The 25 Best Films About Character’s Descent Into Madness

7. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

Described by many, as one of the most underappreciated films of the sixties, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 mystery drama Seconds, is the third entry in the director’s unofficial ‘paranoia trilogy’. Starring the iconic Rock Hudson, the story follows a downbeat middle aged man, who is approached by a company with the opportunity to fake his death and undergo a procedure to give him a new look and identity.

The film opens brilliantly, with a series of almost distressing camera shots following a man named Arthur Hamilton, as he navigates through a busy Grand Central Station on his way home from work.

With Arthur utterly depressed and unable to find any direction in his life, he un-expectantly gets a call from his friend, presumed dead for years, offering him the chance to start a new life, free from all ties, a complete ‘rebirth’. Intrigued, Arthur follows the instructions and eventually arrives at the secret location, where his life would change forever.

After being drugged, Arthur wakes and is shown a film in which he rapes a young girl, obviously whilst still drugged. From this moment on and with the video intended as blackmail, there is no way back. After surgery, he awakes to his new identity as the handsome Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a much younger looking and accomplished man.

With his new beach-side home, personal servant and beautiful love interest, it seems that the decision to throw away his previous life was justified. However it is not before long complications arise and Tony experiences uncertainty and chaos in his new frame, with catastrophic consequences.

Best known for his romantic roles, Rock Hudson produces an incredible performance. Along with unsettling camera angles, distressing close ups and surreal, psychedelic settings, Seconds is a scintillating and thought provoking tale of alienation and realisation that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.


8. Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)


The story of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, has been adapted for film and TV many times. Arguably, the leading version in these efforts, is Roman Polanski’s 1971, Macbeth. Telling the all-familiar tale of a Scottish count who seizes the throne of King, through murder and witchcraft, Polanski’s portrayal is without doubt the most brutal and bloody translation of an already dark and compelling production.

Macbeth is but a loyal and noble thane when he is diluted by three witches, who foretell that he will become King of Scotland. With his forceful wife, Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) now in knowledge of this prophecy, he is thrust on his odyssey to become ruler of his country. A journey that becomes a campaign of self-destruction, leading to delirium, hysteria and ultimately carnage, with reams of blood-shed along the way.

This is a brilliantly acted but sombre and totally bleak representation. With violent and gory scenes, Macbeth is an unruly and vicious film, realistically played out in Shakespearean fashion.


9. The Ruling Class (Peter Medak, 1972)


Possibly the most bizarre but definitely the most eccentric film on this list, Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class is a 1972 British black comedy part musical, starring the legendary Peter O’Toole. Described by O’Toole himself as ‘a comedy with tragic relief’, he plays a clearly schizophrenic British nobleman named Jack, who inherits the role of Earl of Gurney, much to the shock of his family and friends.

When the current Earl of Gurney dies, Jack (O’Toole) assumes this position with much dismay and confusion to those around him. For the problem therein lies that Jack, The now 14th Earl of Gurney, believes that he is none other than Jesus Christ. With Jack believing that he can save the world with his love, his family resolve that the only way out of this madness, is that Jack be unwittingly subjected to electroshock therapy then sent to an asylum.

Now, despite the family’s best efforts and with Jack seemingly no longer ‘Jesus’, our combatant suddenly revels in his new being, as Jack the Ripper! Absurdity ensues in the closing stages as Jack fits a little too much into his new personality and is later applauded by his colleagues ecstatically in the House of Lords, unsuspecting of his actions and fate, deeper into that night.

Peter O’Toole gives an extraordinary performance in this ultimately downbeat, cult classic, The Ruling Class. Littered with arduous and often intelligent speeches, this film will be sure to divide opinions; nevertheless, it’s worthwhile for the sheer ludicrousness of it all.


10. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

a woman Under the Influence

Known for his ability to capture the honesty and nakedness of human emotion, director John Cassavetes was a visionary of independent film who changed the face of cinema forever. His 1974 tour de force, A Woman Under the Influence, is testament to the brilliance of his work. Gene Rowlands gives an astonishing performance as an eccentric, insecure and emotionally vulnerable woman, living with her three young children and loyal yet volatile husband.

From the beginning of the movie, all eyes are on Mabel (Rowlands) as she is seen erratically getting her kids ready for a weekend with their grandmother. As she looks forward to a night alone with her hardworking husband Nick (Peter Falk), we witness her neurotic behaviour, which is also conceivably witnessed and understood by Nick.

With her husband’s patience dwindling due to her unbalanced demeanour, Mabel’s own mental welfare declines and the situation erupts to a harrowing and disturbing breaking point for all the family.

As Rowlands so effectively portrays a woman on the road to madness, Peter Falk gets somewhat overlooked for another tremendous performance as the temperamental and irritable husband. A gripping and shockingly-real character drama within a marriage, A Woman Under the Influence is an emotional and personal masterpiece, detailing the heart-breaking results in the loss of self-control. An absolute must-see.


11. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)


One of the finest films of the 1970’s, Network was directed by the ingenious Sidney Lumet and contains an all-star cast of Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. It shows how a TV network exploits a demented ex anchor man, in order to gain ratings boost for the channel. The winner of four Academy Awards, Network is an exquisite mix of black comedy and drama by a director arguably in the form of his life.

An already depressed Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the long-time anchor of UBS Evening News, when he receives word from division President and good friend Max Schumacher (Holden), that he will be losing his job in just two weeks. The following night, whilst on air, Beale announces that he will commit suicide live on next week’s broadcast.

Despite Beale immediately being fired due to the outburst, Schumacher negotiates and gives the disgraced anchor an opportunity at a dignified closure on his career. Surprisingly, instead of transmitting an on air apology as agreed, Beale launches into a fiery rant, that not only renders him a raving lunatic but sends ratings through the roof!!

When UBS decide to give Beale his own show, allowing him to ‘vent’, we observe how an already vulnerable and obviously mentally ill man hits rock bottom, with dire consequences.

An insanely well-acted masterpiece, Network is a wickedly intelligent and scarily relevant testament of our digital era. Rich in dialogue and containing a shockingly abrupt ending, Network is sure to inspire a cacophony of zealous discussion.


12. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)


David Lynch is well known for directing some of the most surreal and nightmarish films of our time, cult favourite Eraserhead included. Said to be inspired by Lynch’s own fear of fatherhood, this 1977 black and white horror tells the story of a man who is left to look after his hideously deformed child.

Set with a bleak and gritty backdrop, our main character, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), lives in a grimy apartment block on what resembles an industrial wasteland. When Henry is invited for dinner to his girlfriend’s parent’s house, he hesitantly makes his way over, across the harsh and desolate ‘neighbourhood’. In an extremely awkward and horrid engagement involving an ‘already made’ chicken that oozes blood, Henry is told that he and his girlfriend Mary X, are the parents of a premature baby.

Through this announcement, Henry’s world quickly collapses. When they move into his apartment, Henry finds his baby comparable to a disfigured dinosaur and along with non-stop screeching and refusing food; it’s not long before Mary leaves the home. When Henry is visited by the singing girl in the radiator, it’s his tell-tale sign of a nose-diving mental state that slides to a hauntingly depressing crescendo that will leave the mind aghast.

A disturbing and uncompromising work of art, Eraserhead can be a difficult watch; however it is still an important and symbolic piece of cinema that warrants multiple viewing.


13. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)


Released in 1979 and directed by all-time-great Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now is not only one of the best anti-war movies of all time but one of the greatest films outright. Currently ranked 14th on the Sight and Sound Poll, Coppola’s masterpiece highlights the physical and psychological devastation that war brings.

With an all-star cast of Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper, the film follows an Army Captain sent on a mission to exterminate on AWOL Colonel, presumed insane, who is operating his own army, in the depths of the Cambodian Jungle.

Veteran US Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Sheen) has been assigned the daunting task of assassinating the infamous and deranged rogue, Colonel Kurtz (Brando). Collaborating with a small crew of four, including ‘Clean’ (Fishburne), they navigate an inadequate boat along the Nung River to get to their Cambodian destination.

Along the way, the crew meet up with the brash and blood-thirsty Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Duvall), who escorts them through the deadly mouth of the river. Using the quiet time that he gets on the boat, Willard educates himself on the career of his renegade target.

How Kurtz was a decorated and well respected Army professional, until something snapped, something somewhere along the same passage that Willard was travelling now. As Willard’s crew all start to succumb to this hellish journey, through a mix of enemy forces, drugs and the mind-consuming paranoia of the jungle itself, we reach our destination at last.

Met by an unnamed American photographer (Hopper), who shares the native’s worshipping of Kurtz, Willard witnesses horrific and brutal scenes of mass murder. What follows is a breath-taking climax as the Captain is finally introduced to this mythological, crazy ‘God’.

A notoriously ‘unworkable’ project, Apocalypse Now is a distressing and unsettling film that reaches deep into the human soul. A film that shows the true savageness of war, the horror and the destruction it leaves behind.