Don’t be fooled by that family-friendly, Marvel-filled homepage. Disney+ has a slew of very adult, all-time thriller classics, and here Sarah Ward has chosen 25 of the most essential.
Here you’ll find the best films from genre greats like Michael Mann, William Friedkin, Park Chan-Wook, and a hearty helping of Danny Boyle and Cillian Murphy’s collaborations. Scroll to find your next thrill, with links to Disney’s streaming platform handily provided.
It’s the second collaboration between filmmaker Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland, and the best. It’s the movie that made Cillian Murphy a star. 28 Days Later is also as sparse, tense, unnerving and phenomenal as a zombie film can get. That exact term isn’t thrown around, but the British-set film wades through the aftermath of a rage-inducing virus that renders the infected with a taste for flesh, so it clearly fits.
In cinemas, audiences have heard many a filmgoer scream at Alien, the benchmark for space-set sci-fi/horror thrillers since 1979. It hasn’t ceded that mantle yet, and isn’t likely to. Thanks to Ridley Scott’s suspenseful direction, Dan O’Bannon’s taut script, HR Giger’s spine-chilling creature designs and the Sigourney Weaver-led cast, the commercial space tug Nostromo’s plight remains pure nightmare fuel—and exceptional viewing.
Directed by Danny Boyle with turn-of-the-century panache, and starring a post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach isn’t the film it might’ve been if Ewan McGregor had retained the lead role. But in bringing Alex Garland’s zeitgeist-capturing, instant cult 1996 novel about backpacking in Thailand to the screen, it still thrums with the energy, chaos and tension of its source material—and Tilda Swinton’s complex performance assists.
Natalie Portman has never been better than she is in Darren Aronofsky’s mesmerising ballet-fuelled thriller, which feeds on the tension of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake—story and score alike—and layers it with haunting psychological unease. In her Oscar-winning role, Portman plays a New York City Ballet dancer competing for the production’s lead part against new rival Lily (Mila Kunis), and deeply shaken by the pressure.
Few watching Bringing Out the Dead have ever been a stressed and weary paramedic plagued by the lives they couldn’t save. Few would want to be. But via the golden combination of Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader and the inimitable Nicolas Cage—who turns in one of his finest performances ever—everyone watching this heavingly compassionate psychological thriller can feel its seething pain in every meticulous frame.
Thrillers don’t get any darker than Ridley Scott-Cormac McCarthy collaboration The Counselor, which is slick yet bold, sprawling yet tightly wound, and daring, cutting and devastating at once. Focusing on a lawyer immersed in a thorny deal between drug cartels, the Michael Fassbender-led film eschews the screenwriting rules for taking the wildest of swings—and, including in its infamous Cameron Diaz car scene, it’s unforgettable.
The movie that’s had the world exclaiming “yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” for three-plus decades, Die Hard is what Bruce Willis will always be known for. He’s that commanding as John McClane, the NYPD detective caught up in a terrorist plot in Los Angeles’ Nakatomi Plaza at the hands of Alan Rickman’s nefarious Hans Gruber. A well-oiled action-thriller, the end result is also everyone’s favourite not-so-jolly Christmas viewing.
The first rule of Fight Club has long become entrenched in popular culture. The second rule, too. More than two decades since it first hit screens, David Fincher’s slick and savvy cinematic adaptation of Chuck Palahnuik’s nihilistic novel has definitely been talked about, though. And, given its takedown of capitalist society, its vivid cinematography, and the ace work of Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, that’s hardly surprising.
Rare is the remake that’s better than the original, but the second version of The Fly is one such do-over. Helped by the pitch perfect casting of Jeff Goldblum as his scientist protagonist, David Cronenberg flexes his body horror-loving muscles as only he can. Indeed, the 1986 film about an experiment gone wrong feels so innately connected to its director that it’s almost impossible to believe that it sprang from someone else’s mind first.
Since his 2004 retirement, cinema has missed Gene Hackman’s presence—and his Oscar-winning performance in William Friedkin’s 1971 masterpiece The French Connection will always remind audiences why. Playing a New York City detective, the iconic actor is a portrait of rumpled, hard-fought, unrelenting determination in the page-to-screen crime thriller, which finds its basis in a real-life heroin-trafficking scheme.
There are bad dates, which Fresh’s app-swiping Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) knows all about—and then there’s the kind of dream meet-cute turned horror story that eventuates after she connects with handsome doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan) while buying groceries. A savage comedy-thriller from first-time director Mimi Cave, this twisted and satirical affair mightn’t be subtle, but it’s still gloriously smart, savvy, biting and entertaining.
On the page, Gone Girl’s game of cat-and-mouse is engrossing to read. On the screen, as directed by David Fincher (with a screenplay written by Flynn herself), it takes on a clinical yet compelling extra dimension. The setup: after his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears from their Missouri home, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect. That’s just the opening gambit, with Gone Girl relishing its plethora of thorny twists.
It’s the film that finally put Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together in the same scene—two decades after they both starred in The Godfather Part II without ever actually appearing in a frame together. Of course, that’s just one of the many drawcards of Michael Mann’s elaborate, slick and meticulous crime-thriller, which pits a seasoned robber (De Niro) against a wily detective (Pacino) and lets sparks fly.
Before Elizabeth Olsen started her big and small screen journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she grappled with power of a different kind in Martha Marcy May Marlene. All those names—Martha, Marcy May and Marlene—apply to her character in this scorching slow-burn standout from writer/director Sean Durkin, with Olsen playing a 22-year-old woman caught in a cult leader’s (John Hawkes) thrall.
The second adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a pulpy, noir-fuelled, nerve-shredding spectacle. Thanks to the filmmaker’s keen eye for discerning sumptuous imagery, it’s also a spectacle in general. The Bradley Cooper-led carnival thriller is a sight to behold from its fiery first frames through to its unshakeable ending—and it’s impeccably cast.
Whenever Robin Williams springs to mind, his array of memorable comedic roles tend to follow; however, he was just as skilled a dramatic actor. The late, great star is nothing short of unnerving in the exactingly tense One Hour Photo, where he’s pitch-perfect as smiling-but-sinister photo technician Sy Parrish, whose obsession with one of the families he develops snaps for drives the coolly executed film’s engrossing narrative.
As high-concept premises go, Phone Booth’s is a doozy. For its duration, it tasks Colin Farrell with navigating every woe his character has, plus plenty he’d never dreamed of, all while trapped at a payphone by a sniper. It’s a Joel Schumacher film, so nuance isn’t its strong suit, but it makes the utmost of its concept. The key: Farrell’s stressed performance and Kiefer Sutherland’s canny voice work as the malevolent caller.
Sat at the heart of this horror-comedy-thriller is a familiar idea: that marrying into any family is fraught with tension. It takes particular skill to turn such a well-worn notion into a devilishly engaging, giddily entertaining and scathingly clever film. Directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s deadly game of post-wedding cat-and-mouse benefits from having a fierce and enterprising Samara Weaving as its star.
M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was 1999’s must-see film for the trait its director is now synonymous with: a huge twist. This exact twist is so well-known by now that it’s an oft-quoted gag, but such pervasiveness can’t undercut the superbly shot and acted thriller’s lingering power. Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette are all fantastic, too, as a child psychologist, a troubled boy and the latter’s mother, respectively.
Pop quiz, hotshot: what film features Keanu Reeves’ best action role, introduced the world to Sandra Bullock, sports a menacing Dennis Hopper in villainous mode and is an astonishingly well-executed 90s thriller classic? Speed, obviously. The concept is simple, with a bomb placed on a Los Angeles bus and set to explode if the driver hits 50 miles per hour, but cinematographer-turned-director Jan de Bont turns it into movie magic.
No one makes movies like Park Chan-wook, as his Korean filmography attests—and the filmmaker behind Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy enjoyed a stunning English-language debut with Stoker. Scripted by actor Wentworth Miller and starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, this psychological thriller caves its own eerie way through family dysfunction. It’s also as atmospheric and entrancingly shot as any of Park’s works.
Summer of Sam mightn’t sit at the very top of Spike Lee’s career highlights, but any feature by the famed New York City filmmaker about one of the city’s most notorious crimes is always going to be a must-see. As the name makes plain, Lee harks back to 1977, when serial killer David Berkowitz was terrorising The Bronx—as experienced via an Italian American neighbourhood, and pals Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Ritchie (Adrien Brody).
The third pairing of Alex Garland’s words and Danny Boyle’s filmmaking, Sunshine sports a dream cast, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis and Benedict Wong all included. It’s also far more than just the sum of its 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Alien-inspired parts, with the space-set thriller proving astute and moving in its time with a crew of astronauts tasked with jump-starting the sun to save earth.
Danny Boyle loves thrillers, but his features rarely solely slide into the genre. Trance does, though. He also adores heist films of every style, and embraces the premise with gusto here. Following an auction house robbery and its aftermath, this James McAvoy-led movie is an exercise in dripping the filmmaker’s slickly energetic aesthetics far and wide, too. It all works, though, with help from a twisty script co-written by frequent collaborator John Hodge.
Since coming to fame with The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan has proven fond of two things: twists and thrills. They’re both covered in his second big-name feature, naturally, which is also the starting point for a trilogy that includes Split and Glass. And it’s his second movie to star Bruce Willis, this time as a security guard who survives a train crash unscathed—only to cross paths with a manipulative comic book store owner (Samuel L Jackson).