The thriller genre can be a tricky one for filmmakers to pull off. From having the right amount of thrills, suspense, mystery, relatable characters, and a complex plot, but without being off-putting to viewers, making a thriller can be a juggling act. With that in mind, when everything gels together, the final film can indeed be simply a fantastic thrill.
However, often the opposite happens and many thrillers end up being average at best. It is very disappointing when you see a film of any genre that had great potential in some way or another, but yet just doesn’t quite rise to that level of brilliance. Not every thriller made will rise to the high levels of classics like Se7en and The French Connection.
The below listed thrillers had the right ingredients to be fantastic, from good actors, a talented director/writer, a good pace, and great lighting (don’t underestimate the power of film aesthetics, especially where dim lighting in thrillers are concerned). But somewhere along the way during production, these films fell short of their potential to be amazing, or at least more memorable rather than becoming forgotten.
1. Kiss of Death (Barbet Schroeder, 1995)
Director Barbet Schroeder is no stranger to the thriller and crime genres, having made such films as Reversal Of Fortune, Single White Female, Before and After, Desperate Measures, and Inju: The Beast In The Shadow. With Schroeder’s flair for this genre and working with some of the biggest stars of the ’90s, his remake of the 1947 film Kiss of Death should have been a hit. However, the end result of this film was just average.
Reformed criminal Jimmy Kilmartin (David Caruso) is forced to become an informant for the police to snitch about the activities of flamboyant gangster Little Junior Brown (Nicolas Cage) and his gang, who was also responsible for the death of Kilmartin’s wife.
While a cast consisting of then-popular actors Caruso, Cage, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ving Rhames interacting with one another is a delight to watch, “Kiss of Death” is ultimately a fairly standard story about gangsters and the one criminal desperate to go straight.
2. Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, 2000)
The brilliant Paul Verhoeven has talent to burn, and much of his output in the ’80s and ’90s reflects that. His films are often daring, provocative, and even darkly funny, and his strengths seem to lie in the science fiction and thriller genres. His 2000 film Hollow Man, about a scientist who goes crazy and wreaks havoc after becoming invisible, combines elements of both sci-fi films and thrillers. But it seems that his skills did not work well when entering the new millennium.
Although the film stars talented actors like Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, and Josh Brolin, the special effects are the real star of the film. Seeing Bacon’s character transform into both an invisible man and a murderous maniac is great to watch, although some of the actual effects in the scene where Bacon transitions to becoming invisible now look dated.
Perhaps the special effects were more important to the filmmakers than the thrills intended by the idea of a homicidal man who cannot be seen, which could have been very creepy. Therefore, the action is pretty mediocre and the characters are pretty generic. But to be fair, its direct-to-video sequel, Hollow Man 2, is just plain terrible.
3. Taking Lives (D.J. Caruso, 2004)
The idea behind Taking Lives is an intriguing one; a serial killer has been murdering men his age and stealing their identities for 20 years, and is now active again. The film starts with a great opening scene set in 1984 with the U2 song “Bad” playing in the background, where two young men strike up a friendship, giving viewers a false sense of security.
Then one of the seemingly friendly men brutally murders his “friend” and an innocent driver passing by, then walks off into the distance, creepily singing a tune that his victim had sung when they were being chummy. The film then kicks off again 20 years after this murder, with the killer reemerging after he has killed many more innocent men in order to become them.
The title – Taking Lives – is great, as the killer is taking people’s lives by both killing them and stealing their identities. With actors like Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, and Kiefer Sutherland leading the film, and with such incredibly dim lighting adding to the bleakness of the story, “Taking Lives” should have been one of the classic thrillers of the 2000s.
The idea of identity theft is a creepy one, where someone could pretend to be you and live out some bizarre lifestyle in your name. However, Taking Lives falls short of the greatness of its premise. The look and feel of the film ended up being a pretty typical of a serial killer film that audiences have seen many times. If Taking Lives had been more inventive and original in places, it would have stood out from the pack.
4. The Box (Richard Kelly, 2009)
Director Richard Kelly’s debut film Donnie Darko became a huge cult hit with its blend of teenage drama and science fiction. Its arresting visuals were captivating, its bleak philosophy was arresting, and it helped launch Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting career. It also presented Kelly with great opportunities; he decided to make his trippy social satire Southland Tales that was misunderstood and many believed to be a bloated and self-indulgent failure.
The Box was Kelly’s follow-up film that tried to me more commercial while also still maintaining Kelly’s unique filmmaking style. The Box is set in the ’70s and a couple played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are faced with the ethical dilemma of pressing a button on a mysterious box that will allow them to have a million dollars, but will end the life of a stranger.
The Box had an intriguing idea about whether people will do the right thing over their own greed. The visuals were great, and definitely the type you would expect from the director of Donnie Darko.
The ’70s look and feel was well done, much like how the ’80s setting of the aforementioned film was perfectly realized. Perhaps this is a trope for Kelly, in setting his films in the past he grew up in. This is further emphasised by the fact that Diaz’s and Marsden’s characters are based on Kelly’s own parents, including the fact that Kelly’s father worked at NASA.
Despite its visual excellence, The Box felt flat and dull. The characters often speak in monotone and seem lifeless. Although the characters in Donnie Darko were mostly depressed, or depressed but pretending to be happy, they were engaging and memorable characters. The characters in The Box were none of those things.
5. Desperate Hours (Michael Cimino, 1990)
Director Michael Cimino was a critical darling of Hollywood when he made The Deer Hunter in 1978, for which he won the Oscar for both Best Director and Best Picture. His follow up film Heaven’s Gate is notorious for being one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history, and the film that caused United Artists to close. This was the beginning of the downward spiral that Cimino’s career would take, and it did not get any better when he made Desperate Hours a decade later.
Unlike the big sprawling epic landscapes seen in The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Desperate Hours is set in suburbia, specifically in one house where a trio of runaway criminals hold a family hostage to hide from the police. The family tries to outsmart the criminals in order to escape, with mind games ensuing.
Despite the more domestic setting, the film is shot beautifully and the music is actually quite pleasant to listen to. The acting, however, is quite strange; it is as if all of the actors are each acting in a completely different movie, making it so the actors are not in sync with each other.
Anthony Hopkins is a stoic father, Mickey Rourke is a perpetually angry and emotional criminal, Lindsay Crouse’s performance as a FBI agent is wooden and over the top at the same time, and the rest of the case are simply just there. This is quite a feat!
The film feels more like a made-for-TV movie rather than a Hollywood thriller, which is a shame, as it had the means to be better. Despite his post-Oscar bad reputation, Cimino is an amazing director with a great eye for visuals, which is shown plenty of times in Desperate Hours, and the cast have been great in other films.
But somehow Desperate Hours is a disjointed thriller that all involved with it probably do not care to remember, and the final showdown between Hopkins and Rourke’s characters is beyond underwhelming.
6. The Recruit (Roger Donaldson, 2003)
Not every movie has to be completely original to be great, as that is nearly impossible in this day and age of film. Simply having a fresh and interesting take on something can make all the difference. Unfortunately, the 2003 thriller The Recruit is not one of those films.
The Recruit is, quite frankly, a very generic spy thriller with clichés like a cocky young hotshot being taught by a tough older mentor, finding a mole in the ranks, cool spy gadgets, and dialogue along the lines of “you’re never out of the game.” Seriously, there is nothing original, or simply entertaining about this film.
The Recruit could have been great to see Al Pacino teaching a young Colin Farrell the ropes of being a CIA agent. The reality, however, is so boring and the pace is plodding. Even when there is action, it is so dull that viewers simply will not care.
7. Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002)
David Fincher is one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood, known for his brilliance for creating a sense of dread and thrills in his grim films. After his groundbreaking film Fight Club, he stumbled by making the very average Panic Room.
Panic Room sees a mother and daughter getting terrorized by three burglars, who are after $3 million worth of bearer bonds that are in the panic room where the two women are hiding. This plot is basically a home invasion movie that is like every other home invasion movie ever made.
To make matters worse, the characters are cheesy (such as the one nice robber, which is totally unrealistic, even for a movie). If David Koepp had injected more originality and better characters into the screenplay he wrote, then perhaps this film could have been another David Fincher classic.
The only typical visual elements of Fincher’s to be seen here are his dim lighting and some cool camera shots. That’s about it. To be fair, the story did not require the jump cuts and distorted visuals of Fight Club or Se7en; perhaps the fact Fincher made Panic Room works against it in this regard. If you are looking for a Fincher thriller, watch the very underrated The Game instead (amazing movie!).
8. Jade (William Friedkin, 1995)
The erotic thriller genre was perhaps at its peak during the early and mid-90s, and it all started with Basic Instinct, written by Joe Eszterhas. Basic Instinct was a huge hit and was controversial for its raw depiction of sex. So another erotic thriller penned by Eszterhas and shot by the director of The French Connection should have, in theory, been a hit as well.
But the end result, Jade fell short somewhere. Many critics felt this erotic thriller was a rehash of Basic Instinct, and that Friedkin was past his ’70s prime as a director. The love triangle with a murder mystery element to it had promise, with one of the men being the detective that is investigating his former lover, who is suspected of murder.
There are also some intense action scenes, but despite this, the film just is not that memorable. With both Jade and the aforementioned Kiss of Death being released and flopping in the same year, 1995 really was not David Caruso’s year as a lead actor.
9. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism became a big factor in both the media and in movies. Perhaps as a way of showing that terrorism has been around for a long time, in 2005, director Steven Spielberg made his terrorism thriller Munich. Based on the horrifying true story of the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Israeli athletes were killed, and a death squad was formed to enact revenge on the terrorists by assassinating them.
While the premise of the film certainly sounds like cinematic gold, and the cast is superb, the end result was that Munich was a boring dud that has since been forgotten about in the decade following its release. It was quite slow paced, and even the action scenes were bland.
Spielberg went far away from the family schmaltz he is often known for, creating a great dark visual style for the film, mainly with its lighting. However, the ending is pandering with its tacked on final shot where you see the Twin Towers in New York, foreshadowing the September 11 attack years later.
10. The Cell (Tarsem Singh, 2000)
One fairly common aspect thrillers is that they try to take viewers into the mind of a serial killer, usually with mixed results. The Cell, however, literally has its protagonist psychotherapist Dr. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) use experimental technology to go into the mind of a serial killer, in order to find out the location of a victim the killer has kidnapped before it is too late. The killer is in a coma and will never wake up, so Deane must face the killer’s mental demons and his twisted mind.
The Cell certainly had a great concept, and the visuals are certainly disturbing in its depiction of both mental illness and the delusions of a madman. One review on IMDb wrote about the film: “It is as if Salvador Dali decided to make a crime drama,” and that is absolutely spot on.
Besides the lavish yet dark visuals, The Cell is a forgettable serial killer movie where the good guys have to race against time before the villain’s plan is completed. If the scenes set outside of the killer’s mind had been more engaging, then perhaps The Cell would have been better received and more memorable over the years.
11. Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002)
Hollywood treads on dangerous territory when they remake successful foreign films, in that they try to Americanize a story and often the elements of what made the original film great are lost in translation. This is exactly what acclaimed director Christopher Nolan did in the early days of his career. After gaining attention with the excellent Memento, but before hitting the big time with his first Batman film,
Nolan made this remake of a Norwegian thriller of the same name. Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a detective from Los Angeles, is sent with his partner to a small Alaskan town called Nightmute, where it is always daylight due to the sun not appearing in that part of the world at that time of the year. They are assigned to pursue a serial killer, and at one point Dormer accidentally shoots his partner but pretends the killer did it to cover his own tracks.
The killer then reveals himself to be Walter Finch (Robin Williams), and taunts him since Finch can prove that it was actually Dormer who shot his partner, using blackmail to escape arrest. This blackmail and the insomnia Dormer suffers from the endless daylight affects Dormer’s sanity.
Although it had great leading actors with Pacino, Williams and Hilary Swank (the trailer emphasises how they are all Oscar winners), and the basic plot is clever, this film just was not that interesting. It was too slow paced and there was not enough action to keep viewers hooked.
Although some Nolan fans may defend the film by saying he did not have the big budget he had with the Dark Knight films to make something extraordinary, take a look at Memento, which had an even smaller budget. Memento is a masterpiece, yet Insomnia is not.
12. Identity (James Mangold, 2003)
Identity was one of the most hyped movies of 2003 thanks to its all-star cast, its enthralling suspense, and the big twist at the end. The film has a group of strangers all brought into one isolated location in which they cannot escape, and one of them is a murderer who will kill the others sooner rather than later.
If Identity sounds like a generic thriller, it’s because that is exactly what it is. The film is simply another thriller where one member of the group is not who they say they are, and the characters suspect one another of being the killer. It is a story many films have told before, and Identity does not add anything new to the genre. It is a shame, because it had the potential to be great.
The all-star cast does give the film a sense of coolness and is engaging in that viewers get to see a big group of excellent actors spar off dialogue with one another. However, Identity fell victim to the post-“Sixth Sense” trend of having a twist at the end for the sake of having a twist that was crammed into so many thrillers in the early 2000s.
In fact, the film’s advertisements heavily emphasized what a “great twist” it had, ruining the impact of the twist that the audience will anticipate the whole time. The twist in question will make viewers feel cheated, as it is very bizarre and doesn’t seem to fit in with the context of the rest of the film.
13. The Forgotten (Joseph Ruben, 2004)
There is no worse fear for a parent than having their child go missing or die. This basic fear was the basis of The Forgotten, where Julianne Moore plays the mother of a son she adores, only to wake up one day with all evidence and acknowledgement of her son’s existence gone.
The Forgotten had a great premise, but its very average execution made the film, indeed, forgotten. Moore excellently portrayed a grieving mother supposedly going crazy at the loss of her son, and the sudden doubt of whether he ever even existed. The acting is all around great, but ultimately, the mystery of the story is the focus here.
Creepy children are a common trope in thriller and horror films, but the fact that the children in The Forgotten are innocent but possibly dead is unsettling. Having said that, it is a trope so common that it has lost its impact with moviegoers.
14. The Watcher (Joe Charbanic, 2000)
Yet another forgettable serial killer thriller on this list is The Watcher, the 2000 thriller starring James Spader, Marisa Tomei, and Keanu Reeves. Reeves plays a serial killer who watches and studies his female victims before abducting and murdering them.
Reeves often gets criticized for his seemingly wooden acting, but The Watcher puts his famous blank facial expression and sense of detachment to great use as a serial killer. It is unsettling to see someone who does not appear to emote one way or another be out and about murdering people.
The actors are in fine form, and the final showdown was actually well executed, but that was ruined by the very fake CGI explosion. The film has Spader as the jaded detective trying to track down the killer with help of the psychologist Tomei plays, whose characters are pretty typical of a thriller like this.
15. D-Tox (Jim Gillespie, 2002)
While most serial killer movies naturally have the police trying to catch the killer, D-Tox is unique in that the killer is hunting down cops, so the cops who are tracking down the killer could very well be the next victim. Add to the mix the fact that the main police officers in the film are alcoholic cops who are sent to a rehab facility in the middle of nowhere, and the killer has the perfect hunting ground to use.
D-Tox has a good cast with Sylvester Stallone, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Patrick leading the film, who are all in fine form as disgraced alcoholic cops. The film has a great isolated and cold setting, being an abandoned missile silo in the middle of the snowy mountains of Wyoming, which gives the film a similar vibe to The Thing.
Perhaps where the film went wrong is the fact it was directed by Jim Gillespie, who also made I Know What You Did Last Summer, a teen slasher from the late ’90s. So it was perhaps inevitable that this film was going to try to do jump scares and kills that are ultimately lame. To add insult to injury, the killer’s reason for killing people was really silly.
D-Tox was made at a time when Stallone’s career was in a slump, just before he made mostly straight-to-DVD films in the mid-2000s before his career revival with Rocky Balboa in 2006. Although Stallone’s career is better off now, his star power could have been restored earlier if D-Tox had more edge to it, which it was very capable of doing had it been in better hands.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Saturday 1 April 2017