Going to the movies is fun, right? A blissful escape from the day-to-day pressures of modern living. But from the moment a desperado aimed his loaded pistol directly at the audience in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, filmmakers have delighted in making us feel threatened, anxious, on edge. The techniques may have developed, from the blunt jump-scares of Val Lewton to the sophisticated emotional brutality of Lars von Trier, but the intention and the result are essentially the same: get a viewer settled in a confined space, then turn the thumbscrews on them for 90-plus minutes.
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise appeal of a truly stressful movie. Take this month’s Netflix release, Uncut Gems, a masterpiece of relentless, brain-hammering tension in which Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York jeweller with an apparent death wish. Howard’s life ought to be perfect: he’s a nice guy, already wealthy, he’s got celebrity customers queueing up to buy his bling and he’s just taken possession of a rare Ethiopian gem. But somehow, he can’t stop shooting himself in the foot.
Do we come to a film like Uncut Gems for life lessons, for a handy what-not-to-do? Are we trying to make ourselves feel better about our own comparatively insignificant anxieties? Or are we just gluttons for punishment, hungering for an intense but ultimately non-threatening experience, and the sense of relief that follows?
Whatever the reason, stressful movies can be some of the most memorable. Here are 10 of the very best.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Director: Howard Hawks
Unlikely as it may seem, comedy can be one of the most stressful genres – it’s all about the build-up of tension and the release of laughter. In the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood’s screwball comedy cycle took everyday situations – marriages, divorces, job dismissals, wrongful arrests – and played them as farce, battering the audience with whiplash plot developments and delirious rapid-fire dialogue until they were left reeling, trying to work out what just happened and why it was so funny.
Adapted from Broadway play The Front Page and starring Cary Grant as a fast-talking newspaper reporter trying to win back his ex-wife on the eve of her second wedding, His Girl Friday is a whirlwind of misunderstandings, misdemeanours and romantic entanglements, all centred on the profoundly un-comical plot device of an impending execution. It’s as hilarious as it is exhausting.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
When one of their remote wells catches fire, the Southern Oil Company hires four desperate men to carry out an impossible mission: driving two battered trucks loaded with nitroglycerine through dense jungle and over high desert passes to the site of the blast, all the while knowing that the slightest knock could ignite the sweating explosives.
But Henri-Georges Clouzot’s hard-boiled nailbiter isn’t on this list purely for its priceless high-concept plot hook. By the time the trucks start rolling, roughly half way through the film, we’re already on edge, as our four powerless anti-heroes – two Frenchmen, an Italian and a German – find themselves marooned in a sweltering South American small town, a flyblown hell from which there appears to be no escape. As it transpires, there’s only one road out of this living nightmare – and it’s the same one we all take, sooner or later.
The Trial (1962)
Director: Orson Welles
Wrongful persecution is the theme of several films on this list, and there’s never been a more oppressive expression of it than Franz Kafka’s novel Der Process. The book’s hero is Josef K, a bank cashier who is arrested by the state for an unspecified crime and put through a series of increasingly surreal and perplexing ordeals.
No stranger to labyrinthine bureaucracy, Hollywood exile Orson Welles adapted the book in the early 60s, shooting in found locations across Europe including the abandoned Gare d’Orsay in Paris and an exhibition hall outside Zagreb where 850 extras were hired to tap away at 850 typewriters, a vision of hell more convincing than any pit of fire. Anthony Perkins is perfect as K, an insignificant man beset by forces beyond his imagination or control, and the cast is rounded out by a who’s who of European character actors, many of them dubbed in post-production by Welles himself, who voices 11 different parts. The result is grand, insidious and terrifying.
Director: Steven Spielberg
There’s something innately threatening about big trucks; something in our lizard brain that screams ‘predator!’ whenever they roar into view. Adapting a short story by horror legend Richard Matheson, Steven Spielberg’s full-length debut casts Dennis Weaver’s hapless salesman – a character so determinedly unremarkable that he’s named ‘David Mann’ – adrift in the Mojave desert, then watches with barely concealed glee as he’s pursued, menaced and mentally tortured by a demonic Peterbilt 281 tanker truck.
Shot for TV and later expanded for the big screen, Spielberg’s film is as remorseless as the beast itself, stripping dialogue and backstory back to the absolute minimum to make way for more screamingly intense downhill chases and shots of Weaver looking panicked in the rear-view mirror. And for more nail-biting truck-based mayhem, check out Aussie exploiter Road Games (1981), featuring cinema’s only stationary car chase; Hollywood nerve-shredder Breakdown (1997); or indeed Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), any one of which could’ve fitted comfortably on this list.
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
After wrongful arrest, marital strife is the most common theme on this list – and no film makes quite such a meal of it as Andrzej Zulawski’s unforgettable Possession. Marketed as a horror movie and subsequently caught up in the UK’s ‘video nasty’ panic, the film’s jagged, disorienting tone feels closer to European art cinema than American exploitation – at least until the slimy monster shows up.
Sam Neill gives a superbly tight-lipped performance as a surveillance agent who returns to West Berlin to find that his wife wants a divorce, but it’s Isabelle Adjani who dominates the film, ranging from despair to aggression to outright shrieking insanity in the film’s notorious and near-unbearable subway sequence. Drawing sly parallels between the breakdown of a relationship, the dissolution of a country and the end of humanity itself, Zulawski’s film is smart, frenetic, wildly unpredictable and gratingly intense.
After Hours (1985)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Something was evidently upsetting white male filmmakers in the mid 1980s, because they had to create an entire subgenre to deal with their insecurities. Nicknamed ‘yuppie nightmares’, this run of films took a hapless, buttoned-down everyman – Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), or Jeff Goldblum in John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) – and subjected him to a series of indignities, often at the hands of a powerful, alluring woman or a ruthless working class criminal.
Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is arguably the best and certainly the most panic-inducing of the cycle, following Griffin Dunne’s bland computer technician over the course of one eventful night in New York City. Shot in the wake of Scorsese’s divorce from Isabella Rossellini and crammed with ball-busting sculptresses, suicidal flakes and accusatory ice cream sellers, After Hours is a mid-life crisis writ large, and a work of barely disguised misogyny. It’s also smartly written and genuinely unnerving.
Funny Games (1997)
Director: Michael Haneke
Sadistic in its simplicity, Michael Haneke’s razor-edged slice of cinematic brutalism follows a nice, middle-class German family out to their lakeside summer cottage, then watches with clinical detachment as they’re tied up, tortured and massacred by a pair of nice, middle-class young men.
Nowhere near as violent as its reputation suggests, Haneke’s film has much loftier ideals than simple shock, asking its audience some of the very same questions posed in our intro above – why do we, as viewers, subject ourselves to this horror? What do we expect to gain from it? And are we truly passive in our response, or is the film giving us something we’re actively asking for? Filmed in agonising long takes and never shying away from the physical and emotional consequences of abuse, Funny Games is a profoundly moral, darkly comic endurance test.
Lost Highway (1997)
Director: David Lynch
Following the critical dismissal and box office failure of his most heartfelt work, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, David Lynch turned his back on cinema. When he returned five years later, it was as a very different director. Co-written with Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford, Lost Highway rejects humanism in favour of a jagged, alienating tone and intentionally perplexing mobius-strip structure, a nervous breakdown committed to celluloid.
The script has the logic of an anxiety dream: when he starts receiving videotapes that suggest he has brutally murdered his beloved wife, jazz musician Bill Pullman doesn’t just change his identity, he changes his entire self, transforming overnight into suburban mechanic Balthazar Getty. But what really secures Lost Highway its place on this list is Lynch’s sound design: utilising every disorienting trick he learned from the late, great Alan Splet, the director crafts a rumbling, startling sonic landscape expressly designed to induce panic attacks.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Sure, being wrongfully accused of murder or attacked by a knife-wielding maniac can be pretty stressful, but have you ever been to a family reunion? The first feature made under the rules of the Dogme 95 movement – utilising found locations, natural lighting and hand-held camera to highlight dialogue and performance – Festen follows the members of a well-to-do Danish family as they meet at a country hotel to celebrate patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday. The nibbles are laid out, the drink is flowing and everyone’s having a fine old time – until Helge’s son steps up and accuses his father of child abuse.
Thomas Vinterberg’s bruising melodrama walks a tightrope, using black comedy not to relieve the mounting tension but to intensify it: the humour in the film is grating, awkward and agonisingly well observed.
The Descent (2005)
Director: Neil Marshall
The 21st century has delivered a wealth of panic-inducing horror movies, from the found-footage ferocity of [REC] (2007) to slow-burn nerve-shredders like It Follows (2014). But for those of us who shudder at the mere thought of a confined space, Neil Marshall’s potholing potboiler ticks all the wrong boxes. Given that the sport itself is basically a short-cut to extreme duress for people with too much time on their hands, it’s remarkable that it took so long for a really good caving horror movie to be made. But The Descent more than makes up for it, taking its cues from cannibals-on-the-the-tube classic Death Line (1973) and wacky exploiter C.H.U.D. (1984), as six British women meet in the Appalachian mountains for a spot of recreational spelunking, only to be confronted with a tribe of ancient, mutated underground flesh-eaters.
Set in the US but shot, Black Narcissus-style, on a soundstage at Pinewood, Marshall’s film is relentless in its claustrophobic intensity, compounding the tension right up to the grim, hopeless final moments.
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