Alfred Hitchcock didn’t set out to frighten fans the way many other traditional horror filmmakers do. He didn’t try to gross viewers out with gore or make skin crawl with creepy creatures. Instead, he helped pioneer the art of psychological suspense. As a result, he managed to frighten 20th century moviegoers by getting to the root of their deepest fears.
There’s a reason Hitchcock is still considered the Master of Suspense long after his death in 1980. The British director and producer contributed a great deal to the art of filmmaking, creating distinguishable camera styles and developing themes that many others have benefited from. Throughout his prolific half-century career he created a successful television series and over 50 films. Though we’ve long since evolved in many areas of filmmaking, his most unnerving movies have largely stood the test of time. Here are five of Alfred Hitchcock’s most frightening films.
1. Psycho (1960)
A young woman who desperately needs to get away. A run-down motel on the side of the road. And an innkeeper with his own terrifying secret. Psycho seems like a simple movie when you lay out its plot points. But the devil is in the details — and in this case, in the darkened corners of the Bates Motel.
In every way, Psycho is a true psychological thriller: from its slow build, beginning with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in a seemingly normal American town and ultimately revealing the horrific, dark world of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). It’s best known for the harrowing “shower scene,” which shocked viewers both because of its surprising narrative twist and the horrifically violent way in which the protagonist met an untimely death. But Psycho is more than just one sequence. The entire movie, from its oppressive camera angles to its chilling score, is a masterclass in creating an effective thriller.
2. Rear Window (1954)
It’s only natural to fear being trapped. Alfred Hitchcock built on that fear with Rear Window, a slow-building suspense film with a heart-pounding finale. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as L.B. Jeffries, a photographer laid up with a broken leg who takes to spying on his neighbors to pass the time. When he witnesses what he thinks is a murder, he enlists the help of his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) — but soon realizes he’s gotten himself involved in a potentially deadly plot. The movie constantly keeps you guessing — is Jeffries going stir crazy? Or did his offbeat neighbor, Thorwald (Raymond Burr) really murder his wife? And Rear Window delivers suspense by turning often mundane traits that many of us possess — curiosity, paranoia, and the desire for justice — and shows us their potentially sinister consequences.
3. The Birds (1963)
Sometimes, the scariest situations are those that defy explanation. That’s certainly the case in this suspenseful thriller that follows a seemingly idyllic town as it’s overrun by violent birds. Alfred Hitchcock stuck to his strengths with The Birds — he allows suspense to build as seemingly isolated incidents begin to add up until Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and her fellow victims are forced to cower in fear. You wouldn’t think that something so innocuous could be so scary. But with Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling, you may never look at a flock of birds the same way again.
4. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock was often at his best when he managed to truly get inside the heads of his viewers. With Vertigo, he took it a step further by allowing us right into the head of his characters — often with terrifying results. The film follows John Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), a retired police officer who battles debilitating bouts of vertigo as he trails his friend’s wife (Kim Novac). Hitchcock used the camera to create the dizzying, disorienting sensations Ferguson feels. And ultimately, Vertigo’s whirlwind plot is every bit as gripping as its pioneering techniques.
5. Frenzy (1972)
In his second-to-last film, Hitchcock took on a serial killer, but still managed to make that oft-told story feel fresh. Frenzy is not a who-dunnit — we discover who the culprit is very early on in the film. Instead, the suspense comes from wondering when the other characters will catch on. It combines many of the themes and plot devices that Hitchcock perfected during his long career — an innocent man being accused of a crime, getting glimpses inside the macabre minds of killers, and the notion of terrifying things happen in the most ordinary of places. And Frenzy, by and large, does what it’s created to do — keep us on the edge of our seats.