Top List Thursday: Top 5 movies that explore madness

7 min read

“The horror, the horror,” words uttered by the totally batshit crazy Hurtz  in the film adaptation of Joseph Konrad’s Heart of Darkness – Apocalypse Now. I think most people share an unconscious – and many not so unconscious – fear of madness; both in it’s violent form of ‘they will get me’ and in its ‘I am loosing my mind’ states. In fact the exploration of madness has been around since the very early days of cinema. One only has to think back to the brilliantly nightmarish 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to see this. Director Robert Weiner played with stylised sets that made the viewer question what they are seeing, plunging them into the confusion and madness felt by the characters themselves.

I want to look at five movies that explore the world of madness and at how each director achieved what they were after.

Be warned, some minor spoilers!

5. The Shining

‘Here’s Johnny!’ Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has become a must-see movie for those who relish frights, chills and Steadicam. The movie explores the psychological corruption caused by alcoholism, frustration and isolation. These become more real as Jack loses his mind and allows the evil of the Hotel Overlook to convince him to murder his family. The tension is built by many long shots that give the viewer the impression of following the characters; who can forget the famous scene where Jack’s son Danny rides his bike? The tension is also heightened by the brilliant use of sound and the break of its use. In the example already given of  Danny riding his bike, we switch from the loud rolling sound the wheels make to silence as it goes over the thick carpets. This almost ‘Chiaroscuro’ use of sound and music is employed to keep us from becoming comfortable and generates a feeling of madness throughout the movie. It’s through Kubrick’s unique directing and Stephen King’s terrifying story that The Shining leaves the audience with nightmares for years to come.


4. Black Swan

The critically acclaimed Black Swan explores issues of madness in a far more subtle manner compared to The Shining, though certainly it does not lack in shocks or levels of screwed-up-ness (it’s a real word, shut it!). Following the exploits of up-and-coming ballerina Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) the audience is never really sure of what version of reality is the correct one. This is a clever mechanic as it allows director Darren Aronofsky to explore the character’s psychological journey without alienating the audience, rather we are drawn into the delusions and taken along for the ride. The movie is dark, literally. As the character moves from her ‘White Swan’ persona towards her ‘Black Swan’ more and more images of graphic violence surface. We slowly become aware that there is a disparity between what she is seeing and what may actually be happening in reality, culminating in a brilliant ending that demands a few viewings to ‘get’.


3. Shutter Island

On of my favourite movies that deals with madness is one that only allows you to know it’s even about madness 3/4 of the way through (unless you are me, in which case it was the first 15 minutes, my little claim to fame). Martin Scorsese’s 2010 Shutter Island stars Leonard DiCaprio as U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels, who is investigating the disappearance of a patient from the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally Insane. So we have the setting nailed for a movie investigating the psychology of its protagonists, as nothing screams mad louder than a hospital for the criminally insane. We are then lead by Daniels through a difficult investigation that throws up more questions than answers and one that ultimately makes him question his own sanity. At times it feels like you are in a barrel rolling down a hill, only able to catch glimpses of the real world as you roll to an inevitable and completely unseen conclusion. If you haven’t watched this movie yet you have no right to claim you enjoy movies, go see it!


2. American Psycho

It is not that often that you follow the actions of a psychopath as the lead role in a movie. Sure there is Silence of the Lambs and even though Anthony Hopkins is brilliant his 16 minutes of screen time hardly make him the lead. My favourite lunatic has got to be appropriately named Patrick Bateman played by Christian Bale in the screen adaptation American Psycho. Bateman is nuts, well and truly nuts. His life has about as much meaning as the information you can fit onto a business card (literally), he is shallow, vain, and has very little instinct to survive, brilliant traits when you want to shock an audience with your indifference to killing. This time round the madness is delivered through many visual means. The sex, brutal killings (in once case both at the same time) are so extreme it makes you laugh at the same time as being repulsed. Leading dual lives, one as a successful banker and the other as a serial killer, Bateman goes on a bloody rampage that sees him killing friends he actually doesn’t like, colleagues he despises as they are more successful and hookers because heck, who doesn’t want to drop a chainsaw from a stairwell onto one? He never questions his mental state during the movie which most do, making him truly barking and terrifyingly mad.



1. One Flew over the Cuckoos’ Nest

I have to admit that I watched Miloš Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoos’ Nest last weekend with my older boet for the first time and all I can say is we were stunned into silence at the end. The reason I loved this movie is because it is about society’s PERCEPTION that labels us as mad. Yes, I do get the contradiction that everything above this is MY perception of madness, perhaps on planet Splog murdering your family is normal but not in my world. This movie looks at what sanity is and who decides what it is. Our protagonist Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy, played BRILLIANTLY by Jack Nicholson, finds himself locked up for a few minor indiscretions with some mental patients. But are they all mental? We slowly get to know them through McMurphy’s often comical interactions and as we do this veil of madness slowly lifts. In fact it switches. Now it looks as if the doctors, the ones administering the electric shocks to healthy patients, forcing them to swallow pills and keeping them penned up like animals may actually be the mad ones. Indeed the  hard as nails Nurse Mildred Ratched, player by Louise Fletcher, comes across as positively psychotic at times. However, it is the story of both McMurphy and “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), an American Indian, that will have you biting nails, wiping eyes and shouting ‘Miloš Forman, you are a GENIUS!’

Way more sane than Darryn

So those are some of my favourite movies that look at madness. Of course there are different forms of madness in movies. Some are self induced, others are caused by external forces, whichever you particularly enjoy movies have plenty to offer. So long as you start with my 1#. If you haven’t seen it, feel shame, shame! I mean, I watched that back in 2013! What’s your excuse?  What other movies that deal with madness do you think I should have considered?


Last Updated: December 5, 2013

Nick Reay

I have been an avid fan of movies ever since I discovered Santa Clause wasn't real, a day marked in my memory by my first viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, which wasn't so wonderful that day. Since then I've watched thousands of movies and even fooled my parents into putting me through uni to get a degree in the subject. I first started writing as a journalist for The South African Newspaper before moving onto communications for an NGO trying to save the planet. Unfortunately my recommendations to the CEO that we should all don rings imbued with the powers of earth, fire, wind, water and HEART went unheard. Now I pretend the end isn't nigh by hiding in movies.

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