100 thrillers to see before you die: 1990s

From Bound to The Silence of the Lambs: the best in suspense from the 1990s.

Basic Instinct (1992)

Director Paul Verhoeven

Basic Instinct (1992)

Paul Verhoeven’s gloriously OTT erotic neo-noir caused a sensation on its release. Sharon Stone’s bisexual novelist is a controversial femme fatale for the ages, while Michael Douglas is the troubled homicide cop tasked with investigating the murder-by-icepick she may have committed. A pulsating and memorably sleazy blockbuster, packed with sex and violence. LT

See also: Jagged Edge (1985); Fatal Attraction (1988)

Bound (1996)

Directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Bound (1996)

The only film on our list with a sex educator on set (probably). The Wachowskis’ Bound is an erotic, violent directorial debut in which the romantic union between an ex-con (Gina Gershon) and a gangster’s girl (Jennifer Tilly) develops into a twisty plot to rob the mob. Joe Pantoliano, who the Wachowskis would later plug into The Matrix (1999), is on top form as the pair’s mafioso mark, while Bill Pope’s cinematography wears the influence of Sin City artist Frank Miller well. Best of all, the gay relationship is part of the film, not the whole film. And it feels genuinely sexy. Sex education money well spent. HB

See also: Blood Simple (1984); Wild Things (1998)

Breakdown (1997)

Director Jonathan Mostow

Breakdown (1997)

Central to Jonathan Mostow’s thriller is Kurt Russell’s performance as a man driven by desperation as he tries to find his wife, who has disappeared after their car broke down on a desert road. Characters may be thinly sketched, but the scenario is effectively nightmarish, and Russell drives the narrative through raw emotion alone. NB

See also: Switchback (1997); Joy Ride (2001)

La Cérémonie (1995)

Director Claude Chabrol

The inexplicable nature of evil pervades this adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. Adding a dash of psychosis to his social satire, Claude Chabrol’s celebrated chiller details a creepy pact between gregarious Breton postmistress Isabelle Huppert and illiterate maid Sandrine Bonnaire, as they ritualistically prey upon an insufferably complacent bourgeois family. DP

See also: The Colour of Lies (1999); Merci pour le chocolat (2001)

Fight Club (1999)

Director David Fincher

Fight Club (1999)

“A thrill ride masquerading as philosophy”, wrote Roger Ebert. Sniffy, but – with hindsight – dead right. There’s not much depth to angry men battering each other, even coupled with an anti-consumerism spiel. The politics of David Fincher’s film, lifted from Chuck Palahniuk’s book of the same name, have become overwhelmed in our age of hyper-convenience (What would Tyler Durden make of the gig economy?). Still, Fincher’s film is as distinctive as Durden’s abs. The thrill of his revolution, however phony, endures. HB

See also: The Game (1997); American Psycho (2000)

The Fugitive (1993)

Director Andrew Davis

The Fugitive (1993)

A critical and commercial hit in 1993, Andrew Davis’s chase movie endures because of the two names that were plastered in massive point across the marketing: “HARRISON FORD, TOMMY LEE JONES”. Jones, playing the dogged Deputy US Marshal Samuel Gerard, took the best supporting actor gong at the Oscars. But it’s Ford, as the doctor on the run after being wrongly convicted of killing his wife, who’s responsible for the film’s zip. Amazingly, this came just a year after Davis’s previous film, Under Siege. One is one of the best thrillers of all time, the other stars Steven Seagal. HB

See also: The Package (1989); Patriot Games (1992)

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

Director Curtis Hanson

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

One of a clutch of schlocky early 1990s thrillers, Curtis Hanson’s chiller effectively plays on themes of parental anxiety and home invasion. Rebecca De Mornay is suitably unhinged as the nanny wreaking bloody havoc on the family she believes responsible for the death of her husband and unborn child. Mary Poppins, she ain’t. NB

See also: Pacific Heights (1990); Single White Female (1992)

Insomnia (1997)

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg

Insomnia (1997)

Director and co-writer Erik Skjoldbjaerg expertly utilises his atmospheric Norwegian location for this tense murder mystery. Stellan Skarsgard is Swedish murder investigator Jonas Engstrom, who, struggling to cope with the 24 hours of daylight, makes a terrible mistake that has dramatic implications on the case. Christopher Nolan helmed an English language remake in 2002. NB

See also: Fargo (1996); Insomnia (2002)

One False Move (1992)

Director Carl Franklin

One False Move (1992)

Co-written by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, alongside Bill Paxton, this neatly packaged thriller from director Carl Franklin transplants western sensibilities into a modern American small town. Paxton is the ambitious young sheriff preparing to head off a gang of violent criminals on the run from the LAPD. Events unfold as a masterclass in slow-burning tension. NB

See also: Red Rock West (1993); Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director Jonathan Demme

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

One of only three films to win the big five Oscars, Jonathan Demme’s riveting adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel is justifiably acclaimed. Jodie Foster’s turn as FBI cadet Clarice Starling is an understated masterclass, while Anthony Hopkins is pumped up and utterly unforgettable as cannibal psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter. Chilling, dark and a ’90s cultural touchstone. LT

See also: Manhunter (1986); Se7en (1995)

Tesis (1996)

Director Alejandro Amenábar

Tesis (1996)

Alejandro Amenábar’s assured debut, though not without its contrivances, is a grisly white-knuckle ride as Ana Torrent’s bookish film student teams up with a prickly porn- and horror-loving classmate while working on her thesis about violence in the media. Together they make the shock discovery that their university campus is the epicentre of a snuff-movie ring. JS

See also: Live Flesh (1997); Open Your Eyes (1997)

Read more

  • The Silence of the Lambs

    The Silence of the Lambs

    An FBI agent requires help from a psychopath in order to catch a serial killer in this Oscar®-laden classic thriller.

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.