One of the earliest thriller movies was the silent movie titled 'Safety Last!' (1923). To create the typical thriller emotions for the viewer, score seems to play a big part in this film, as well as actor performance.
Several scenes highlight this. In the first ten minutes of the film, the protagonist gets locked in the back of the van. As soon as the doors close, the score becomes dramatic, almost pleonastic to the protagonist's actions. The actor, compared to today's standards, appears to overact, however, as there is a lack of dialogue, this would be to help the audience understand clearly how the protagonist is feeling. We get several long shots of the protagonist, to see his actions, like hitting the van, showing us he's desperate to get out. We also get a close up of his face, showing us his worry. These help the viewer feel tense.
Another scene later on, the most famous scene from the film, is where the protagonist climbs a building. The scene is around 20 minutes long, but the most dramatic part is where he's near the top and hangs off the clock. The higher the protagonist climbs, the higher the notes are in the score, also the tempo increases, adding to the suspense. The score reaches a dramatic climax as the protagonist hangs off the clock. Again, close ups and long shots of the protagonist show us his terror.
Alfred Hitchcock is famous for being a pioneer in the thriller genre, his first thriller film 'The Lodger' (1927) would start his career of thriller films, creating and inventing techniques to maximise the viewer's anxiety and fear, which are used to this day.
Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' (1954) is considered one of his best films.
This scene starts with a very long cut, lasting a hole minute, then a couple of long cuts follow. The long cuts create suspense, as the viewer anticipates something to happen, due to the nature of the genre. When we cut to the point of view of the protagonist, the score stops, creating tension. The man in the apartment appears to have knives, this creates enigmas. The background noise of outside adds realism. At the end of the scene, the close up of the protagonist's face shows us that he has the same ideas as we do, making the audience feel like they are figuring it out along with the protagonist.
In this scene, sound has an important role. Your can hear the the footsteps of the antagonist climbing the stairs in the background, making the viewer tense as he gets closer with every step. Also, the phone goes off suddenly, making the viewer jump, which then makes them even more tense. A close up of the door, showing the light under it going out creates even more tension, as the viewer knows he is right outside. The low key lighting as the antagonist walks in the room, just lighting part of his face, shows the audience he is a shadowy figure and the 'bad guy'. This scene highlights the fact that small details can be just as, or even more effective at creating suspense and tension then obvious techniques.
A good film to compare older thrillers to more contemporary thrillers, and show the differences to thrillers now, would be 'Disturbia' (2007), as it is inspired by 'Rear Window'. The films shows us that there are several techniques which are still used today, and others which a clearly modern day versions of original techniques, trying to maximise the tension and suspense of the audience with technological enhancements and new ideas.
This scene uses kinetic camera work, unlike in 'Rear Window', by the cameraman and the protagonist, making the scene feel more real, making it even more tense for the viewer. The video camera used by the protagonist, when its shaky and zooms in, reveal less about what is going on then the camera in 'Rear Window' did, creating even more tension. The dramatic score, going silent when the antagonist can't be seen, and kicking back in when he returns, is similar to older thrillers, except the the score seems even more dramatic and screechy in this contemporary thriller. More and shorter cuts, and a quick dolly shot create an even faster pace, pumping the viewer with tension. The score quiets down when the protagonist looses the antagonist, but jumps right back in again when he is spotted, making the viewer jump. Overall, this scene shows us that today we still retain elements of Lloyd's and Hitchcock's work, but also have made our own improvements to create the most thrilling scenes possible.