13 Horror Movies on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Article By: Ben Raphael Sher
Since the dawn of the genre, horror movies have been centrally concerned with mental illness and its effects. Sure, a lot of horror flicks offensively vilify the mentally ill. But some use film language and genre conventions to bring audience members into the mysteries of the mind in ways that no other medium can. In today’s Friday 13, we bring you movies from both camps, each of them fascinating in its own way.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921, Robert Wiene)
A small town is terrorized by Cesare, a psychic somnambulist at the local carnival. He predicts that his patrons will die shortly after they leave his station. Later, he kills them. One of the greatest and most influential horror movies of all time, Caligari is known for its gorgeous, over the top, expressionistic lighting and set design. Spoiler alert: It’s revealed at the end that the entire story takes place in the mind of a madman in a mental hospital. The 1962 pop psychology American version is also fun, albeit in much less reputable ways.
2. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
No such list would be complete without the seminal psychosis movie, the one that influenced all that came after it. In the wake of Bates Motel (which alternates between brilliant and disappointing), Psycho remains thrilling partly because the entire history of oppressive family dynamics and traumas that led to Norman Bates’ mental illness is communicated through off-hand hints in dialogue, set decoration, and music. It’s nice to have pseudo prequels like Bates Motel and Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990, Mick Garris), but Psycho is brilliant because it demonstrates how the past and present co-exist in Norman’s world.
3. The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)
A masterful film adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a sexually repressed governess who is hired by a wealthy businessman to take care of his neglected niece and nephew at their country manor. Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the house’s grounds are haunted by the children’s former governess and her lover. She begins to fall apart, especially as she begins to suspect that the spirits participated in sordid activities with the children when they were alive. The Innocents is genuinely creepy, brilliantly acted, beautifully filmed, and basically perfect. It might be the best “is the house haunted, or is its inhabitant insane?” movie ever made.
4. The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise)
…But then, that honor may also go to The Haunting. Dr. Markway, parapsychologist, invites several psychics and one skeptic to spend a few nights in Hill House, a gothic, allegedly haunted mansion with a grotesque past. As the night progresses, the neurotic Eleanor (wonderful Julie Harris) first begins to succumb to the charms of the seductive Theo (Claire Bloom), then freaks out when she feels herself becoming absorbed by the house and its horrendous secrets. The Haunting has to be the most terrifying G rated movie ever made about ghosts, bisexuality, and possibly child abuse.
5. Repulsion (1965, Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski puts the viewer right inside the head of Carol, a sweet, shy manicurist (Catharine Deneuve). She has a psychotic break and starts to hallucinate when her sister leaves her alone in her apartment for the weekend (look, we’ve all had bad weekends). Hands come out of the apartment’s cracking walls, rapists appear out of nowhere and assault Carol, and a skinned rabbit that her sister was planning to cook for dinner begins to rot and attract flies. When Carol’s annoying suitor shows up at her front door to pester her about why she hasn’t been returning his phone calls, he gets the ultimate memo that she’s just not that into him. It involves a blunt object.
6. Don’t Look in the Basement (1973, S.F. Brownrigg)
As this list demonstrates, there are a lot of horror movies about mental institutions. Don’t Look in the Basement, a late night TV staple in the 1980s, is one of the grittiest and spookiest. Psychiatric nurse Charlotte Beale arrives at a creepy old sanitarium only to discover that the head doctor there has been murdered by one of the patients and replaced by Dr. Geraldine Masters, who seems kind of insane herself. The patients in Charlotte’s new place of employment subject her to all sorts of terrors. The movie’s low budget, regional quality, combined with its creepy, melancholy atmosphere, will ensure that you have the shivers when it’s over. Especially if you watch it in the middle of the night on a UHF station. Note the random footage from Last House on the Left (1972, Wes Craven) in the trailer. The films were both distributed by Hallmark Releasing Corp. (no relation to Hallmark Greeting Cards and the Hallmark Hall of Fame, but can you imagine?).
7. The Brood (1979, David Cronenberg)
Oliver Reed plays the typically creepy-sexy psychiatrist who is helping Nola (Samantha Eggar) deal with her recent divorce, and her traumatic experiences of childhood abuse. He uses unconventional psychiatric methodologies that make his patient’s emotional pain manifest itself as tumors, boils, and (SPOILER ALERT!) grotesque children in jumpsuits who will brutally murder all of the patient’s enemies. Cronenberg wrote The Brood in response to his messy divorce, and it’s been described as his Kramer Vs. Kramer. It should have won as many Oscars. Really.
8. Schizoid (1980, David Paulson)
Would you go to a therapy group run by Klaus Kinski? The female members of Klaus’ group begin to turn up dead faster than you can say “erotic transference”. The killer might be Klaus’ jealous daughter, played by Donna Wilkes of Angel (“Honor Student By Day, Hollywood Hooker By Night”) fame. As unfathomable as it seems, this movie is pretty boring.
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, Chuck Russell)
In A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, a group of awesome teenagers have been put into a hospital because their parents think that they’ve all imagined this razor-gloved maniac who haunts their dreams. Conveniently, the hospital is located on the grounds of the abandoned psychiatric institution where Amanda Krueger was sexually assaulted by 1,000 maniacs and eventually gave birth to her son, Freddy. With help from the perfect Nancy Thompson (the even more perfect Heather Langenkamp), now an intern doing “groundbreaking research on pattern nightmares,” the friends must ban together and conquer the demon whose vengeance their parents hath wrought.
10. Bad Dreams (1988, Andrew Fleming)
Okay, so this “teenagers in a mental institution being brutally killed by the burned ghost of a maniac” movie might have been subtly influenced by the previous year’s smash hit, NOES 3. Jennifer Rubin, who played the punk goddess Tarin in Nightmare, even appears as Bad Dreams’ final girl, who escaped from a cult when all of its members commit mass suicide by fire. Rip-off or not, Bad Dreams is actually scarier, gorier, and more atmospheric than A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (if not quite as much fun). It’s well worth seeing. Also, if you look really closely during Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker), you can see posters for this movie and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, Renny Harlin) in the window of a video store! Important information!
11. Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)
Kathy Bates plays Annie Wilkes, one of the most oddly lovable (yet extremely, extremely hate-inducing) movie maniacs of all time. She rescues her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, from a horrible, snowy car crash and begins to nurse him back to health while he writes a new novel. She goes completely off the cock-a-doody rails when he murders Misery, the heroine of her favorite series (think about how you felt when Lady Blue was cancelled and maybe you’ll be able to have some empathy). When Paul escapes from his room using a hairpin as a key, he finds a scrapbook filled with newspapers about her various horrific murders. The fact that she keeps a scrapbook about her murders seems almost more insane than the murders themselves. We probably don’t need to tell you what Annie does to him when she finds out that Paul escaped.
12. Jacob’s Ladder (1990, Adrian Lyne)
Tim Robbins plays a postal worker haunted by multiple traumas: a tour of duty in Vietnam, his divorce from his first wife, and the death of his child. He begins to unravel into a state of dissociation, having nightmarish visions in which his present and his past, his fantasies and reality, become inseparable. So many horror movies about mental illness depict women in over the top, offensive ways. It’s nice to see a movie that uses the horror genre to depict the inner struggles of a male character, and does so with some sensitivity. The movie’s hallucinatory visuals are spellbinding. Director Adrian Lyne (in one of his most underrated efforts) takes the viewer on a dark, disturbing ride through the psyche.
13. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Many people long for the 1960s and 1970s, when artsy, creepy movies like Repulsion, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971, John D. Hancock), Images (1972, Robert Altman), and The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974, Francesco Barilli) constantly offered us the opportunity to have vicarious nervous breakdowns through the minds of their central protagonists. Most of those people were delighted by Black Swan. Even though Aronofsky’s films owes a debt to the psychosis horror movies that came before (and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes), it has an insane, glittering grandeur all its own. Natalie Portman plays an emaciated ballet dancer (she only eats one poached egg and half a grapefruit, without sugar, for breakfast. Terrifying.). Her constant quest for perfection (and pressure from all of the crazy, narcissistic ballet people around her) leads her on a decline to the mental, emotional darkside. As her vixen-ish competition, Mila Kunis definitely doesn’t help. The film’s gothic Swan Lake finale makes Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine’s climactic catfight in The Turning Point (1975, Herbert Ross) look like kittens cuddling in a basket.
Ben Raphael Sher is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in Fangoria, Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and Backstage. You can read more of his work here.