Here’s another list written for our new book Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined By Saxophone, And 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists.
1. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
There’s no more famous small-town crazy whom no one’s ever going to believe than Kevin McCarthy in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. And there’s no more famous unheeded warning than his chilling prediction, delivered straight at the camera, “They’re here already! You’re next!” This was meant to be Body Snatchers’ final scene; the alien pod creatures that were slowly replacing our friends and relatives with exact duplicates were supposed to be unstoppable, and as they predicted, McCarthy would be considered a madman for claiming that such an unlikely thing was happening. But the film’s producers at Allied Artists found the scene unnerving (damn right, says we) and requested that director Don Siegel add a happy ending where a lucky coincidence pokes a hole in the aliens’ cover and (maybe) saves Earth. But it’s a testament to the power of the original that McCarthy’s hysterical, ignored call to action is the scene everyone remembers.
2. The Ninth Configuration (1980)
In an early scene from William Peter Blatty’s criminally underseen The Ninth Configuration, two maybe-insane, maybe-not inmates at an asylum for high-ranking military officers are discussing the arrival of a new psychiatrist (Stacy Keach, who gives a brilliant performance). Jason Miller and Scott Wilson play veterans confined to an experimental treatment facility, where Keach’s Col. Kane has been brought in to shake things up. Miller compares Keach to Gregory Peck in Spellbound, another big-screen shrink who’s nuttier than his patients. Astronaut/ringleader Wilson reacts to this news by requesting that Miller drop from a tree “like an overripe mango,” but Miller is right: Keach is damaged in a way none of them could possibly anticipate, as the rest of the hilarious, harrowing film reveals.
3. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
The fourth act of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie features John Lithgow as a man so afraid of airplane travel that his nervous behavior freaks out the other passengers. And of course it’s the mentally unstable guy who witnesses a gremlin tearing up the plane’s wing at 20,000 feet. Ultimately, after several increasingly unnerving attempts to sell someone on his crazy story, Lithgow grabs a cop’s gun and shoots his window out, depressurizing the cabin and forcing an emergency landing. As Lithgow gets hauled away in a straitjacket, the maintenance crew discovers that the wing actually was damaged somehow. Still, an insane man with a gun is just as scary to have on a plane as a gremlin, so it’s just as well that the men in white coats cart Lithgow away.
4. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Right-leaning politicos have a lot to cheer for in 12 Monkeys: Anti-capitalist animal-rights advocate Brad Pitt is not only generally considered batshit insane, (confirming what most conservatives likely already think about animal-rights advocates and anti-capitalists), but he’s suspected of all but wiping out the human race as the leader of the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys. (Perhaps because he says things like “Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea.”) Pitt, the son of a famous scientist and an expert in viruses, denies any plans to spread apocalyptic disease, but the authorities in his dystopic future world waste their time convinced he’s the culprit. Too bad, because Pitt didn’t do it, and time-traveling Bruce Willis—who, it should be noted, is also presumed crazy—discovers the actual villain too late to stop him.
5. Donnie Darko (2001)
In some ways, Donnie Darko is like any other 15-year-old boy: He’s socially awkward, he sneaks cigarettes and booze when adults aren’t around, and he just wants a girlfriend. But in more clinical terms, he suffers from nightmarish visions and the “daylight hallucinations” usually associated with paranoid schizophrenia; in his visions, he gets visits from Frank, an apparently imaginary friend in a horrifying man-sized rabbit costume. Frank warns Donnie that the world will end in a few short weeks, but he also instructs him to flood his school, bone up on time travel, and burn down the house of a motivational speaker with a “kiddie-porn dungeon.” As strange as all this sounds, events play out in a way that suggests time travel is possible, that Donnie’s actions are justified and sensible, and that even a hideous imaginary bunny-man is right some of the time.
6. The Forgotten (2004)
Does any actor portray disturbed individuals with more empathy than Julianne Moore? Too often, she invests those considerable skills into unworthy trash like The Forgotten, an otherwise B-level film that builds suspense for 80 minutes, then cops out with a generic “It was aliens!” ending. In The Forgotten, Moore is haunted by vivid memories of her son, whom she thinks died a year ago. But no one else remembers him, and doctors link Moore’s delusions to a traumatic miscarriage. In spite of evidence, she’s tempted to buy into their theories, until she meets another victim of disappeared-child syndrome. The subsequent chases, police action, and half-baked climax ultimately lead toward a happy ending. See, it isn’t always bad when the crazies are right.
7. Frailty (2001)
Does God actually talk to Bill Paxton? That’s one of the questions swirling at the center of Frailty, along with “Do demons actually exist?” and “Is Matthew McConaughey seriously the voice of reason in this movie?” For the majority of the film, the respective answers are “No, Paxton just thinks He does,” “Of course not,” and “Surprisingly, yes.” Speaking to a shifty, skeptical FBI agent looking for a serial murderer known as the God’s Hands Killer, McConaughey reveals that he thinks the maniac might be his younger brother. Then he gives the agent a long account of their childhood, including the night their father (Paxton) told them that God points him toward people who are actually demons that need to be killed, dismembered, and buried in the rose garden. McConaughey says he never believed his dad’s nutty story, though his younger brother may have taken up the demon-killing project. But McConaughey lied about a few key points of the story, as the audience learns in the big reveal. Turns out God was talking to Paxton, demons do exist, and McConaughey was just pretending to be the voice of reason all along!
8. Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
In Otto Preminger’s atmospheric thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing, saucer-eyed Carol Lynley plays an impossibly young American single mother whose daughter goes missing after her first day of school in London. The problem? The school has no record to indicate that said daughter even exists. As an increasingly unhinged Lynley struggles in vain to find a girl nobody other than her and her brother Keir Dullea has ever seen, she encounters a series of ghoulish grotesques and one seriously unnerving doll hospital, and her hysteria mounts. John and Penelope Mortimer’s fiendishly clever adaptation of Evelyn Piper’s novel creates a free-floating air of paranoia, piles on red herrings, and cultivates reasonable doubt as to the existence of the title moppet before revealing that Dullea—who shares a creepily intense bond with his flighty sister—is ultimately behind the disappearance of the very real little girl. Ah, family.
9. Mirage (1965)
In a way, Edward Dmytryk’s thriller Mirage is just another take on the Bunny Lake story, except that instead of a daughter, hero Gregory Peck seems to have lost his mind, his memories, and several entire floors in his office building. After a power outage, Peck wanders around with years of his memories erased, which a psychiatrist tells him is flatly impossible. The key to his amnesia has something to do with his descent into a series of office sub-basements that have magically disappeared. The people around him keep contradicting his understanding of reality, and he gets increasingly unhinged, believing that people are out to kill him and a shadowy figure known only as The Major is stalking him. Strangely, he turns out to be correct on all counts, even about the missing basement floors.
10. Conspiracy Theory (1997)
The nature of the devious plot that turns cabbie Mel Gibson into a raving nutbar in Conspiracy Theory is a ridiculously complicated mishmash involving brainwashed government super-assassins and an evil Patrick Stewart. But eventually, it all adds up. In a way, that’s the movie’s only real point: It’s designed so audiences first see Gibson as a harmless, dismissible psycho, then realize there’s something meaningful behind all his paranoid gabble, then wind up sympathizing with him and understanding that when he bursts in on semi-romantic-interest Julia Roberts, waving a gun and screaming “I was in the belly of a whale! No, they were in a wheelchair, I was crippled! There was a goldfish, and there wasn’t any gravy!” he’s actually describing real events as accurately as his addled state of mind will permit. Unfortunately, the film goes downhill from that hilariously giddy moment onward.
11. Winter Kills (1979)
Working from a novel by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate, Prizzi’s Honor), first-time director William Richert took a slantwise approach to the Kennedy assassination. Here, it’s a fictional president killed in Philadelphia rather than Dallas, but the various conspiracy theories swirling around JFK’s death come into play. The kicker: The real story is even wilder than anyone suspected. Jeff Bridges heads a star-packed cast caught in a blackly comic world where everyone has a hidden agenda, and paranoia is practically the same as common sense. In some respects, it’s a world the filmmakers knew well. Funded by a pair of marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered during production, the film was barely completed—Richert and Bridges made another movie called The American Success Company during a shutdown, in part to secure funds to complete Winter Kills. Then it was barely released, in spite of glowing reviews. Did somebody get too close to the truth?
12. The Parallax View (1974)
John F. Kennedy’s death haunted other ’70s thrillers, too. In Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, Warren Beatty’s reporter attempts to lift the lid on the Seattle Space Needle death of a maverick presidential candidate. All roads lead Beatty to the Parallax Corporation, a mysterious business whose product appears to be untraceable murder. To infiltrate the company, Beatty poses as an eager-to-be-recruited sociopath, only to find that he’s done far too good a job constructing a cover story. Sometimes the crazies aren’t just right, they’re pawns in the game they’re trying to upset.
13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Although the first Terminator movie ended on a hopeful note, with Linda Hamilton destroying the robot sent back in time to kill her and the unborn son destined to protect humanity from a future machine revolt, it didn’t solve the biggest problem—there was still going to be a nuclear war, and billions of deaths. Director James Cameron brilliantly picked up that loose plot thread for the sequel, in which Hamilton discovers that knowing the future is a curse if nobody believes you. Obsessively driven to survive the coming apocalypse, she winds up locked in an asylum, where her shrink treats her outlandish stories of time-traveling murderous skeleton robots with the seriousness they seem to deserve.
14. God Told Me To (1976)
B-movie auteur Larry Cohen begins his creepiest film with a sniper on a New York City water tower firing randomly and with deadly accuracy at the crowd below. When city cop Tony Lo Bianco corners him, the gunman smiles beatifically and explains, “God told me to.” He seems like a lone psycho—until similar murders break out across the city, with no apparent connection beyond “God” causing ordinary citizens to develop a homicidal religious mania and send their loved ones to heaven the hard way. (In God Told Me To’s most infamous sequence, a beat cop played by Andy Kaufman begins shooting wildly during the St. Patrick’s Day parade—a scene filmed guerilla-style during the real parade.) Lo Bianco is horrified to discover that the prime mover is a sinister Jesus-meets-Jim-Jones cult leader whose brainwashing powers come from the UFO that kidnapped and forcibly impregnated his virgin mother. The God story sounds sane by comparison.
15. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In most movies, a hysterical woman babbling about how Satan raped her and cultists are out to steal her demon-child would be background color, the kind of bit character who exists to make things uncomfortable for the misunderstood protagonist temporarily locked up in a halfway house or an insane asylum. In Rosemary’s Baby, that character is the protagonist, and she has her story entirely straight. Too bad no one believes her—not that it’s any surprise. Her explanations aren’t any calmer or more rational than her wacky religious-guilt-inspired horror story.