Comedy may be every moviegoer’s best friend, but fear is the unsung hero film. Fear of loss, loneliness, death, or worse, propel characters through the climax of their respective pictures. Fear is a pit. Fear, or terror, is the promise suspense threatens to fulfill — and audiences love it.
Few genres abuse fear more than horror and thriller. With the success of shows like Squid Game, Stranger Things, and The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix is aware of audiences’ love affair with fright and thrill. A cursory glance at their thriller or horror movie subsections reveals a plethora of tense titles to titillate and distress subscribers. But suspense isn’t a genre, it’s a tool. It’s a manipulation of fear to create tension. The genre and artist determine the extremity of terror the characters, and thus the audience, face on the journey to the credits.
But there’s a fine line between being held in suspense, and being dangled in dread. Sometimes a title and cover aren’t enough to discern an experience. Below is a selection of Netflix titles that excel at delivering suspense through stress and fear.
Editor’s note: This article was updated January 2023 to include The Invitation.
Run Time: 1 hr 41 min | Director: Zak Hilditch
Cast: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Neal McDonough
In 1922, a man’s pride is his will and ability to exact control. Thomas Jane (The Mist), Molly Parker (Deadwood), and Dylan Schmid (Horns) scheme and sulk as the James family. The divided family lives off the land Arlette (Parker), received from her father. Her intention to sell the plot and move to the city to open a dress shop disrupts the hopes of her husband and son. Wilfred, played by Jane, and Henry, played by Schmid, aim to stop her by any means necessary. Their short-sighted cruelty breeds tragedy and consequence they failed to consider, as they’re tormented by the guilt and trauma of their actions. The film’s as heavy as a water-logged weighted blanket. The unsettling tension is held in contrast with stunning scenery. The rich coloring and warm lighting coalesce into scenic skylines and dynamic photography. For all of its darkness, it’s beautiful. Writer and director Zak Hilditch’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is among the best King adaptations Netflix produced thus far.
The Invitation (2022)
Run Time: 1 hr 45 min | Director: Jessica M. Thompson
Cast: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Sean Pertwee, Hugh Skinner
The Invitation is a tense suspense thriller starring Nathalie Emmanuel(Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Evie, a young woman whose DNA test reveals long-lost relatives in England. Director Jessica M. Thompson’s keen eye for subtlety emphasizes the deliberate performances by Emmanuel and her co-stars Thomas Doherty (Gossip Girl) and Hugh Skinner. With glamorously elaborate sets and stunning costumes juxtaposed against an eerie story, The Invitation elegantly lulls Evie into a false sense of security before the heart-pumping nightmare begins. A twistedly woven story written by Blair Butler, The Invitation is an unsettlingly exciting movie. – Yael Tygiel
Luckiest Girl Alive (2022)
Run Time: 1 hr 53 min | Director: Mike Barker
Cast: Mila Kunis, Chiara Aurelia, Finn Wittrock, Connie Britton, Scoot McNairy
Mila Kunis (Black Swan) continues to show off her impeccable acting range as she dominates in Luckiest Girl Alive, a twisted and dark thriller by director Mike Barker (The Handmaid’s Tale). Written by Jessica Knoll, Luckiest Girl Alive is based on her novel about Ani (Kunis), a successful woman with a mysteriously traumatic past. As Ani is living her dream life with a great job and an impending wedding, she must suddenly confront what happened in her past before it destroys her present. Supporting Kunis’ intense performance are two American Horror Story regulars: Connie Britton as her mother and Finn Wittrock as her fiance. Luckiest Girl Alive is a gloriously star-powered suspense thriller where nothing is as it seems. – Yael Tygiel
The Perfection (2018)
Run Time: 1 hr 30 min | Director: Richard Shepard
Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman
The Perfectionis truly a wild ride from start to finish. The movie starts with former cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) reconnecting with her former teacher after the death of her mother. She had to leave a prestigious academy as a teen after her mother had a stroke, and at first glance, it looks like she is trying to make up for lost time. She grows close with the young woman who took her place, Lizzie (Logan Browning), and they set off on a backpacking trip around China together. However, things go south fast when Lizzie falls mysteriously ill as soon as the trip starts. Is she hallucinating, or is there some new illness that makes people puke bugs? Suspense builds as we wonder what is really happening to Lizzie, what Charlotte’s motivations are, and how the cello academy fits into all of this.
Without giving away too much of the plot, The Perfection does mention rape and abuse, so this is a content warning for anyone who may need to prepare for that before watching. – Brynna Arens
The Woman in the Window (2021)
Run Time: 1 hr 40 min | Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore
Based on the New York Times bestseller by A. J. Finn, The Woman in the Window stars Amy Adams as Dr. Anna Fox, an agoraphobic woman who observes her neighbors from the second story of her Manhattan brownstone. Her life is thrown into disarray when she witnesses a crime. Due to her medication and alcohol abuse, however, her account is put into question, leading to a suspenseful tale of violence, hallucinations, and the search for the truth. With homages to classic thriller films of the past (Rear Window comes to mind), this movie is a solid modern mystery. – Taylor Gates
Run Time: 1 hr 32 min | Director: Adam Salky
Cast: Freida Pinto, Logan Marshall-Green
Therapist Meera (Freida Pinto) and her architect husband Henry (Logan Marshall-Green) are living the dream: loving marriage, great jobs, and a new beautiful house in small-town New Mexico. However, their happy existence is shattered when they’re targeted for a home invasion, and it soon becomes clear there’s something more at play. As things get darker and the fairytale begins to unravel, more secrets come out, threatening everyone. Intrusion is a shocking tale of betrayal set against a stunning yet sinister desert backdrop. – Taylor Gates
Bird Box (2018)
Run Time: 2 hr 4 min | Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Danielle Macdonald, Sarah Paulson
Bird Box was a phenomenon when it was released, breaking viewing records of Netflix – and for good reason. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where people are rapidly committing suicide after seeing a mysterious entity. It stars Sandra Bullock as Malorie Hayes as she attempts to navigate her and her two small children to safety. The catch? They must do much of it blindfolded to not fall victim to seeing the monster and sentence themselves to a tragic fate. Rooted by an excellent performance by Bullock, Bird Box is a suspenseful and original movie sure to have you on the edge of your seat and tempted to close your own eyes. – Taylor Gates
Things Heard & Seen (2021)
Run Time: 2 hr 1 min | Director: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton
Based on the novel All Things Cease by Elizabeth Brundage, Things Heard & Seen follows art restorer Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) who moves to a large farmhouse with her family after she lands a job teaching art history at a local college. Catherine feels a presence in the new house right away and discovers the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. Things go from bad to worse when Catherine learns some unsettling truths about her husband George (James Norton), leading to a dramatic conclusion filled with jaw-dropping revelations and shocking acts of violence. If you’re mainly familiar with Amanda Seyfried in roles like Mamma Mia!, watch this film to get an idea of how wide her range is. – Taylor Gates
Dangerous Lies (2020)
Run Time: 1 hr 36 min | Director: Michael Scott
Cast: Camila Mendes, Jessie T. Usher, Jamie Chung, Cam Gigandet, Sasha Alexander, Elliott Gould
Riverdale fans who want to see Camila Mendes’ acting chops outside of the hit CW show need to look no further than Dangerous Lies. The film stars her as Katie, a young waitress who’s struggling to pay her bills with her husband Adam (Jessie T. Usher). The two end up becoming entangled in the life of rich elderly man Leonard (Elliott Gould), which turns out to be more dangerous than they ever could have imagined. Dangerous Lies is a riveting and sometimes erotic tale of greed and backstabbing. – Taylor Gates
The Open House (2018)
Run Time: 1 hr 34 min | Director: Matt Angel, Suzanne Coote
Cast: Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Sharif Atkins, Patricia Bethune, Aaron Abrams
The Open House stars Piercey Dalton and Dylan Minette (13 Reasons Why) as Naomi and Logan Wallace, a mother and son who move into Naomi’s sister’s secluded mountain chalet until it can sell. After briefly leaving for an open house, however, eerie things begin to happen. The phone rings with no one on the line, there are strange noises, and the neighbors start acting erratically. Things escalate quickly, and the Wallaces soon find themselves fighting for their lives. Though this film has its fair share of cliches, it delivers the creeps and serves as a solid way to spend an hour and a half. – Taylor Gates
Run Time: 1 hr 22 min | Director: Patrick Brice
Cast: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice
There’s an ever-present awkward intimacy undercut with a throughline of tension in Creep. The movie is as weird as it is uncomfortable. The co-writer and director, Patrick Brice, plays a freelance cinematographer responding to a craigslist ad that links him with the sick and dying subject of his newest job, Joseph (Mark Duplass.) Both men are vulnerable in their own way. They share stories of shame and pain that accentuate the overbearing atmosphere. It’s not even clear who is the dog and who is the duck in this hunt until one man takes a call regarding the other. The eerie discomfort between strangers builds the tension constantly in this tight thriller. It’s a short, sweet, strange, and suspenseful found-footage film with a sequel that’s just as succinct and complex as the original.
Gerald’s Game (2017)
Run Time: 1 hr 43 min | Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel
Before The Hauntings of both Hillhouse and Bly Manor, Carla Gugino and Mike Flanagan teamed up to adapt Steven King’s Gerald’s Game for Netflix. Gugino plays Jessie, a demure, distant wife dreaming that a weekend away with her husband will be the beginning of the rehabilitation of their marriage. Kink and conversation lead to her being handcuffed helplessly to a bed while her husband suffers a cardiac event. Gugino writhes and trembles as she relives confrontations and trauma from her past courtesy of the most important men in her life. It’s as suspenseful as it is disheartening (and then ultimately, empowering) watching her struggle to stave off dehydration, hungry animals, and haunting visitors. She argues with specters and herself as time slips away and she’s left fighting for her life instead of her marriage.
The Guilty (2021)
Run Time: 1 hr 30 min | Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Christina Vidal, Eli Goree, Ethan Hawke
Jake Gyllenhaal re-teamed with his Southpaw director Antoine Fuqua for the American remake of the Danish film by the same name, The Guilty. Written by Nic Pizzolatto, the scribe behind True Detective, The Guilty takes place entirely inside a 911 call center. It expertly optimizes color, lines, and lighting in its minimal setting. Its actors must similarly utilize little more than their voices to establish their characters, save for Gyllenhaal. He plays Joe Bayor, who the audience meets gasping for air in a whitewashed bathroom. Joe’s self-righteous judgments rain down unsolicited upon panicked callers seeking assistance. Familiar voices buzz between rings as Joe works to provide the necessary services each person requires. His own judgments and bias shape the narrative until the final minute. There’s a strong commentary on accountability and the character of law enforcement that Fuqua has demonstrated in previous projects like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest, but it does it all from the chair of a call center.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Run Time: 2 hr 55 min | Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir
The Hateful Eight is without a doubt Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated movie. The western set, cabin fever, whodunit features pin-sharp writing, memorable characters, and gruesome special effects all dusted in snow and blood. The paranoia seeds are planted early by the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell). His distrust for the acquaintances he encounters on his way to Minnie’s Haberdashery establishes the dangers and tone of his mission. Once Ruth, his target, and a couple of strays arrive at the Haberdashery, the cabin fever portion sets in. Strangers become enemies after people start dying of poison. The who and why is saved for a grand reveal rolled out through the magic of nonlinear editing. The editing, cast, and script are textbook Tarantino. Narration, nonlinear editing, and obscenities by the fistful, it’s packed with all his trademarks, save for bare feet—which the frigid setting simply wouldn’t abide.
Run Time: 1 hr 27 min | Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Kate Siegel, John Gallagher Jr., Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan, Emma Graves
Hush is one of the few nonparanormal Blumhouse movies made so far. The script is lean and the story is simple—a writer, named Maddie (Kate Siegel), who lives remotely in the woods is attacked by a sadistic murderer. Maddie, who is deaf and mute since she was 13 as the result of a battle with meningitis and surgical complications, must outwit her stalker if she hopes to survive the night. Siegel is phenomenal in her second pairing with Mike Flanagan. Her facial expressions illuminate the screen with feeling. The viewer is brought in and out of her silent world via stellar acting, directing, and sound design. Scenes depicting the possible outcomes, like precognition, play out and fade away as Maddie decerns the best option for surviving the night. Folks hoping for some thrills without some kills might seek their suspense elsewhere as Hush is a blood and bones horror movie. It just basks in the tense game of cat and mouse Kate Siegel and John Gallagher Jr. are locked in throughout the 82-minute runtime.
It Follows (2014)
Run Time: 1 hr 40 min | Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Bailey Spry
In It Follows, a young woman named Jay (Maika Monroe) is given a paranormal sexually transmitted infection. She’s then informed that an entity, disguised as any random human, is now seeking her. Only previously infected people can see the being as it walks like Michael Meyers towards its terrified prey. Like 2018’s Possessor, It Follows feels like it exists out of time. The world feels modern, but there’s not a cellphone in sight. The peaceful small-town midwest vibe is accented by color and fluorescent light. It’s as colorful as it is creepy. Slow pans give the viewer time to scan the screen, flagging every droning body as a potential predator. It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo but Waldo keeps swapping bodies and clothes as he marches to murder you.
https://collider.com/most-suspenseful-movies-on-netflix/ Most Suspenseful Movies on Netflix Right Now (January 2023)