The 25 Best Films About Character’s Descent Into Madness
‘Whom God wishes to destroy, he first turns mad.’ For many years both director and viewer have shared an attraction to watching ongoing battles between characters and their subconscious, with the latter more often than not, the victor.
Losing one’s mind is one of the most frightening prospects as within this; we lose our perception of the world around us, thus setting up a confusing and sometimes disturbing journey to those dark places.
The following films, in chronological order, all contain a character that at some point takes a turn to madness, some more than others. Some viewers may be disappointed that One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not included but for this reviewer, it was rather too obvious an inclusion. So read on and enjoy the ride.
1. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
Easily one of the most widely known and influential films of all time, Fritz Lang’s M is a German crime thriller released in 1931. Concerning a psychopath child-killer at large in the streets of Berlin, M illustrates the panic and hysteria throughout the public, as not just police are forced into searching but fellow offenders too. The film is also noted as not only being regarded as Fritz Lang’s finest but also his first ‘talkie’ film.
The film opens to regular, run of the mill goings on, such as a woman setting the table, a man at work, children playing in the street, then a wanted poster for a serial killer who is targeting children. When the media generate a craze of rage, pressure mounts on local authorities, forcing them to aggravate the criminal underworld, in turn causing them to coordinate a manhunt of their own.
Soon, as the hunters close in on the killer, we monitor how desperate he becomes, a bitter, weak man who just can’t control himself. As the film progresses, mob mentality escalates and with our mentally-ill killer helplessly cornered, a dramatic, momentous climax follows.
Widely thought of as one of the best thrillers of all time, M is full of subtle horrors and haunting images that leave the viewer to interpret the gruesomeness of the killer’s actions. Discussed as one of the most incredible acting performances in cinematic history, Peter Lorre is spellbinding as our horrid and sickly child-killer. Overall, M is an intelligent, dark and exciting film that is light years ahead of its time.
2. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
Released in 1947 by directing dream team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, first time viewers could be forgiven for not expecting much from Black Narcissus.
After all, with the general summary describing how a group of nuns deal with conflict in a remote Himalayan convent, who could blame them? However, throw in themes of romance, tension and violence along with superb performances from Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron and Flora Robson and you end up with an emotional and erotic psychological drama that has achieved critical acclaim.
Clodagh, The Sister Superior (Kerr) and her group of nuns travel to a Palace built high in the Himalayan Mountains, in order to set up a school and hospital for the locals. With the fact that we are told an order of Brothers had an already failed attempt at the same task, we feel a certain sense of mystery, surrounding the location.
Why did they fail? When they arrive, the nuns are introduced to the local British agent, Mr Dean (David Farrar) and are left to their own devices in the beautiful and sensual Palace.
Surprisingly, it is not before long, that the nuns find themselves seduced by not only Mr Dean but possibly by the surroundings as well, which ultimately releases repressed and destructive emotions with disastrous results. We watch attentively as Sister Ruth’s (Byron) mental state deteriorates rapidly, whilst Sister Clodagh single-handedly tries to keep the sinking ship afloat.
Visually vibrant and with remarkable settings and cinematography, Black Narcissus is a deeply touching yet haunting experience, depicting a fragile nun painstakingly lose her grasp on reality.
3. I live in Fear (Akira Kurosawa, 1955)
Whilst probably, one of Kurosawa’s lesser known classics, I Live in Fear is certainly not any less influential. Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune, stars as an elderly businessman whose detrimental fear of a nuclear attack prompts him to sell his business and move his entire family to Brazil. Released in 1955, it was only 1 year earlier that a hydrogen bomb was tested on Bikini Atoll, infamously exposing a Japanese fishing boat to radioactive ash, reportedly killing eleven.
Nakajima (Mifune), being convinced that Japan will be hit with a nuclear attack, decides that the only option of survival is to relocate to an area beyond the range of war, in Brazil. When his family hear of his intentions, they cry foul and propose to the courts that Nakajima is mentally incompetent and should be committed to an asylum.
With the children refusing to move for fear of giving up their comfortable lifestyle and their inheritance, his descent into madness deepens when explained that even in Brazil, he would not be immune from the fallout.
A chilling, dark and harrowing drama, I Live in Fear is a rather unsubtle display of a world in which the most atrocious dangers were revoked as standard procedure. A masterful performance once again from the ever reliable Mifune in this thought-provoking, metaphor-free, tale of tragedy.
4. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)
Directed by Spanish film master Luis Bunuel, The Exterminating Angel is a 1962 fantasy drama that is as baffling as it is humorous. Regarding a group of Bourgeois guests inexplicably finding they are unable to leave a dinner party, a surreal and claustrophobic atmosphere looms, as feelings of isolation and imprisonment overwhelm the diners.
After a night out at the opera, the party return to the extravagant mansion home of Edmundo Nobile for a dinner party catered by servants. Despite appearing to be the only people left in the building, bar the butler, the party move themselves into the music room, where one of the women plays the piano.
As morning approaches, the group mysteriously find it impossible to leave and now feel hostage to this plush but joyless estate. As time continues to pass, they become argumentative and hostile to each other, resorting to desperate measures in order to survive.
A delicious, surrealist fantasy, The Terminating Angel is loaded with Bunuel’s distinct swipes at both the upper classes of society and indeed the church itself. A film best summarised by Bunuel himself in, ‘the best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation’.
5. Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963)
Already known for his usually low-budget and controversial material, director Sam Fuller added his new project to this list in 1963. With his mystery-thriller Shock Corridor, he created an unsettling, disturbing and at times outrageous cult favourite.
A film clearly well ahead of its time, it can be noted as being the inspiration behind several other psychological drama’s such as One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shutter Island. Following a man feigning mental illness to get institutionalized in order to solve a murder, we look on as the closer he gets to cracking the case, the further away he detaches from his own mental disposition.
Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious journalist, hell-bent on winning the Pulitzer Prize, and he figures that uncovering the details of a murder in a mental hospital is his sure-fire way in achieving his goal. He masterminds a plan that will enable him to be admitted to the hospital as a patient, talk to the three witnesses to the murder, thus solving the crime and collecting his award.
However, as Johnny’s greed and aggression gets the better of him, it soon becomes a race against time to accomplish his task before insanity catches up and results in much more than just a so called ‘act’ of madness.
Despite essentially thought of as a B-movie, Shock Corridor is a visually brilliant and shocking expedition into a man’s willingness to achieve his dream at any cost.
6. Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
Set in Japan around the 14th century, Onibaba is director Kaneto Shindo’s historical horror concerning a woman and her daughter in law, surviving through the only means they can, by killing travelling Samurai and trading their armour for food. Roughly translated into English as ‘Demon Woman’,Onibaba is paced much faster than the usual Japanese motion pictures of the same era.
Two wounded soldiers, possibly lost, are fleeing from battle through tall thick reeds when suddenly; they are attacked and killed with speers by an undetected source. Then two women appear, one old, one young, dismantle the soldiers of their armour and weapons and drop the bodies in a deep hole.
The duo then takes their spoils to a sleazy merchant to trade for food, where they discuss the events of an ongoing war. Clearly an arrangement that has so far been working for all parties, it is not until the surprise arrival of a neighbour named Hachi, returned from war, that things start to go wrong and the existence of the couple is upset.
When the mother enquires about her son, the husband of the young woman, who also went to war along with Hachi, he informs her that her son was killed in battle and that Hachi himself was lucky to survive.
With the newcomer now a regular fixture, the three continue to ‘exist’ within their concealed surroundings. However, when the older woman discovers that her daughter in law has been having a relationship with Hachi, she turns manic. Frightened that the two will up and leave, the mother turns to drastic measures in order to force them apart and continue living the life she wants to live.
A scintillating horror, dripping with both psychological and sexual tension, this is an intense and haunting period piece, which is beautifully filmed in black and white. Exquisitely directed through the hostile and doom impending reeds, Onibaba is an absolute must see for anyone with a serious interest in film.