Tuesday, March 3, 2009

10 Mind-Blowing Movies About Madness

By Steve Evans
Nothing could be more terrifying than the prospect of losing one’s mind. It is our identity, the tool with which we process and define our intelligence, our emotions, the way we perceive and relate to the world. To suffer madness, to lose one's mind, is to lose everything. At the end of the day, it's really all we've got. As portrayed in literature and film, madness creeps up on the individual ... slowly ... inexorably ... invoking a sense of helplessness and despair. It is an intractable villain, striking from within. Modern horrors such as enemies can be defeated, bad bosses can be managed (or simply fired by finding a better job), in-laws can be pacified, children taught to behave. But madness cannot be reasoned with (try presenting a rational argument to an irrational person).

Yeah, you know a nut when you see one. It's in their eyes.

Forget about the discredited plea bargain of "temporary insanity," a silly, overused strategy that fools no one. Full-bore, chewing-on-tinfoil, bug-eyed madness is forever. It also makes for compelling drama, since the lunatic dwells on the fringe – beyond mainstream society. He is a fascinating character: creative, unpredictable, often charismatic, potentially dangerous, fun to watch. He sees the world through different eyes. And why not? He's living la vida loca, baby.

Here, in order of release year, is my short list of amazing movies about madmen, lunatics, psychotics, the insane, sociopaths, and, yup, the extremely disturbed -- like your ex. Irresistably watchable, these films horrify and repel, yet fascinate and compel. So grab someone you’re crazy about and watch a flick on this list tonight.

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The granddaddy of insanity cinema and one of the classic examples of German Expressionism, this surreal silent remains essential viewing nearly a century later. A hospital inmate recounts his adventures in a small German village plagued by mysterious murders. The killings coincide with the arrival of a carnival featuring Dr. Caligari and his zombie-like somnambulist who travels in an oblong box. Nightmarish set design – all jagged angles and distorted landscapes – combine with eerie pantomime and groundbreaking lighting techniques to produce an early masterpiece of the cinema. The twist ending has lost much of its impact following decades of imitation. Just remember that Dr. Caligari did it first and did it best.

2. Shock Corridor (1963)
Directed by low-budget auteur Samuel Fuller, this gritty noir stars Peter Breck as an ambitious journalist determined to capture a Pulitzer Prize. The story he believes will win this coveted totem involves solving the murder of an asylum inmate who is stabbed in the hospital kitchen, a killing witnessed by three insane interns. With the help of his newspaper editor and a psychiatrist, the reporter fakes insanity and has himself committed to the asylum where he intends to crack the case undercover. Like Rashomon, each witness provides different details about the killer and what happened. Meanwhile, the reporter slowly discovers that the madhouse is like the Hotel California: “you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave….”

3. Lilith (1964)
Director Robert Rossen’s swansong stars Jean Seberg as the titular schizophrenic in a resort-like mental hospital for the privileged. Troubled war vet Warren Beatty comes to work at the hospital as an assistant, rapidly falling under Lilith’s spell. Co-stars Peter Fonda, a few years before he roamed America on a motorcycle in Easy Rider; and Gene Hackman in a small role as a coarse blue-collar worker.
Seberg would commit suicide 15 years after this film was made, her love life spinning out of control much like her character, Lilith. Beatty, whose reputation as a ladies' man needs no further elaboration here, would commit career suicide in 2001 with Town & Country, his last screen appearance to date. Town & Country holds the record for the largest absolute loss (total budget minus box-office receipts) on a film. New Line Cinema lost an estimated $100 million on the picture, an alleged comedy that sold less than $6 million in tickets against a production and marketing budget in excess of $110 million.

Lilith was one of Beatty's earliest films and ranks among his best. Delicate as a butterfly, yet disturbing as the bite from a Black Widow spider, this hypnotic picture is beautifully shot in satin shades of black and white. A mesmerizing cinematic experience.

4. King of Hearts [Le Roi de Cœur] (1966)
Alan Bates stars in this gentle meditation on war and madness set in a small French town in the closing days of World War I. As the Germans retreat, they rig booby-traps with bombs throughout the town, causing the residents to flee. A Scottish soldier (Bates) arrives to defuse the bombs, but unwittingly leaves open the front gate of the local insane asylum. Soon, the lunatics escape and take over the town. They set up a provincial government and install themselves in various municipal and retail jobs. While the soldier deactivates bombs and falls in love with a delicate ballerina (a young Geneviève Bujold), he remains oblivious to the fact that the lunatics have literally take over the asylum, the town, and the surrounding countryside.

As the world fights out the final days of war, we begin to wonder who is really insane and whether the wrong people have been locked up all along.

5. Titicut Follies (1967)
Arguably the most disturbing documentary ever made, Titicut Follies is a 1967 film by Frederick Wiseman about the treatment of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, a Massachusetts Correctional Institution. The ironic title comes from the annual talent show staged by the hospital’s inmates and some of their guards.

Titicut Follies shows the inhumane existence of the Bridgewater inmates, many of whom undergo brutal humiliation at the hands of guards. One inmate is force-fed via a tube inserted into his nose. Later, we see his lifeless body on a morgue table in preparation for burial, as though no effort was made to get at the man’s core problems and give him help.

Titicut Follies was the focus of an injunction brought by the Massachusetts government in an effort to block its release on the grounds that the film violated patients’ privacy.

The legal action came in spite of the fact that Wiseman received release forms signed by everyone depicted in the documentary or their legal guardians. A year after it was made, all existing prints of the film were nearly destroyed by order of the state judicial system, a ruling overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1969. Even then the high court ruled that Titicut Follies could be screened only for doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in these fields. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Wiseman’s appeal.

As a result, Titicut Follies became the first film in America to be banned from general exhibition for reasons other than obscenity, immorality or national security. Wiseman later made the ironic observation that, “The obvious point that I was making was that the restriction of the court was a greater infringement of civil liberties than the film was an infringement on the liberties of the inmates.” The ban also raised open speculation that the Massachusetts government merely wanted to cover up the deplorable conditions that Wiseman exposed in a state-run mental institution.

I acquired a copy of Titicut Follies via a dubbed VHS recording of the 1992 broadcast of the film on PBS. It remains a deeply disturbing viewing experience that quite frankly evokes thoughts of the Holocaust and the viciously cruel manner in which the helpless have been treated throughout history by their tormentors. The film is now available on DVD through the director’s distribution company, Zipporah Films.

6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
This is the second of only three films so far to capture the top 5 Academy Awards: picture, director, screenwriter, actor and actress (It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs are the other two). The fact that two of these three Oscar favorites feature madness as a prominent part of the plot should tell us something about Academy voting preferences.

Bug-eyed Jack Nicholson famously stars as Randall P. McMurphy, a petty criminal looking to avoid a prison work detail by posing as a lunatic. That gets him bounced into an Oregon mental hospital, where he is soon waging a battle of wills with Nurse Ratched, a harridan woman obsessed with control, domination and order. The stakes are nothing less than McMurphy’s life. A deeply affecting, anti-establishment film that highlights the indefatigable nature of the human spirit when fighting against immovable tyranny and oppression.

7. Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert DeNiro’s legendary performance as psychotic cabbie Travis Bickle is a terrifying portrait of madness, urban alienation and the boiling cauldron of thoughts whirling within a loser who desperately wants to transform himself into a normal person. It is the very idea of normalcy, however, that eludes and ultimately infuriates Travis. Spurned by a potential lover (Cybil Shepherd), he attempts to assassinate her boss, a U.S. Senate candidate and surrogate father figure. Failing in the attempt, he turns his gun sights on a sleazy pimp (Harvey Keitel), father figure to the drug-addled teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). The film allegedly inspired John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan five years later, but it is DeNiro’s wild-eyed performance, with shaved Mohawk-head and spittle gathering in the corners of his mouth, that people remember today. His most famous line, reportedly ad-libbed for director Martin Scorsese, remains both question and murderous threat: “You talkin’ to me?”

8. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Disturbing imagery and a hallucinatory mise en scène mark this film by director Adrian Lyne, with a script by Bruce Joel Rubin who worked similar territory with Ghost, released the same year. Tim Robbins stars as Jacob, a Vietnam Vet plagued by ghastly nightmares of a mysterious attack on his platoon. These hallucinations are intercut with his life as a postal worker in New York City, where demons and mutants haunt him on the subway. He has heartbreaking visions of his dead son. Jacob fancies he is being wheeled on a gurney through an asylum leading to the very bowels of hell. His girlfriend seems to be assaulted at a party by a man-sized lizard, its obscene appendages snaking up her torso, between her thighs. All of this may be related to The Ladder, an experimental drug allegedly used on U.S. troops to enhance their fighting power.

Jacob’s philosophical chiropractor (Danny Aiello) offers several plausible answers for all the surrealism, although Jacob dismisses rational explanation to ponder whether it’s his sanity at stake.

Viscerally shocking special effects and a foreboding sense of doom elevate this underappreciated film beyond rote psychological thrillers of the era.

The twist ending could be a nod to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) and Terry Gilliam’s superb fantasy, Brazil (1985).

9. Fight Club (1999)
This ranks as the best satire of capitalism and the twisted value system it inspires since Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) before it.

Ed Norton stars as the nameless, aimless, vaguely dissatisfied Narrator whose life finally takes an interesting turn when he meets soap salesman and anarchist Tyler Durden, a man whose smile communicates instant, serious trouble. The men bond over beer, women and bare-knuckle fighting. Their shenanigans attract other angry young men who form Fight Clubs throughout the United States. Soon, their clubs evolve into home-grown terrorist cells whose members want to bring about the collapse of the U.S. financial system. Helena Bonham Carter, whose attraction to these characters is as inscrutable as her living-on-the-fringe lifestyle, provides the loving affection and salvation that ultimately transforms this sly film with a twist into the slick, happy product it so ostensibly satirizes. That’s Hollywood. The fact this film even got made is enough to make even the most jaded film lover believe in miracles.

10. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
A decade ago some smart-ass (probably me) dubbed this flick “Cuckoo’s Nest for Chicks.” That unfair shorthand doesn’t do justice to an old-school drama that, at its heart, is a coming-of-age story set in a nuthouse. Winona Ryder stars as a confused New England girl of privilege who voluntarily commits herself to an asylum for young women and then, inevitably, discovers she cannot leave whenever she wants. But Angelina Jolie steals the show (and the Academy Award that Ryder had probably hoped for), playing a charismatic schizophrenic.

As with every movie on this list, at least one significant character dies. Girl, Interrupted wants to have it both ways, though, so our heroine gets to visit the Cuckoo’s Nest and fly over it, too. This is the sort of cop-out compromise that edgy films of the 1970s were able to avoid. Even so, Girl, Interrupted delivers compelling entertainment and features the ultimate use of Petula Clark’s 1964 hit, “Downtown” – a perfect juxtaposition of pop-music sentiment with the harsh reality of institutional life.

Notable films that didn’t make the top cut on this list (mainly because the madness in these pictures can be seen as incidental to another film genre; often, though not always, comedy or horror):

M (1931) – Peter Lorre is the child killer of Dusseldorf, a madman almost as pitiable as his victims. Fritz Lang directs this expressionistic German thriller, with memorable use of Grieg’s ominous In the Hall of the Mountain King on the soundtrack.

The Snake Pit (1948) – Olivia de Haviland finds herself in an insane asylum with no recollection of how she got there. Therapy-induced flashbacks relate her deteriorating mental state until a relapse forces her to confront the horror of the Snake Pit.

Harvey (1950) – Jimmy Stewart is Elwood P. Dowd, a pleasant alcoholic who converses with a six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey that only he can see. When his sister tries to commit him to a mental hospital, the film evolves into a gentle comedy of errors that explores family dysfunction and unexpected love.

Psycho (1960) – The granddaddy of slasher films and still the best. Prime Hitchcock. Anthony Perkins was typecast for the rest of his life. Still the greatest twist ending in cinema history. “Mother…what is the expression? Isn’t herself today.”

Black Sunday (1977) – Bruce Dern and a bunch of terrorists from Tripoli try to blow up the Super Bowl with a Goodyear blimp in John Frankenheimer’s taut thriller based on a novel by Thomas Harris, who gained his greatest fame a few years later for writing The Silence of the Lambs. Eerily prescient of 9/11.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977) – Based on Joanne Greenberg’s best-selling novel, the picture stars Kathleen Quinlan as Deborah, a 16-year-old schizophrenic who lives in a fantasy world. After attempting suicide, Deborah’s wealthy family commits her to a mental hospital where psychiatrists make a valiant attempt to bring her back to reality. One of the few films that presents the psychiatric profession in a favorable light. B-movie maestro Roger Corman bought the film rights after the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Corman always had a knack for imitating profitable material, although this picture is quite good in spite of his affiliation.

Manhunter (1986) – In his pre-CSI days, William Peterson stars as an FBI profiler on the trail of “The Toothfairy,” a maniac who murders entire families and is so named for the bite marks he leaves behind. Peterson’s efforts to get inside the mind of the killer threaten his own sanity. Stylishly directed by Michael Mann, who was flush with the success of TV show Miami Vice, Manhunter features the first film appearance of Hannibal Lecter (though portrayed by actor Brian Cox, five years before Anthony Hopkins would make the role his own). Creepy Tom Noonan, at 6-foot-6, portrays a formidable psycho killer. Peterson proves himself a resourceful action hero in the incredibly well-staged climax, featuring Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic craziness, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, blasting on a madman’s stereo. How apropos.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Hannibal Lecter. Buffalo Bill. Best Picture Oscar winner. Nuff’ said.

Pollock (2000) – Ed Harris stars as the alcoholic artist Jackson Pollock, who gained fame in the 1950s for his splatter-drip method of painting on canvas. Was he a con artist, a visionary, or, like Andy Warhol, a bit of both? Or was Pollock simply mad? This labor of love by Harris (who wrote, produced, directed, and who also bears a striking resemblance to the late painter) was a critical darling that did only so-so box office. Pollock deserves a wider audience, if for no other reason than a career-defining performance by Harris.

Memento (2001) – A tricky plot device – telling the story backwards – helps simulate the sensation of short-term amnesia suffered by Guy Pierce as he searches for his wife’s killer. Like a Moebius loop, this enigmatic thriller turns like a corkscrew until it comes full circle to the beginning, which is actually the end. In this film, perception is reality.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – Russell Crowe stars as a demented mathematics genius in this Best Picture Oscar winner that presents schizophrenia from the perspective of the man suffering the illness.

Directed by Ron Howard, this biopic is based on the life of John Forbes Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. At Princeton University Nash develops what he calls his “original idea” for game theory that would revolutionize the science of mathematics, although it soon becomes apparent that a fine line separates genius and madness. Delusional visions and symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia plague his progress as Nash gradually unravels and begins to lose his mind. As the wife of the tortured Nash, Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Howard took the directing award.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.


  1. I love your blog! The music is also awesome.

  2. Absolutely great list... !

    Just one addition for the sake of completeness.. Polanski's "repulsion"

  3. Thank you and thank you.

    Repulsion is a tremendous chiller, agreed. Check out Polanski's newest, The Ghost Writer, which I caught recently at the Naro arthouse in Norfolk, VA.

  4. Angelina Jolie's character "Lisa" in Girl, Interrupted is not a schizophrenic at all. She is supposedly a Sociopath. Other than that piece of misinformation, this is a great article!

  5. Thank you for the correction. Duly noted. The character is indeed a sociopath. How could I overlook that? She reminds me of a nasty woman I had the misfortune of knowing for far too long. Cheers, Steve.

  6. Hello Steve,

    Thanks for this. I'm a Dutch graphic designer and i'm going to design a theatrical poster for an opera, wich we are going to call: An ode to Madness. I like to catch the madness in de eyes, so i'm gonna see all the trailers. Again, thanks.

    Marije Esselink

    When it's done, i'll post the result.


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