Movies explore paranoia and its related mental states in different ways than literature of course. While novels and short stories can put us right inside a character’s mind, allowing us to experience their doubts and suspicions along with them, film is mostly left on the outside. This can be a strength, though, as it can leave us in doubt even of the character we’re supposed to be identifying with. And the immediacy of movies means that when a film does visualize some aspect of the paranoiac’s fears, it can do so suddenly and shockingly. Music can also do this sort of thing, subtly letting us know that however nice a scene we seem to be watching is, there’s something bad under the surface waiting to jump out at us.
The movies I’ve included in this list are paranoid in different ways. Some seem to just study the minds of unreasonably suspicious people. Others bring horrible conspiracies to life in ways that can make a viewer wonder about reality. And others yet (my favorites) inject paranoia into the film itself, creating stories and visuals that seem to be warped by nameless anxieties and derangements. I hope you find one that matches your favorite way to experience this disturbing state of mind.
How sure are you of what you see? How often have you thought you were seeing something significant, only to discover that the pattern you “discovered” was never really there? We have a tendency to project meaning onto chaos, to read importance in the random. This is called pareidolia, and it lies at the heart of many a paranoid conception. It is also, perhaps, the subject of this film.
Loosely based on a story by Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up takes place in the swinging groovy sixties. Thomas is a photographer who spends his days shooting and flirting with models and his nights partying. Then one day, while wandering through a park, he takes a candid photo of two lovers making out in the grass. One of the lovers pursues him, demanding he hand over his film, but Thomas tricks her. When he develops the photos, he finds his camera captured more than he was aware of, maybe even a crime.
This is an arthouse movie and will frustrate and/or bore someone looking for something fast and a plot neatly tied up, but if you like the kind of movie that makes you think, you may enjoy it like I do. This movie would go on to inspire many other movies and novels, and Dario Argento actually cast the same actor who played Thomas in his movie Deep Red, which mixes the concept of this movie with violence and mystery.
God Told Me To (1976)
When a mass shooter opens fire on a crowd in New York City, his only explanation before dying is that God told him to do it. As detective Peter Nicholas begins looking into this, copycats spring up throughout the city, all of them with that same excuse. God Told Me To is an exceedingly strange movie. The fact that it features Andy Kaufman in his first big screen role ought to give you an idea of how strange, but I will say it doesn’t go where you might think it would go.
Today, of course, seemingly mass shootings are even more a part of our national experience than they were in the 70’s, which makes this cult film look darker than it did 20 years ago when I first watched it. What if these purposeless atrocities did have a common motivating force? And what if your fate was directly tied to it? This may be pulp horror, but I must admit it introduced a certain “What if?” that comes to my mind when yet another disturbed individual takes it upon him(or rarely her)self to end the lives of innocent strangers.
They Live (1988)
A classic of cinematic paranoia, and one that is more ideological than most on this list, They Live‘s central conceit is simple: aliens are here already, walk amongst us disguised as human beings, and control the human population through subliminal messages. Or at least that’s what a street preacher tries telling the drifter who is this movie’s hero. When the ragtag group of resisters to this worldwide conspiracy is violently dispersed, this drifter is left with a way to see through the lies of society and a quixotic mission to try to unveil humanity’s secret masters.
Carpenter’s movie simultaneously gets across an important message while not taking itself very seriously. Much of the dialogue is chewy and quotable, and the film makes use of Roddy Piper’s skills as a wrestler in a hilarious five-minute long fight scene. Perhaps it’s good that it took this attitude towards this material, as the central idea of the film, once stripped of its ideological message, is just the sort of thing that can take root in the minds of deeply paranoid people.
Lost Highway (1997)
I’d argue that of all the movies David Lynch has made, this is the darkest. Its blend of supernatural horror with psychological disorder makes for a potent mix, giving it this haunting feel that you won’t shake easily. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re with someone you know, but you somehow know they aren’t who they appear to be.
Fred and Renee Madison are well-to-do, if depressive, members of the LA art scene, Fred being an avant-garde saxophonist. One day, they start finding videotapes on their doorstep, videotapes that show that someone out there is far closer to them than they could imagine. After meeting a particularly freaky fellow at a party one night, something horrible happens. It’s only in the aftermath of this realistic tragedy, though, that the film takes a bizarre turn and seems to start all over again with a new cast. This movie is a puzzle begging to be finished, an endless loop of transformation and sudden violence, making you feel like there’s an answer to all your questions there, just out of reach.
The Nameless (1999)
Based on a Ramsey Campbell novel of the same name, The Nameless begins with one of the worst fates a parent can suffer: a missing six-year-old is found dead and hideously mutated beyond recognition. Her parents are devastated and when the movie picks up again five years later, the girl’s mother, Angela Gifford, is a wreck. Then, out of nowhere she gets a phone call from a girl claiming to be her dead daughter. When Angela starts digging into the few clues she’s been given, she finds a horrific plan set in motion decades before.
From the moment she gets that call, we sense a net closing in on Angela, and she soon learns that she is being watched. Campbell’s novels are masterpieces of paranoia, suffused with a feeling that someone or something is always watching just out of the corner of your eye. I won’t say more about the plot, but the movie will leave you wondering and wounded.
David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is a dark but surprisingly amusing examination of a question that just gets more and more pertinent the more powerful our technology becomes: how do you know this is reality? How do you know you aren’t trapped in an amazing simulation, playing out a game controlled by unseen forces? Set just a little in the future in a time when videogames are ported directly into their users bodies and brains, the movie follows Allegra Geller, a famous and controversial designer of simulated worlds.
In a plot inspired by Salman Rushdie’s ordeal after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Allegra finds herself on the run after a radical anti-game terrorist tries killing her. With her is Ted Pikul, the poor schmoe who helped her escape the attack. Desperate to check on the health of her organic gaming system, Allegra begs Ted to join her in this simulated world and after that, all bets are off as to where they actually are. The movie spoofs videogames in funny ways that manage to get more ominous as the film goes on. Everyone has a secret agenda, and every reality they inhabit may just be another level of the game. This movie was overshadowed by The Matrix, which came out at the same time, but Cronenberg’s movie is twistier and more likely to leave you questioning reality and your place in it.
The late great Bill Paxton directed this horror movie and it’s a loss to the genre that he didn’t do another one. This may be more a study of a paranoid mindset than a movie that instills paranoia. You watch it and tell me. The movie flips back and forth in time as a man who claims his brother is a serial killer tells a skeptical FBI agent the story of their childhood. When their father declares that he’s been given a vision from God, his sons Adam and Fenton are forced to go along with his delusions.
Their mission, he tells them, is to capture what appear to be normal human beings but are actually demons in disguise. Then, they must kill these monsters. Younger brother Adam starts acting as if this is real, but with every murder their father commits, Fenton becomes more sure he has to do something to stop him. Watching these kids wrestle with such a horrible situation is hard. Their father’s visions threaten to overtake Fenton and create a tension that makes the movie a powerful one.
Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn
This movie is just bananas. The plot is all over the place, the acting strange and almost parodic, and the politics of the piece may cheer, enrage, or thoroughly confuse viewers, maybe all three. But it has some incredible visionary moments and when the satire works, it works very well. Also, Max von Sydow is in it, so there you go. The movie follows the life and career of Misha Galkin, a Russian boy who grows up to be a successful marketing executive. When one of his campaigns goes disastrously wrong, Misha pulls away from society, hoping to at least do no more harm.
But he will be given a vision of the forces that really control the world, invisible forces more powerful and voracious than any single human being ever could be. And Misha will have to make a choice about whether he should continue sidelining himself or wade into a war most of our species has no idea is being fought. Branded has stuck in my head largely for its vision of these controlling forces, as well as the unforgettable way it brings its thesis to vibrant life.
This moody movie, one that gets stranger and stranger in little bursts of bizarre imagery, mostly follows the plot of the novel it is based on, The Double by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. What if one night you were watching a movie and you saw, there in the background and playing a quite inconsequential character, someone who looked exactly like you with the small but strange exception that they wore a moustache? Would you let this go, just shrug and move on with your life? Or would it gnaw at you until you felt forced to reach out to this stranger in an attempt, however dangerous, to find out if there was a reason you were the two peas in the proverbial pod?
This is precisely the dilemma of Adam Bell, a lonely college history professor. Much as his equivalent character does in the novel, Adam pulls at this thread until it threatens to unravel his mind. What director Villeneuve adds to this adaptation is a hallucinatory quality brought to life briefly but ever so effectively, as well as a sense that undergirding this doppelgänger story is something larger and stranger than the existence of a lookalike.
Get Out (2017)
Paranoia can be cultural as well as individual. Intergenerational trauma can instill fears and uncertainties that may have no basis in the immediate moment in which they are experienced, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. And sometimes, those fears turn out to be well justified. In Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, a photographer preparing to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage. After a run-in with an obviously bigoted cop, Chris is somewhat relieved to find that Rose’s wealthy and educated parents seem to be genuinely progressive, despite the odd comment here and there that just doesn’t sit right with him. As his stay lengthens seemingly trivial things build up, making Adam wonder if he’s just being paranoid or if a special plan has been made for him.
Jordan Peele has cited Ira Levin’s novels as possibly the biggest influence on this movie, but Peele adds to Levin’s social satire an unsettling quality all his own. Early on, in what I feel is the film’s most disturbing sequence, Rose’s mom hypnotizes Chris in order to help him quit smoking. The experience, however, darkens quickly and Chris is left falling into the Sunken Place. We don’t get to see what she does or says next, nor are we given immediate explanations for some of the actions the Armitage’s and their friends carry out in front of us. It all adds up to to a beautiful paranoiac nightmare.