The scene involving some slowly dripping sweat would have made Hitchcock proud.

10. Blood Simple (1984)

Long before John McNaughton’s Wild Things, the Coen brothers’ debut was the original convoluted plot in which nobody (least of all the characters) knows what’s going on. Abby (Frances McDormand) is unhappily married to Marty (Dan Hedaya) but having some fun on the side with Ray (John Getz) who works at her husband’s bar. Marty finds out and hires a private investigator to track the couple. Now, here’s where things get tricky – and it would ruin the movie if I told you too much. Let’s just say there are a couple of murder plots, and a few things go wrong. Nobody really trusts anyone else, and wouldn’t you know it, guns can run out of bullets at the damndest times.

Just like the film noirs of old, the cast of characters are all flawed and not particularly easy to root for. (Special mention must go to M Emmet Walsh, who is fantastically sleazy as the devious private detective.) Despite the sequence of events being  somewhat unlikely, the film makes each step a believable and logical part of the chain.

This tangled web creates some darkly comic moments , including a scene in which one person thinks they’re being thanked for disposing of a body, when actually it’s more of a “Thanks for calling!” situation. As it’s the Coen brothers, there are some particularly gruesome moments, along with the tight plotting and constant surprises. The story is inventive enough to make “Guess what happens next” an almost impossible game…

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9. The Skeleton Key (2005)

OK, so it has some big stars (Kate Hudson, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard) and it’s not un-famous. So why doesn’t this little cracker of a movie rank up there with The Ring (from the same writer) or Paranormal Activity? It’s way more fun! If you’re used to New York or LA-centred films, it’s refreshing to find one that explores the steamy, swampy depths of Louisiana. Naturally, in such a setting the story has to involve the deep dark secrets of Hoodoo. If you liked Angel Heart, you’ll love this (it has the added benefit of flawless internal logic).

Kate Hudson plays Caroline, a hospice nurse who takes a new job living with Benjamin (John Hurt), an elderly man who has been incapacitated after a stroke. At least that’s what his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) says, although Caroline begins to suspect there is more to this story when Benjamin seems terrified of his wife. Peter Sarsgaard is the estate lawyer and potential love interest offering Caroline support.

We’re more accustomed to Kate Hudson being adorably perky  in romcoms, but she makes a great scream queen too. This movie has it all: dark and stormy nights, creaky doors, spooky records and attics full of weird dolls and magic spells. It also has one of the best-ever horror endings; it’s rare that a film has the courage to make the conclusion fit into the story so logically. (And that’s all I’m saying.) A second viewing will illuminate all the deliciously creepy little details you missed the first time, and does nothing to assuage the nerve-jangling sense of dread as the mystery deepens. 

8. Black Water (2007)

It’s a simple story: three tourists and a laid-back guide take a tincan fishing boat down a lonely backwater in the Mangrove swamps of Northern Australia… guess who’s waiting for them? That’s right, one hungry hungry crocodile. When the boat proves to be all too capsizable, the surviving members of the group  climb trees to get clear of the water. But with no solid ground in sight, that’s just the beginning of their ordeal…

Characters in horror films generally make incredibly stupid decisions; why call the police and solve your problem in five seconds flat, when you can run upstairs and hide in a cupboard? Writer and director team Andrew Trauki  and David Nerlich reject this MO and simply show desperate people in a desperate situation. When you have very few options, there aren’t many sensible choices you can make – any action risks death by crocodile,  but simply waiting and hoping to be rescued means a slow demise through dehydration and exposure. (Trauki exploited these themes again in his equally gripping 2010 shark movie, The Reef). 

Like most “based on true events” films, this seems to be inspired by little more than the fact “some people were eaten by a crocodile once,” but it perfectly captures the eerie peacefulness of the Australian outback. Unlike most movies, it isn’t afraid of silence and the reality of this kind of situation – even when a hungry croc is waiting for you to dip a toe into the water, the mosquitoes will still be an irritating distraction and you’ll all get on each other’s nerves. Avoid watching the trailer if you want to enjoy the biggest and most pant-crappingly scary surprise moments.

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7. A Lonely Place To Die (2011)

Here’s a tip for low budget film makers – take your cameras somewhere mountainous, and every shot will look at least 75 percent more expensive. Scotland is large and photogenic, why not start there? Writer-director Julian Gilbey did. His innovative yarn stars Melissa George as Alison, who is on a mountaineering break with four friends who have varying degrees of climbing skill. While they’re sitting around eating their sandwiches like overgrown members of the Famous Five, they hear a little faint voice, which they follow to a pipe sticking out of the ground. In the woods in the middle of nowhere. Well, what would you do?

The less you know about this film, the more exciting it will be for you; it’s one of those stories in which there are new threats around every corner and you’re never entirely sure who will turn out to be trustworthy. Happily, the fact that the main characters are established rock climbers who behave with intelligence helps to create a sense of realism. (Sadly lacking in the average action film when someone who has never so much as jogged around the park is suddenly racing motorbikes and beating up professional assassins.)

Among the twists and turns we have some gun-owners who are oddly ruthless and unafraid of getting caught, and a street festival which is somewhere between The Wicker Man and those creepy carnival scenes from James Bond movies. As you can imagine, it’s quite the volatile mix. Enjoy! 

6. Disturbia (2007)                                                               

I might get into trouble if I described Disturbia as “a modernised teen version of Rear Window,” (they won the lawsuit) so I won’t. But if I had said that, you’d have a pretty good idea of the movie’s plot. Rear Window is one of my favourite films in the world; I do, however, recognise that the ending is rubbish. I’d hate to spoil it for anyone, but… let’s just say that a camera does not make a good weapon. While it may not be socially acceptable to admit a love for teen slasher flicks, this one delivers: a modern take on the old story, a fresh set of problems for our hero and… ta da! A suitably heart-pumping ending.

Shia LaBeouf plays Kale, a troubled 17-year-old who’s under house arrest; when his exasperated mother cuts off his usual modes of entertainment , his options are limited to “reality without the TV” – checking out the neighbours. Luckily, one is the new girl in town (Sarah Roemer) who joins Kale and his pal Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) in enjoying all the fun of a stakeout. Things turns sinister when the man across the street (David Morse) eschews the privacy of net curtains and makes a series of suspicious moves. Despite his typical psychopath traits (quiet guy, keeps to himself) he doesn’t seem odd to anyone else – not even Kale’s mother (Carrie-Anne Moss). Yet women are still going missing…

This movie enjoys all the perks of modern technology – cell phones, video cameras, electric garage doors – and wrings every scary moment for all it’s worth. Apart from the unnecessary, knuckle-chewing  scene of romance between adolescents, it’s high-quality entertainment all the way.

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5. Vacancy (2007)

Thanks to Psycho, isolated motels are now a universal fear. Just for variety, here’s one which runs a little sideline in snuff films – with a steady stream of new stars. Amy and David (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) are lost, so naturally they try that horror movie staple, the deserted motel / gas station in the middle of nowhere. Attempting to book a room for the night, they get the heebie jeebies from the godawful screaming coming from the owner’s lounge. Imagine their relief when they find out it’s just the TV. The suspense builds as strange noises come from the room next door – which the hotel proprietor insists is empty.

All this is skilfully done, without becoming a parody of other hostel horror films, and in an almost unprecedented move, I found that I wasn’t berating the characters for being braindead. Their only mistake is in staying somewhere which makes them feel uneasy. Following this, they watch the videos, it takes them a second or two to realise that the snuff takes place in their very own room, and before they have time to react, the killers are surrounding them.

Often the length of a film is bloated due to the director’s ego (“How can I cut a single minute of this? It’s all fabulous!”) but in an era when two hours is considered a standard length for movies, this one is refreshingly short  and intense at only 85 minutes. My test of a thriller is whether it can actually produce a physical response in me – heart pounding, palms sweating, that sort of thing. This impressive movie passed with flying colours, and the resourcefulness of the characters was a gratifying reversal of the headless-chicken hysteria normally found in any film which involves this much screaming. (Vacancy 2 is also decent in terms of nail-biting action; unfortunately its producers failed to understand how it had to end in order to be a real prequel.)

4. Transsiberian (2008)

Roy and Jessie are a couple taking the Transsiberian rail from Bejing to Moscow after their Christian mission trip. Roy (Woody Harrelson) is a good-natured, simple-minded train enthusiast, while his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer)is a little edgier; a woman with a misspent youth. She is slightly uneasy with the newfound friendship of their cabin-mates; a teenage girl with all the charm and  eyeliner skills of a young Avril Lavigne, and her boyfriend Carlos, a Spanish charmer with “trouble” written all over him. When Roy suddenly goes missing, Jessie  is plunged into a nightmarish sequence of events which will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The film is stunning to look at; all aerial shots and chilly Russian magnificence. However, despite its grandeur and serious drama, it has moments of cartoonishness – some of the characters are sinister-looking to the point of ridiculousness. There is also a sequence in which somebody is trying to dispose of something and finds themselves thwarted at every turn, which was strongly reminiscent of Wile E Coyote trying desperately to rid himself of a bomb.

If you’re looking for a modern Hitchcock-style movie, this ticks all the boxes;  strangers who look suspicious but appear to be helpful, shady pasts, missed meetings, secrets between couples, and characters who pick up large pieces of metal piping and toy with them in a potentially murderous way  while naive characters chatter on about their mundane problems. Unsurprisingly, director Brad Anderson created the electrifying atmosphere by drawing inspiration from classics such as North By Northwest, Strangers On A Train, The Lady Vanishes and Dead Calm.

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3. Triangle (2009)

I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that this movie has literally kept me awake at night as I try to figure out what might have happened next. I think I have it worked out now, but the story is full of paradoxes, and repeated brain twisting may not help. It also has some great visuals, brilliantly unnerving moments and a heroine with heart (and a winning way with hot pants) –  what more could you want?

It stars Melissa George – yes, she of the pouty lips and large teeth again. (Melissa honey, with all these great scripts that don’t quite make it to the mainstream, you need to give your agent a raise but fire your publicist, know what I mean?) She plays Jess, a young woman who is devoted to her autistic son (yes, more autism. Hollywood loves it) and makes ends meet by waitressing. It’s through this job that she meets Greg, who invites her out for a day’s sailing with his pals. There is a slightly unsettling atmosphere afoot, partly because Jess is behaving oddly…

However, as unexplained weather conditions cause a storm, they have no choice but to board the mysterious and apparently empty ship that suddenly emerges from the fog. At first glance, the story seems to be heading into cheeseville, with the premise “this ship is deserted so why do I get the feeling I’m being watched?”

When a masked sniper appears it begins to look like a standard “last girl standing” horror movie; however, it quickly becomes much more complex and clever than that. It’s best described as being like a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, themed around The Shining. To say any more would ruin the surprise; let’s just say that it’s a thinking man’s thriller, and you and your friends will be able to argue about “what happens afterwards” to your heart’s content.

2. Breakdown (1997)

Is anything more terrifying than driving across America? Filmmakers don’t think so; the open road is to horror movies what the deep dark woods are to fairytales. Maybe little hick towns don’t have enough entertainment, or maybe they just attract psychotics… either way, Hollywood is convinced that owners of gas stations and roadside diners are malevolent unless otherwise specified (see Vacancy, above).

Remember The Vanishing? It’s the ultimate road trip nightmare – nobody knows where you are, you’re in a town full of strangers and your partner has disappeared without a trace. Well, turns out that it was remade more than once! Kurt Russell stars as Jeff,  the guy whose cross country drive with his wife Amy goes a bit pear shaped when they break down and Amy hitches a ride with one of those “friendly locals”.  When our hero arrives at their meeting place, she’s AWOL and that kindly truck driver is quite sure he’s never met Jeff before in his life. Luckily for Amy, Jeff isn’t the kind of guy who is just going to back down when they bring out the old “everyone thinks you’re crazy and the police won’t listen to you” line.

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Director Jonathan Mostow doesn’t let up the tension for a second, whether it’s the eeriness of a town that seems to be one giant conspiracy, or nail-biting action as Kurt Russell does the kind of driving that got him into trouble in DeathProof. If you haven’t seen this movie for a few years, you may have forgotten how breathtaking the final sequence is.

1. Eden Lake (2008)

Often, horror films are designed to be dramatic in a way that we recognise as being distant and separate from our own lives. Waking up chained in a public bathroom with instructions to cut off your foot? Living in a creepy haunted house? All fairly unlikely. Eden Lake, however, is horribly realistic and will make you think twice about admonishing a kid for smoking on the bus (frankly, we’d all expect to get stabbed in the face for that, wouldn’t we?).

Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender play Jenny and Steve, a couple set for a romantic weekend of camping by a lake. As with all British days out, their relaxation time is somewhat sullied by the gang of yobbish teenagers who sit themselves down just a little bit too close, play their music just a little bit too loud, and have the requisite intimidating dog. The film is full of “What would I do?” questions, and  most people would identify with Steve’s notion “I’m not going to be bullied away by a bunch of 12-year-olds.” The teen actors are pitch-perfect, and the later exploration of their home lives is an artful analysis of the divide between a nice middle class teacher and the kind of family in which the mother would never admit to her “little terrors” being anything but amusingly cheeky.

Writer and director James Watkins allows the tension to build up and then uses every possible twist of fate to make the situation more and more desperate. This isn’t a fun film to watch with your mates on a Friday night with some beers. It’s dark, shocking and visceral and I felt depressed for a couple of days after watching it. But it’s also one of the most spine-chilling thrillers I’ve ever seen, and it’s crying out for a sequel. Please…?

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