Saint Maud is the debut film from writer-director Rose Glass, and has gained rave reviews from critics following its premiere at last year’s Tornoto Film Festival. Finally opening in cinemas on 9th October, its story of a novice hospice nurse looking to save the soul of one of her patients is packed with psychological chills, promising to unnerve and alarm with its blend of supernatural shenanigans and physical discomfort.
To mark the occasion we’ve compiled our picks for cinema's most petrifying psychological horrors. Delving into the mental status of the characters and paacked with disquieting atmosphere, they still leave an impression years after they first terrorised audiences.
1. Psycho (1960)
The clue’s in the name here. While Alfred Hitchcock may have invented the maniac-wielding-a-knife slasher genre, the master of suspense’s signature film is as chilling for the uncertainty of its surroundings and main players as is for that infamous shower scene. The black and white visuals of the Bates Motel and its owner Norman, accompanied by the harsh strings of Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack give Psycho its desolate, vulnerable feel, creating the perfect breeding ground for uncomfortable thoughts to manifest.
By killing off Janet Leigh’s lead character so early and in such a brutal manner, Hitchcock tore up the rules of cinema at the time, leaving audiences exposed and uncertain. Now instead of a monster like Dracula or The Mummy, there was one even more terrifying lurking in plain sight, making an irrevocable impact on the minds of cinema goers.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In keeping with the supernatural horror of Saint Maud, the arty yet startling Rosemary’s Baby announced its director Roman Polanski to the world stage in terrifying style. Mia Farrow rightfully gains praise as the titular Rosemary Woodhouse, who fears her unborn child is being coveted by her creepy neighbours. The question of whether she’s really carrying the child of Satan or experiencing debilitating paranoia isn’t helped by the troubling events and behaviour that surround her.
A master class in dissonant shots and chilling sounds for an enervating experience, Polanski repeated the tricks he played on his characters and audience in 1965’s Repulsion, albeit in full colour and with a deeper impending sense of dread.
3. The Shining (1980)
The blood flowing out of the elevator, the twins in the corridor and Redrum drawn onto a mirror; The Shining's unsettling moments are some of the most iconic horror references in pop culture. And that's before the mental collapse of Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance that leads him to axe his way through a door, unforgettably announcing his arrival with the immortal “Here's Johnny!”
Stanley Kubrick's perturbing picture has split audiences for 40 years – most notably Stephen King, whose book the film is based on – but its place among the pantheon of psychological horror movies is undisputed. Following Torrance's descent into insanity while isolated in the Overlook Hotel, it's bleak, disturbing movie-making of the highest order.
4. Misery (1990)
Another Stephen King story that works wonderfully on the screen, and this time with the author’s blessing. Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance as Annie Wilkes, the pleasant good Samaritan turned obsessive, unhinged fan, is still frightening three decades on, with the isolation and oppression felt by James Caan’s stranded author Paul Sheldon perfectly translating from the page to camera.
At every moment you can sense despair felt by Sheldon as he struggles to escape from Wilkes’ care following a car accident, leaving him at the mercy of her torturous demands to complete his next book as she sees fit. Though the tension is palpable throughout, Bates and Caan wielding sledgehammers and typewriters respectively also adds some memorable visual shocks as well.
5. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Not only does the Oscar-winning horror play with your mind, but the study of psychology is also at its very core. On the hunt of despicable serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’, FBI trainee Clarice Starling tries to delve into the mind of the perp by consulting brilliant psychiatrist, Dr Hannibal Lectar. The only problem is that Lectar, played magnificently by Anthony Hopkins, is himself a murderer of the cannibalistic variety. Add that their conversations take place in a secure hospital for the criminally insane and Lectar’s diabolical escape, and you have all the ingredients for a claustrophobically distressing film that also managed to sweep the board at the Academy Awards.
While there are plenty of shocks and dread throughout, the film’s real horror lies beneath the surface and in the darkest recesses of the mind, making you realise the true malevolent monsters of the world aren’t lurking under your bed, but could instead be around any corner. Sleep tight.
6. Black Swan (2010)
There are few directors with the ability to explore the dark spaces of the psyche quite like Darren Aronofksy. Seen through the eyes of Natalie Portman’s ballerina, who is driven to the limits while striving for perfection in a performance of Swan Lake, Black Swan is a distressing descent into suffocating chaos, with the audience never knowing quite where reality ends and madness begins.
Portman won the Best Actress accolade at the 2010 Academy Awards for her intense portrayal of the suffering Nina Sayers, who finally gets to come up for air after her climactic, breathtaking dance, for which she has suffered unimaginable physical and mental pain. A stunning, sinister modern classic.