Psychoanalytic Nightmares on Film


We’ve been anxious to see how one of the most fascinating directors working today, David Cronenberg, explores the dynamic between famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

A Dangerous Method details the intense working relationship between the colleagues as they nurture the fledgling discipline of psychoanalysis. Examining the connections between the conscious mind with its unruly counterpart, the subsonscious, it’s fitting that the tale candidly plunges beneath the rational facade. Jung’s sadomasochistic affair with troubled patient — and early psychoanalyst — Sabina Spielrein is the erotic undercurrent beneath the professional veneer of the two titans’ collaboration.

Celluloid psychoanalysis hasn’t always been accurately portrayed — often leaving audiences with a ludicrous caricature of the complex study, or rolled out as an expository postscript. Nonetheless, cerebral exploration has been a ceaseless fount of filmic inspiration, and a current imbued with dramatic charge. Undertaking a terrifying survey of human mentality exposes those dark and unhinged things that tease our perverse attraction to sex and violence, and pries fearlessly into the intangible world of dreams. Though the movies can’t always evidence fluency in sage shrinks like Lacan, Mahler or Fromm, here are 10 films that peel back the layers of civility to divulge unsettling visions of a shadowy, deeper self.


Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, dismissed his 1945 noir mystery Spellbound as “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis,” but the movie was one of the first films to explore serious psychological concepts — a theme the prolific director made an entire career out of. The film also found a woman (Ingrid Bergman) in the lead role of “detective” — or in this case, a psychiatrist, who helps Gregory Peck’s character uncover the secrets of his tortured past. Hitchcock’s penchant for the Freudian appears in the form of repressed memories, surreal and symbolic dream sequences, and a dash of Oedipus complex. Perhaps trying to sell the idea to himself (the director was said to be skeptical of psychoanalysis), Hitchcock included this opening credit in Spellbound to prepare audiences for the strange mystery ahead:

“Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane. The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind. Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear…and the evils of unreason are driven from the human soul.”

Dressed to Kill

Although he’s borrowed liberally from directors past, Brian De Palma has often been unfairly dubbed the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. While the mystery maestro clearly influenced De Palma’s filmography — particularly helping him to refine his story structure and manipulate point-of-view — his works delve deeper into the perverse and lay bare his characters’ pathology in stunningly visual ways. Set in the sleazy seventies’ era of New York’s grindhouse theaters, Dressed to Kill creeps along like a psychotic fever dream, wrapping its thrills around risky erotic encounters and the bizarre psychiatrist at the center of its plot. The film is also an interesting (some might say misogynistic or vulgar, however) manipulation of female desire as it relates to the monstrous.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Cinema has long used hypnosis as a psychoanalytic cliché, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the earliest films to put the practice on the big screen. Werner Krauss’ mad doctor imprisons a man named Cesare, keeping him as a carnival attraction and forcing him to do his evil and murderous bidding (or so we think). The film’s expressionistic style and the murky realm of hypnosis transports audiences into an otherworldly dimension — one that psychoanalysts like Freud often tried to disassociate from in order to present their work in a serious manner.

The Silence of the Lambs

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs perverts Freud’s oral fixation theory with its cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The incarcerated, highly intelligent psychiatrist assists fledgling FBI agent Clarice Starling in her investigation of a series of brutal murders. Lecter’s “helpful” demeanor never disguises the manipulative, sadistic killer inside him, however. He uses a twisted form of reverse psychoanalysis when interrogating Starling about her troubled past, bribing her for stories in exchange for information about the madman at large. People have written volumes about the pathology of Lecter’s character, the 1991 film, and the Thomas Harris book that inspired it — everything from the connections between homosexuality and violence to creating actual diagnoses about its characters.


Castrating mommy issues abound in Hitchcock’s Psycho, where unconscious anxiety about a domineering mother transforms into abject terror. Norman Bates’ mild mannered motel owner overcomes this psychic torture by becoming the mother he fears. Other installments in the Psycho franchise explored incestuous drama, spotlighting the Oedipal lust hinted at in the original movie. Hitchcock once again produced a film that’s a hotbed of issues only hinted at here by our armchair analysis.

Cat People

Val Lewton’s Cat People symbolically externalizes its main character’s sexual repression with supernatural-tinged strangeness in what’s ultimately a devastating story about the deterioration of one woman’s psyche. Irena (Simone Simon) is convinced that sexual contact with her husband will turn her into a panther and force her to kill. Her split personality is eventually unleashed by her psychoanalyst who manipulates her trauma just enough for selfish means. Irena’s troubled marriage becomes the target of violence as jealousy and loneliness take over.

Peeping Tom

A fascinating comparison to Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom uses a psychoanalytic serial killer plot to explore all the textbook Freudian and Lacanian themes of desire, death, and watching/being watched. Many suggest the film was a criticism of the 1950’s mental health industry, while others see it as a fable about the obsessive nature of art and the artist. Whatever the case may be, Powell’s voyeuristic and murderous photographer, Mark (Carl Boehm), is an interesting case study with a social-realist edge.

The Usual Suspects

A central narrative strand of The Usual Suspects places cop and criminal — Kujan and Kint — head-to-head in an interrogation that plays like a classic therapy session. With a shrink’s arrogance and zeal, the policeman is intent on putting the pieces of Kint’s fragmented confessional back together again — certain he’s capable of analyzing and assembling them into narrative. Kujan’s questioning is based on the premise that, behind Kint’s account, there lies a deeper, meaningful truth — a confidence unsettlingly crushed by the film’s rug-pulling finale. The Usual Suspects presents a scenario in which detective — and by extension the viewer — are manipulated by the ostensible “patient.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Milos Forman’s 1975 film exposes the sometimes absurd disparity between the psychologist’s prescriptive diagnosis and dispensation of medication they claim the patient “needs” — despite their wishes. Almost like another version of Cagliari, there’s little to prevent a uniformed lunatic from running the asylum. Despite initial resistance, the bullying, authoritarian pronouncements of the nurse become a label that sticks — sapping McMurphy’s resistance, and ultimately leading to his psychological unraveling. A tragic self-fulfilling prophecy, his “treatment” is a cure that kills.


Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s disturbing, understated take on the serial killer flick, Cure, imbues its assassin with characteristics of Mesmer — master of hypnosis — and Freud. Inciting his victims to tell all, Mamiya, a hollow antagonist seemingly without an identity of his own, compels them to release their repressed desires — a liberation that leads to murder. Unchaining the chaos of the Id, the irresponsibly fatal therapist nonchalantly slips away, while his charges run amok.