Go crazy? Don’t mind if we do. The weirder recesses of the mind have always been one of cinema’s favorite subjects, be they dramatic explorations of real-life disorders or wildly outsized cartoon villains who find scenery chomping and world domination works as better therapy. With Martin Scorsese’s lunatic asylum-set thriller Shutter Island pushing audiences to the brink of movie madness this week, we felt it high time to cast our crazy eye across a dozen of the most disturbed — and disturbing — motion-picture mental patients to ever be pumped full of Thorazine on the silver screen. So sit back, relax, and prepare to go insane in the film frame. This won’t hurt a bit.
In writer-director Sam Fuller’s drama, ambitious journalist Johnny thinks he’ll get a Pulitzer Prize if he poses as a mental patient and blows the lid off conditions in a psych hospital. In the booby hatch, he encounters a traumatized and traitorous Korean War veteran who hallucinates in travelogue color sequences, an African American student who carries a sign that uses the N-word to protest against integration, and an atonally bellowing bearded weirdo who may just be a distant cousin to John Goodman. No surprises that Johnny starts tripping out, which involves flashes of his girlfriend shimmying pleasantly — and less pleasant ideas that she’s his sister. Instead of journalism’s top honor, Johnny wins a lifetime membership in Club Crazyland.
While the late Brittany Murphy had already won acclaim for her supporting role of Daisy, a sexually abused and suicidal self-harmer in Girl, Interrupted, it was her performance as the deeply disturbed Elisabeth in Don’t Say A Word that really announced the actress to the world as a talented leading lady. Her freaky, vulnerable, sympathetic and spooky performance (her girlish, mocking delivery of the line “I’ll never tell” still haunts) was the highlight of this thriller. What’s amazing is that Murphy nailed the characterization from the first, as this extraordinary screen test footage opposite veteran Michael Douglas attests.
In Robert Wiene’s seminal German Expressionist horror, our hero Francis relates the terrible tale of his attempts to thwart Dr. Caligari and his murderous sleepwalking slave Cesare. Thing is, while Francis manages to get the maniacal Caligari committed, it turns out that he’s something of an unreliable narrator. Without spoiling things too much, let’s just say that all of those strangely slanted sets and askew shadows are more than just a production designer’s whimsy and that Caligari is a doctor of a very different sort.
Jessica Lange’s most powerful work was as real-life actress Frances Farmer. This tragic figure’s outspoken attitude in patriarchal Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s, along with her erratic behaviour, alcohol problems and sometimes violent relationship with her overbearing mother, saw her confined to various mental institutions for years, where she suffered insulin and electro-convulsive therapies, along with other degradation and abuse. Lange’s meltdown scenes — particularly the “F–k you all!” sequence in which she punches out a passive-aggressive make-up woman — helped her along to an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress in 1983. She lost out to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice, but still won Best Supporting Actress that year for her altogether sunnier work in Tootsie.
If you should find yourself locked in the secure ward of a mental institution with a particularly buff chick who reckons that a killer robot from the future has been sent back through time to kill her and her son and that the machine-instigated Armageddon is just around the corner, then you’d be wise to listen the hell up, pronto! That’s because it won’t be long before her story is vindicated when not one but two such creations come storming through the facility, guns blazing and liquid metal shapeshifting. Just so’s you know, if it comes down to it, the safest place to be is with the crazy gal, the kid with the weird hair and the robot man who looks like the Governor of California.
He’s just a minor violent criminal sent to an institution for a mental evaluation because he’s “belligerent, talked when unauthorized, resentful in attitude to work in general” and “lazy”. Thus McMurphy finds himself, like his befuddled fellow patients, under the tyrannical control of Nurse Ratched. Infuriated, Crazy Ass Randle, like Cool Hand Luke before him, becomes something of a freedom fighter, determined to liberate himself and his psychotic pals, if not physically then at least mentally. The price he has to pay? The very freethinking ability he holds so dear. Jack Nicholson, born to play the part, won the Best Actor Oscar for this role, with the film becoming only the second (after 1934’s It Happened One Night) to win all five major Academy Awards.
Oddly, it was The Silence Of The Lambs, another film whose center was another institutionalized madman, that became the third movie to win all five top Oscars. Dr Hannibal Lecter is every bit as charismatic as Randle McMurphy but you wouldn’t want to have him over to watch the World Series. As played by the urbane Anthony Hopkins, this erudite psychiatrist-turned-cannibal whose specialties are messing with your mind before he eats your liver, immediately entered the pantheon of mesmerizing man-monsters, taking his place next to Norman Bates and M.
He might not really be radical revolutionary leader of the apocalypse-causing Army of the Twelve Monkeys, but Jeffrey Goines is certainly one entertainingly insane inmate. Managing to make a fashion statement out of pajamas, a track jacket and leather brogues, the tousle-haired Pitt is all scalp-tugging, neck-rolling and crazy hand mania. But he’s most memorable for his motor-mouthery. “Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen!” he tells Bruce Willis’s newly arrived time-traveller. “But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally ill. Fact, Jim, fact — if you don’t buy things — toilet paper, new cars, computerized yo-yos, electrically-operated sexual devices, stereo systems with brain-implanted headphones, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar devices, voice-activated computers…” His rant might’ve consumed the whole movie if not cut off by a nurse. But there’s more than a skerrick of truth in there, too, which, of course, is what makes for a good movie mental patient.
Oscar loves the magnetic head-case and proved it again when they gave Angelina Jolie the Best Supporting Actress statuette for her film-stealing portrait of volatile sociopath Lisa in this 1960s-set piece of insanity cinema. And Jolie deserved it, too, because she’s a taunting, bucking, fighting and screaming force of nature. Like Randle McMurphy, Lisa represents freedom at any cost — she, too, encourages the patients to rebel — but is also a seriously damaged character, who turns on Winona Ryder’s Susanna and Brittany Murphy’s Daisy with tragic results.
Movie mad people are usually imbued with extraordinary charisma that’s then tempered by the threat of grim incarceration and the dehumanizing effects of forced medications and/or stupefying treatments. What sets Don Juan De Marco apart from his other psych-ward cinema is that it’s an unashamedly upbeat depiction of mental illness and the full flowering of personal freedom. In this flight of fancy, Depp plays a disturbed young man who comes to believe he’s legendary lover Don Juan. It’d be your garden-variety delusion except that his passion inspires those who’re trying to treat him to rekindle their romantic natures, particularly Marlon Brando’s psychiatrist.
It’s tough to say whether he’s mad or bad — probably a touch of both. But Crane’s the very definition of the lunatic running the asylum, and not just running it but running it into the ground for power, profit and perverse pleasure. His schtick is dosing patients with fear-creating toxins and then putting on his jolly scarecrow mask for added freak-out factor. This is, of course, all but prelude to turning loose an army of amped-up psychotics on Gotham at the same time he’s pumping his crazy-making toxin into the water supply. Okay, so the ruling’s in: Scarecrow is just as crazy as an outhouse rat on meth.
A lot of movie madmen complain about their hospital’s food and that they’re being controlled by external forces. But it’s true in the case of Renfield, who eats bugs in his asylum cell while obeying the telepathic commands of his new master, Count Dracula. If only this poor British solicitor had been given some kind of warning of the dangers he faced going up to the monster’s mountain lair. Apart, of course, from the Innkeeper saying to him: “You musn’t go there. We people of the mountains believe in the castle there are vampires. Dracula and his wives — they take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.” Damn those Transylvanian peasants and their beating-around-the-bush warnings!
Michael Adams’ search for the worst movie ever made is chronicled in his book Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies, with a foreword by George A. Romero and featuring interviews with Eli Roth, John Landis, Edgar Wright, Joe Dante and Leonard Maltin.