In conventional cinema, films follow a certain recognisable narrative: there will be a start, a middle and a end; a hero, a sidekick, and a villain; a theme of great significance that can help its audience navigate and identify with what its creator is trying to say.
And yet, not all films follow these tried and tested rules. Indeed, there’s a certain breed of cinema resting at the edges of mainstream society that throw all of these guidelines out of the window. Rather than get from Point A to Point B in the most linear way possible, these films defy all logic in their attempts to create the most baffling, surreal and disturbing cinematic journey as possible.
While these films aren’t for everybody, the following 50 examples of pure insanity will give you an experience like nothing else on the screen.
As it makes abundantly clear from the word go, Rubber is designed to make as little sense as possible. Told from the point of view of a sentient car tire in the middle of a killing spree, everything in the film defies logic and causality while also thumbing its nose at any viewer trying to find some meaning in the nonsense. While its sense of mischief errs on the self-satisfied side, Quentin Dupieux’s – AKA Mr. Oizo’s – Rubber is still crazy enough to warrant a mention here.
A housewife in 1980’s America develops symptoms of a disease that defies any medical condition. After all options have been tested, it becomes clear that the woman’s body is rejecting modern life itself. So goes the plot of Safe, Todd Haynes’ quietly discomforting examination of Reagan-era America that reimagines the comfort of suburbia as a toxic wasteland. Most disturbing of all is the treatment facility that Julianne Moore’s Carol eventually finds herself confined to – a cult-like prison where one hypo-sensitive inhabitant has let their symptoms contort them out of all but the slightest human semblance.
Sci-fi reached a point of peak pessimism in the 1970s. And few films convey the hopelessness of the post-apocalypse quite as memorably as Logan’s Run. Set in a civilisation where its inhabitants have only 30 years to live before they face euthanasia in a ceremony called “Carrousel,” Logan’s Run is as kitschy as they come. But its delivery is filled with an abundance of weird and wonderful moments not least the appearance of a killer robot hell bent on freezing humans for food.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was already strange enough. But in the hands of surreal stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer, the story gets elevated to all new heights of insanity. Swapping out the novel’s quaint and cuddly critters for a menagerie of glassy eyed stuffed animals, Švankmajer’s Alice is a display of abject creepiness that takes Carroll’s whimsical oddity into unsettling waters the likes of which Disney would never set a paddle in.
Four childhood friends lock themselves into a country house with some prostitutes and enough food to last themselves several years. From there, they proceed to feast on sex, wine and cuisine with the sole aim of eating themselves to death. Killing themselves just because they can, the group in La Grande Bouffe are the ultimate example of decadence reaching its natural endpoint. And when their time eventually comes, its done in the most fittingly disgusting way possible.
An influential piece of early cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was breaking rules just as they were being made. And while the film’s narrative structure is unusual enough, it’s not the main reason why this German silent classic is fondly remembered. Rather, it’s the way its Expressionist sets transformed the picture into a moving Edvard Munch painting that made it so ahead of its time. In turn, it paved the way for film noir and any cinematographer who’s ever played with light and shadow.
Tenement housing provided the basis for Roman Polanski’s first two major chillers Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and with The Tenant the filmmaker followed up this theme of living just doors away from certain death. Both acting and directing, the controversial filmmaker here plays a character slowly slipping into madness as he begins to suspect his neighbours had a hand in the previous occupant of his flat’s death. What follows next is a totally unhinged performance as his fears come into violent fruition.
The result of likeminded artists living and working in Japan in the 1920s, A Page of Madness was made with the intent of introducing new perceptions to narrative cinema. In doing so, director Teinosuke Kinugasa created a film replete with a haunting atmosphere and lingering sense of dread. Set in a mental institution, A Page of Madness looks at the world through the eyes of a madman and all the waking nightmares that this state brings with it.
One part Mike Leigh and one part Suspiria, In Fabric is perhaps Peter Strickland’s barmiest outing to date. In this tale of a possessed dress that brings dire luck to those who wear it, the director tips his hat to Giallo while pulling his characters into a world where mysticism and the humdrum of suburban life sit side by side – where something as banal as washing machine repair instructions can send those who hear it into a psycho-sexual trance.
Peter Greenaway established himself as Britain’s most idiosyncratic directors in the 1980’s and A Zed & Two Noughts is his most singular work. In it, real life brothers Eric and Brian Deacon play twin zoologists who channel their grief over their wives’ deaths into an obsession with death and decay all the while forming a relationship with the same amputee. Playful, puzzling and visually dazzling, A Zed & Two Noughts is a very English dose of weirdness.
A blackly comic look at life in the post-Soviet bloc, Estonia’s The Temptation of St. Tony was little seen outside the festival circuit. Nonetheless, its surreal mixture of horror and humour make its director Veiko Öunpuu a fitting successor to the likes of David Lynch or Roy Andersson. Featuring car crashes, cannibalism and naked dancing all told in the most matter of fact way possible, The Temptation of St. Tony is worth seeking out.
It’s arguable that Satoshi Kon’s delightfully odd animation Paprika had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Not only do both films focus on dream manipulation and getting lost in your own subconscious, but they also even share similar shots. That being said, Paprika – by dint of Kon being able to channel his eccentricities via cartoon – is the least inhibited in its exploration of inner space and the most mind bending experience to boot.
After injecting a new dose of life into British cinema with Kill List, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump made an even bolder statement with their subsequent A Field in England. Filmed in high contrast black and white on a shoestring budget, the film is a psychedelic, mushroom-gobbling trip through the English Civil War in which an alchemist (Reece Shearsmith) and a wizard (Michael Smiley) go head to head in a fight for the other’s very soul.
Two free-spirited women run riot in 1960’s Bohemia – much to the chagrin of the region’s authoritarian leaders. In fact, Věra Chytilová’s absurdist parable drew an equally unfavourable reception in real life: just one year after Daisies‘ 1966 release, the film was withdrawn from exhibition by Czechoslovakia’s communist government. With its mixture of surreal storytelling and free-thinking ideas, its hard not to see why this experimental classic upset the regime so much.
Is it possible that the universe’s meaning can be expressed in a mathematical equation? This question is explored in Darren Aronofsky’s cerebral debut π, a frantic, paranoid expression of faith in the scientific age that asks if God isn’t so much an entity, but a number. Cutting from shot to shot with the intensity of a runaway train, Aronofsky’s visual style conveys a schizophrenic distrust in reality that somehow makes the film’s philosophical themes even more mind-warping.
Seijun Suzuki had spent the 1960s creating slick and stylish Yakuza films. But 1967’s Branded to Kill marked a U-turn – a movie so weird it virtually ended the director’s career. While Suzuki’s trademark visual bravado was on full display, Branded to Kill upped the ante with its gothic tale of a rice-obsessed assassin – the surgically augmented Joe Shishido – competing for the title of Tokyo’s No. 1 killer.
From filming on iPhones to using non-linear structures, Steven Soderbergh works outside the box. And yet the director’s 1996 comedy Schizopolis is so far from normal that to mention it in the same sentence as boxes would be utterly redundant. Loosely formed around the story of an office worker (Soderbergh) discovering his wife is having an affair with himself, Schizopolis is a string of non-sequiturs that makes fun of religion, media, language and the general perception that all films have to make sense.
For anyone looking for an alternative to first and second world cinematic norms then Malian director Souleymane Cissé’s ethereal fantasy should be right up your street. The tale of a young wizard escaping the murderous designs of his father, Yeelen moves at a slow and dreamlike pace that takes in feats of magic, talking hyenas and lucid flashbacks along the way. As fluid and absorbing as the desert that it was shot in, Yeelen is an unparalleled work.
Who else could have made a film adaption of William S. Burroughs’ infamously unorthodox Naked Lunch than David Cronenberg? Released in 1991, the Canadian auteur’s adaption connects the novel’s dislocated fragments into a story based on Burroughs’ own life. But in typical Cronenberg fashion, Naked Lunch contains enough bugs, drugs and bodily mutations – not to mention endowed typewriters – to somehow make the source material read like A.A. Milne.
For much of his career, Ingmar Bergman used his own personal demons as the basis of his films. For 1968’s Hour of the Wolf, the Swedish director instead turned to his own nightmares in what is surely the most vivid portrayal of a tortured psyche in his entire filmography. Recounting the final days of an artist (Max von Sydow) prior to his sudden disappearance, Hour of the Wolf plays like a bad dream from which one has zero chance of stirring awake.