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My favorite thriller films from the “classic movie” vaults. These are all at least slightly creepy and for the most part family-friendly. At least, they’re about as family-friendly as a film about murder can be.
Because these are all from the 1960’s or earlier, the content is pretty tame. Minimal swear words, zero sex (maybe a bit of innuendo), and overly-dramatic-but-not-very-graphic violence. Psycho is, perhaps, the exception; it still freaks me out. A Touch of Evil also has some adult content; tame by today’s standards, but still pretty gritty.
So take these recommendations with a grain of salt, and know that everyone’s “family-friendly” gauge may be a little bit different.
But there’s no denying that these films are all 1) classics, 2) creepy, 3) thrillers, and 4) just simply great entertainment.
Here’s the list! Listed from oldest to most recent.
21 Classic, Creepy Thriller Films
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1. M (1931)
When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt. You’ll never think of balloons or “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in the same way after watching this.
Starring Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut. Directed by Fritz Lang.
2. Rebecca (1940)
The unnamed protagonist, newly married to wealthy playboy Maxim de Winter, lives in the haunting shadow of her husband’s dead first wife, the titular Rebecca. This is Hitchcock’s first American film, which won his only Best Picture Academy Award.
Starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and George Sanders. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
3. Gaslight (1944)
A young woman and her new husband move into the old family home, in which her aunt was murdered years ago. When the gaslights start to go down, things get crazy.
This is literally where we get the term “gaslighting.”
Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten. Directed by George Cukor.
4. Double Indemnity (1944)
An insurance salesman gets falls for the wife of one of his clients, and the two hatch a plot to murder the husband, make it look like an accident, and walk away with the insurance money.
But the salesman’s best friend – who is also the company’s claims analyst – begins the question the story.
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder.
5. And Then There Were None (1945)
Seven guests arrive on a mysterious private island, then begin getting killed off one by one. One of Agatha Christie’s finest books adapted into one of the best classic mystery films of all time.
Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward. Directed by René Clair.
6. The Big Sleep (1946)
A noir classic featuring the iconic private eye Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, embodied by the incomparable Humphrey Bogart, is hired by a rich family to help their daughter out of problems stemming from some gambling debts. But everything is not as it seems. Before the complex case is over, he’s seen murder, blackmail, and what might be love.
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Ridgely. Directed by the ever-marvelous Howard Hawks.
7. The Fallen Idol (1948)
A butler working in the London foreign embassy office is accused of the murder of his wife after she falls to her death. Only one person knows the truth, and no one will listen to him because he is just a child.
A little-known classic dwarfed by the fame of the other late ’40s suspense movie from director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, The Third Man.
Starring Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Bobby Henrey. Directed by Carol Reed.
8. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A screenwriter gets drawn into the deranged world of a silent movie star whose time has passed by long ago. Holding onto the hope of a comeback, the writer and the star work on the screenplay that will bring her back into the spotlight.
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, and Erich von Stroheim. Directed by Billy Wilder.
9. Strangers on a Train (1951)
A psychotic socialite meets a pro tennis star on a train and spins his theory – plan? – for how two complete strangers can get away with murder.
Starring Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
10. Sudden Fear (1952)
When an actor is cut from a Myra Hudson’s new play because the she thinks he doesn’t seem convincing as a romantic lead, he vows to prove her wrong by winning her heart.
And then murdering her.
Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame. Directed by David Miller.
11. Rear Window (1954)
One of the best from the Master of Suspence, Hitchcock’s cramped backyard mystery manages to be entertainingly fun and disturbingly creepy. On top of that, there is a great mystery involving the (possible) murder of a neighbor’s wife. In the running for GOAT in the genre of mystery flicks.
Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelley, and Thelma Ritter. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
12. Night of the Hunter (1955)
Incredibly creepy story of a murderous false preacher, yet ultimately one of the most redemptive Christian films I’ve ever seen. An underrated classic.
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish. Directed by Charles Laughton.
13. The Killing (1956)
A heist film in classic noir style, complete with a complicated plot to steal a bag full of cash, backstabbing, intrigue, and a foreboding sense of “what will go wrong!”
Starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards. Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
14. 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)
A blind playwright overhears a sinister conversation in a pub but is dismissed by the police as a writer with an overactive imagination. With no official help available, he enlists his former fiancee along with his faithful manservant to search out and uncover the mysterious plot, which seems to center around the potential kidnapping of a young child.
Starring Van Johnson, Vera Miles, and Cecil Parker. Directed by Henry Hathaway, a prolific yet underrated director.
15. Touch of Evil (1958)
The title says it all… Charlton Heston plays a Mexican narcotics officer on honeymoon who gets embroiled in solving a car bomb murder just on the US side of the United States/Mexico border. Incredible noir-style lighting and cinematography with pitch-perfect directing by Orson Welles, who co-stars.
Starring Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, and Janet Leigh. Directed by Orson Welles.
16. Vertigo (1958)
Jimmy Stewart’s creepy phase gets dialed up to 11 in what is generally regarded as Hitchcock’s greatest film. A bizarre slow burner with a romantic and spellbinding score from Bernard Herrmann.
Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
17. Psycho (1960)
This one is the main reason for the word “mostly” in the title of this post. A true horror masterpiece, film buffs everywhere know “the shower scene.” Let’s just say you don’t want to check into Bates Motel.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and John Gavin, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
18. Experiment in Terror (1962)
An edge-of-your-seat thriller with Glenn Ford at his terrifying best. Ford plays an asthmatic psychopath who strolls into a San Francisco band and demands the teller to rob her bank of $100,000…. or her sister will die.
Starring Glenn Ford, Lee Remick, Stefanie Powers. Directed by Blake Edwards, who also helmed Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther series.
19. The Birds (1963)
A sleepy coastal town in California is terrorized by birds. There’s some blood, so this one probably isn’t for young ones, but it’s pretty tame by today’s standards. The suspense is what makes The Birds a legend.
Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Jessica Tandy. Directed by the master, Alfred Hitchcock.
20. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
During a rural summer picnic, a few students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school vanish without a trace. Their absence frustrates and haunts the people left behind.
Starring Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray. Directed by Peter Weir.
21. The Vanishing (1988)
This one is incredibly clean (perhaps one or two swear words) while being astonishingly frightening. There are no jump scenes, violence, or gore. It’s simply the story of a couple on a road trip, how one disappears, and the other’s compulsive search for the truth of what happened that day. The terror lies in the unknown.
In Dutch with English subtitles. Original title is Spoorloos, and this version is not to be confused with the much inferior 1993 American remake with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.
Not recommended for young children or for those who easily tend towards nightmares, but again, it’s totally “clean.”
Starring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege. Directed by George Sluizer