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Darkly lit sets, dramatic music building to a thrumming crescendo, shadowy figures and voices whispering just out of earshot – these are elements that combine to make a film a thriller.  Anticipation and tension builds as time after time you are brought to the edge of your seat.  What will happen next?

Thrillers are films made precisely to tamper with the mood of the audience.  They are made to instill feelings of tension and excitement with their atmosphere of menace, and complicated with subtle or overt plot twists, red herrings and cliffhanger situations.  A good thriller is like an emotional roller coaster ride.  The anxiety and expectation, tempered with uncertainty, then the horror when someone is thrust into danger, sudden relief when they escape that danger, only to be once again hurtled into a menacing situation.

The basic thriller involves a character or characters, sometimes everyday people, sometimes hardened characters that are drawn into dangerous situations over which they have little or no control.  They can be set in any time and virtually any place, although dingy back alleys and dark, small rooms certainly add to the atmosphere of tension.  Where in a film of suspense the audience often does not know who the antagonist is until late in the storyline, in a thriller it may be clear from the very beginning exactly who and what the threat is.  Anticipating what the outcome will be fills the audience with feelings of dread.

Thriller films can be categorized by many types of sub-genre.  There are action thrillers where physical threats and fights, car chases and physical stunts are used to create anxiety.  In a conspiracy thriller the protagonist is faced with defeating a powerful group of villains intent on wide-ranging destruction for their own ends, and the good guys don’t know who they can trust.  Crime thrillers are about criminals and the crimes they commit, and the citizen or law enforcement officer who is driven to stop them.  Disaster and eco-thrillers pit man against natural or man-made catastrophes.  Spy thrillers propel the audience into the world of power and politics.  Legal and medical thrillers deal with people in those professions who must deal with abnormal cases, often involving threats to their lives.  There are also science fiction, supernatural and techno-thrillers.

While most thriller type films incorporate a good deal of fast, hard physical action, a psychological thriller involves the characters in mental and emotional, rather than physical, chaos.  The plots of psychological thrillers often deal with stalking, kidnapping or obsession on the part of the antagonist.

The silent thriller, The Bat (1926) was directed by Roland West and starred Jack Pickford, brother of film star Mary Pickford.  Set in a mansion rented by a mystery writer, the various houseguests are enmeshed in mystery and intrigue as they are being stalked and killed, one by one, by a mysterious killer nicknamed ‘The Bat’.

Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer, Scream in the Night (1935) is an early thriller starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Philip Ahn.  Set in Singapore, a bar owner and his niece own a rare ruby called The Tear of Buddha.  A vicious criminal wants the gem, which he steals, and he also kidnaps the niece.  Two detectives are assigned to the case, and when one of them is murdered the other, who just happens to look like a known criminal, masquerades as a dockside bar owner in order to capture the thief.  Lon Chaney Jr. plays a dual role as the detective and the criminal that he looks like.

Starring Boris Karloff and Grant Withers, Mr. Wong, Detective (1938) is a crime thriller directed by William Nigh.  Detective Wong is asked for help by a chemical manufacturer who soon winds up dead.  While Detective Street is assigned to the case, Mr. Wong conducts his own investigation after two of the first victim’s associates are also murdered, and he uncovers an international spy ring trying to steal the formula for poison gas.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) was directed by Roy William Neill and starred Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Lionel Atwill.  At the request of the British government Holmes smuggles Dr. Tobel out of Switzerland before he is captured by the Gestapo.  Dr. Tobel has invented an extremely accurate bomb sight which the Allies and Nazis both want to get their hands on.  When Tobel disappears it is up to Holmes to unravel the coded message left by Tobel and it soon becomes apparent to Holmes that his constant nemesis, Professor Moriarty, is involved in the scheme.

The Red Houses (1947) is a thriller film directed by Delmer Daves.  The film stars Edward G. Robinson, Judith Anderson, Rory Calhoun and Julie London.  Meg is a young girl who has been raised by Pete and Ellen on their farm.  Meg and her friend, Nath, are doing chores on the farm and when Nath tells Pete that he’s going to take a shortcut through the woods to go home, Pete gets quite agitated and warns him not to go that way.  Meg and Nath, curious, ignore Pete’s warning and take off to explore the red house in the woods.

D.O.A. (1950) is a mystery thriller film directed by Rudolph Mate and distributed by United Artists.  Starring Edmond O'Brien as accountant Frank Bigelow and Pamela Britton as his girlfriend Paula Gibson, the story is told in flashback of how Frank takes a solo vacation in San Francisco.  While there he becomes ill, and upon consulting a doctor discovers that he has been poisoned and has only a short time to live.  Frantic at the prospect, Bigelow sets out to discover how and why he was poisoned before he dies.

Starring Vincent Price, Richard Long and Elisha Cook Jr., House on Haunted Hill (1959) was directed by William Castle.  Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren and his wife Annabelle have invited five people to attend a haunted house party at their home, offering $10,000 to each guest who will stay the entire night.  Locked inside the house, the guests are traumatized by ghosts and murder.  Interestingly, during the showing of the film in various theaters the director, Castle, had a pulley system installed (which he called Emerg-o) that would fly a skeleton over the audience at the appropriate point in the movie.  It is reported, though, that this practice was discontinued when youngsters in the audience, having heard of the gimmick, came prepared with slingshots to shoot the skeleton with pellets and rocks.

Trauma (1962), directed by Robert M. Young, has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and is considered by some to be the better film.  Emmaline Garrison was traumatized when she was 15 years old by witnessing her Aunt Hellen’s murder, and the death of her friend Lily on the same day.  The trauma resulted in the loss of her memory.  Six years later Emmaline returns to the Garrison Estate with her new husband, Warren Clyner, who was once her aunt’s lover.  Amid complex plot twists and turns, Emmaline eventually recovers her memory and remembers who the killer was.

Directed by Roger Corman, The Terror (1963) stars Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff.  Set in France in 1806, this is a convoluted thriller movie involving ghosts, a witch, a deranged Baron and a disoriented French soldier who stumbles upon a twenty year old mystery.

The Swiss Conspiracy (1976) is a crime thriller directed by Jack Arnold and starring David Janssen, John Ireland, John Saxon, Ray Milland and Elke Sommer.  When the confidentiality of their accounts is compromised, a Swiss bank hires David Christopher to find and stop the criminals.  The holders of five accounts are being blackmailed, and one of the five is killed.  The bank eventually decides to pay off the blackmailers with diamonds and Christopher insists on accompanying the gems to the drop-off.  Complicating the plot is Captain Frey, a Swiss Federal Police officer, who is suspicious of Christopher.  The film is full of twists and turns and double-crosses.

For mystery, intrigue, drama, suspense and adrenaline inducing action, thrillers are the way to go.  Many thrillers are available for you to enjoy right now, here on Matinee Classics. 

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