10 Mesmerizing Descent-Into-Madness Films


A young woman takes a job as a caretaker at a large New York City mansion with a troubling history in Mickey Keating’s Darling , which opened in theaters this weekend. Keating’s black-and-white homage to famous descent-into-madness films, particularly the oeuvre of Roman Polanski, inspired us to revisit other mesmerizing movies about losing your goddamn mind.


Keating’s Darling owes a huge debt to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as the young woman who can’t rid herself of the trauma from her past. Her deterioration manifests through Polanski’s expert use of framing, sound, angles, and black-and-white cinematography. From Ed Gonzalez at Slant:

A searing, clockwork synergy, the lucid sights and sounds of Carole’s world are conduits and conspirators of madness and pleasure. Polanski’s triumph is a weird, tense depolarization of space, a chipping away at psychological walls so that fear and desire become synonymous: Carole fantasizes about the construction worker that cat-called her days earlier (a crack on the sidewalk seemingly radiates from her vagina) and, later, puts on makeup to welcome a fantasy rapist. The film is like a slyly misanthropic theme-park ride for the sane—a satiric, disturbing approximation of insanity by way of a master-class mosaic of aural detail and visual sleights of hand.

La moustache

Middle-aged Marc hurls himself into a complete crisis after shaving the moustache he’s worn for most of his life and finds that his wife and co-workers don’t remember him ever having one in the first place. “This is not about timelines, alternative realities, sci-fi, dreams, or madness. It is not even a puzzle for audiences used to a narrative to try to shoehorn into some kind of logical theory. It is French existential horror that simply enjoys raising mind-warping questions without caring whether there are answers,” writes reviewer Zev Toledano.

Perfect Blue

We named Satoshi Kon’s surreal Perfect Blue as one of the essential anime films for people who hate anime. A teen pop idol is stalked by an obsessive fan, and reality and paranoid dreams start to blend together, pushing the young woman to the breaking point.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

In Sean Durkin’s 2011 film, Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman haunted by painful memories and finding her life in an increasingly paranoid, claustrophobic tangle after joining an abusive cult in the Catskills. She attempts to reassimilate with her family, which pushes her already fragile psyche to the limit. From Roger Ebert’s review of the movie:

In cutting back and forth in time, first-time writer-director Sean Durkin is a shade too clever. In a serious film, there is no payoff for trickery. If the audience is momentarily confused about when and where they are, there should be a point. I suppose he’s showing Martha’s confusion about the nature of reality, and at the end, there’s an unsettling development. But a linear story, or one that was fragmented more clearly, could have been more effective.

I Live in Fear

“Both the final film of this period in which Akira Kurosawa would directly wrestle with the demons of the Second World War and his most literal representation of living in an atomic age, the galvanizing I Live in Fear presents Toshiro Mifune as an elderly, stubborn businessman so fearful of a nuclear attack that he resolves to move his reluctant family to South America,” writes Criterion. “With this mournful film, the director depicts a society emerging from the shadows but still terrorized by memories of the past and anxieties for the future.” Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 film features Mifune in an incredible performance.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan takes place at a New York City ballet company, where Natalie Portman’s Nina strives for perfection. She’s more white swan than black swan, but is cast in lead role of the Tchaikovsky ballet where a strict training regimen and heady relationship with the school’s director and a mysterious classmate warp Nina’s sense of self and reality. Critic MaryAnn Johanson writes:

Was Nina on the edge even before she wins the role, and must learn how to exude evil as effortlessly as she does good? Probably. Nina’s ambition has already been expressing itself in ways she wouldn’t intend: she’s so single-minded that she’s lost herself in the process of becoming perfect… and she’s losing what she needs to be a compelling dancer. “Beautiful as always, Nina,” a coach tells her during a group warmup session, but then: “Relax.” Leroy keeps insisting she has to “lose herself” and “let go” and “not fake it,” but she doesn’t know how.


A mentally troubled man moves into a halfway house, but slips back into the depths of his illness as his childhood comes back to haunt him. From Keith Phipps on David Cronenberg’s Spider:

In Spider, Fiennes plays a Cronenberg protagonist taken to a devastating endpoint, so unable to cope with the demands of the body and so wrecked by the awareness of sex that the best imaginable world still looks like a Freudian nightmare. With greater deliberation and more concentrated focus than he’s ever used before, Cronenberg slowly draws his audience into Spider’s world. Were he only trying to remark on that world’s creepiness, Cronenberg would still succeed brilliantly, if coldly, but his sympathy makes the film. Pitying or fearing Fiennes would be easy, but it’s much harder to experience the ever-widening pool of sadness that his life has become. Spider accomplishes that by putting him on the same train with the rest of us, and letting it roll slowly toward a terminal station.

The Exterminating Angel

Welcome to Luis Buñuel’s dinner party where you can never leave. The hostilities amongst guests increase as the evening wears on. From DVD Times:

Exterminating Angel is one of Buñuel’s classic films, another merciless attack on the hypocritical pillars of society who deem themselves worthy of leading, but are in reality completely detached from the world of ordinary people, caught up in their own manners, rituals and customs. The situation may seem a simple one and one that, since it mostly takes place in a single room, seems fairly limited – but Buñuel introduces many familiar elements, a sense of feverish horror, sensuous eroticism, a great deal of symbolism and obscure ideas, all of it adding up to a remarkable and thought-provoking concoction.

Shock Corridor

Hungry for the Pulitzer Prize, a journalist commits himself to a mental institution to solve a strange murder in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Naturally, his plan backfires and calls his own mental stability into question. From critic Jeffrey M. Anderson:

This is a true masterpiece of the unrest of the 1960s, years before Easy Rider or anything else remotely like it. Critics like to say that Fuller directed his movies like he was writing headlines, in huge, unsubtle type, blasting the insanity of the world for all to see. This was perhaps never more true than here; Fuller is at his most brutally unhinged, and at his most brilliant.

The Shining

One of the finest blueprints for all person-goes-crazy-in-isolation tales that followed, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining reveals the horrors of a fractured family, told from the warped point of view of the unhinged patriarch as they attempt to settle into a hotel that has a consciousness of its own. Kubrick’s downward spiral into madness is filled with a palpable sense of dread in every frame.