Top 10 Movie Descents Into Madness

by Eric Melin on September 9, 2008

in Top 10s

It’s our third user-submitted Top 10 here at Scene-Stealers, and it comes from sitegoer Randall Schrope, who lives in Washington Township, New Jersey. Randall’s got a thing for actors gone crazy, and below is his excellent list, accompanied by clips from each movie. If you have a list you’d like to submit, simply email it to me at In the meantime, check out Randall’s list and tell him what you think in the comments below! Heeeeere’s Randall!:

In a classic Halloween episode of “The Simpsons,” a parody of “The Shining” has Homer, the patriarch of the Simpson clan, transform from loving father and husband to a stark raving madman due to the absence of beer and T.V. Perhaps it is a representation of people’s desire to completely abandon laws and morals without repercussions. Maybe it is the vicarious thrill that is charged through us when we see this demise on played out on the big screen. For either reason, witnessing a character descend from a sane member of decent society to a sociopathic lunatic has provided some of the most memorable performances in movie history.

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10. Robin Williams as Rainbow Randolph in “Death to Smoochy” (2002)

In the wake of a payola scandal, famed kid show host Rainbow Randolph (Williams) is fired, and ultimately replaced by the incorruptibly earnest Rhino, “Smoochy” (Edward Norton). Ostracized by his friends and former celebrity circles, indigent Randolph schemes to vilify his incredibly popular replacement. As Smoochy’s fame soars and Randolph plunges into desperate lunacy, his attempts to dethrone his nemesis become increasingly devious, eventually leading to attempted murder and public suicide. While I normally find Williams’ incessant rapid-fire jokes superflous and annoying, they work well in this movie because he just rambles on insanely, helping to paint the picture of a man gone mad.

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9. Bill Pullman as Dr. Rex Martin in “Brain Dead” (1990)

This is not to be confused with Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” (or “Dead Alive,” as its known in America), which appeared two weeks ago on Aaron Hale’s Top 10 Zombie Movies list. Original “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont doesn’t disappoint with this chaotic mind-bender that appeared two years before Jackson’s gorefest. Brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Rex Martin (Pullman) is on the verge of finding a cure for mental illness, when he is recruited by his scheming crony, Jim Reston (Bill Paxton) from the enigmatic Eunice Corporation. Eunice needs Martin’s help in retrieving crucial data from Jack Halsey (Bud Cort), one of their former employees and star mathematician, who has become institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia. The procedure sets off a series of mistaken identities, bizarre encounters, and paranoid delusions that transform Martin from master of the mind to a prisoner of his own. Repeated viewings have not yielded an explanation of the plot for me, but it is one of those films that a new theory can be formed each time you watch it. It is also always fun to watch Paxton play the smarmy egocentric character he does so well, and seeing Cort as an institulaized mental patient always makes me think that this was the fate of Harold from “Harold and Maude.”

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8. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in “Misery” (1990)

One of the better films adapted from a Stephen King novel, “Misery” depicts just how far obsession can go. Famous novelist of the Misery Chastain series, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), is secretly rescued from a car crash by an eccentric nurse, Annie Wilkes (Bates), who, as fate would have it, is his “number one fan”. While she helps him recuperate, she discovers that in his latest book, her favorite character Misery is killed – thereby ending her favorite series and erasing the last shred of her sanity. Imprisoned at her remote house in the mountains, Paul is drugged, tortured, and at the mercy of his disgruntled fan. People watching the movie always cringe during the violent scenes like the hobbling, and stabbing the sheriff, but for me the most frightening moments are all Kathy Bates highs. Hearing the nervous tremble in her voice while she fawned over Paul – the calm before the storm - is terrifying.

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7. Russell Crowe as John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001)

Thanks to brilliant directing by Ron Howard and a clever script by Akiva Goldsman, you don’t realize until the second act that the clandestine spy game renowned mathematician John Nash is involved in is (SPOILER ALERT!) only in his mind. Crowe gives a deft, Oscar-nominated performance in the true story of a schizophrenic mathematician whose psyche creates a complex world in which he is surreptitiously decodes enemy transmissions for the C.I.A. As the assignments he is given from imaginary agents grow more dangerous, John’s actual and fictional life spiral simultaneously out of control. Aided by his devoted wife, and now antiquated methods of psychopharmacology, he manages to outwit himself and gain control over the voices in his beautiful mind. In my opinion, 2002 was the biggest upset in Oscar history when Denzel Washington was awarded Best Actor for “Training Day” over Russell Crowe. Denzel is a fine actor, but his collective performaces all pale in comparisn to Crowe’s work in this film.

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6. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” (2000)

Before Bale was Batman, he was Bateman; a materialistic Wall Street stockbroker in the late 80s whose vanity is exceeded only by his madness. By day, he competes with his colleagues for prime real estate, corner offices, and expensive suits, but at night he rebels against conformity with brutal acts of senseless violence that have their own soundtrack. Preceeding his recent accusation of maternal abuse in England, Bateman had additional oedipal trouble with “American Psycho.” His stepmother, feminist activist Gloria Steinem, was one of the many who opposed the release of Bret Easton Ellis’ book, on which the movie is based.

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5. Bruce Willis as James Cole in “12 Monkeys” (1995)

“The mind can only take so much.” James Cole is one of the few survivors of a deadly virus that wipes out 99 percent of the Earth’s population, forcing the remaining 1 percent to live underground. Because of Cole’s “strong mind,” he is “volunteered” to travel back in time to help discover the parties responsible for releasing the virus and resurface the human race. During his mission he is captured and thrown in an asylum where he starts to believe that his reason for being there, and the people who sent him, are merely inventions of a damaged mind, only to be pulled back to the future to experience that as a reality as well. The repeated time travel proves to be too much, and he begins to question his own sanity and purpose in the past, present, and future. If this were a list of top 10 madmen (possibly soon to come), I would have to recognize Brad Pitt’s performance as Jeffrey Goines. But he didn’t descend anywhere; his madness is obvious from the first scene. Pitt’s twitching, snarling, crosseyed character was his best (and it earned him an Oscar nod) since the stoner Floyd in “True Romance.”

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4. Glenn Close as Alex Frost in “Fatal Attraction” (1987)

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. One would think that the guilt of infidelity is punishment enough, but after a one-night stand with a colleague, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) learns that he can not have his cake and eat it too. When his mistress Alex Frost (Close) refuses to end their tryst, Dan finds his family, himself, and their pets victim to a psychopathic woman who will stop at nothing until she gets what she wants. Since this movie may have guided Douglas’ choices to star in succeeding “sexy thillers “Disclosure” and ”Basic Instinct,” I almost wish Close’s character would have been triumphant.

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3. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in “The Shining” (1980)

Isolated by the confines of snowbound hotel, and terrorized by the haunted inhabitants of the hotel’s evil past, family man Jack Torrance (Nicholson) slowly falls into madness. As cabin fever sets in, Jack personal demons conspire with the manipulative ghosts of the Overlook Hotel to “correct” his family by viciously murdering them in this Stanley Kubrick-directed Stephen King adaptation. Two other actors who received mention on this list were considered to play the part of Torrance: Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. While I am sure both choices would have had an interesting take on the material, I can’t see either one consumed enough with the character to have been able to ad-lib the famous “Here’s Johnny!” line, as Nicholson did.

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2. Bob Geldof as Pink in “Pink Floyd The Wall” (1982)

Arguably the best rock drama of all time, “Pink Floyd The Wall” is the story of Pink (Geldof) and his journey from a traumatic childhood and the loss of his father to a drug-addled rock star coping with the pressure of fame and fortune. This is one instance where the film compliments the soundtrack rather than the other way around. The frenetic shifts in the timeline, an epic war story, innovative animation, and powerful soundtrack by Pink Floyd all contribute to a masterful performance where you truly descend into the world of an artist tortured by his inner demons. Does anyone not get the title “The Wall”?

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1. Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

Travis Bickle (De Niro), an unstable Vietnam war veteran suffering from insomnia, takes a job as a New York City cab driver working around the clock in the worst neighborhoods. The depravity he bears witness to begins to drive him not just insane but also physically ill, and he vows to make a change. Futile attempts at normalcy begin to mock him when he starts to see everyone as part of the sick city he exists in. As the violence festers inside, he becomes more and more misanthropic and resolves himself to clean up the city, but his madness makes him unpredictable and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. John Hinckley Jr. was supposedly so influenced by this movie that, in an attempt to impress De Niro’s young co-star Jodie Foster, he attempted to murder President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s attorney played the movie as part of his closing argument.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clark September 9, 2008 at 5:36 am

Good list, but I don’t think “American Psycho” should be included here. That movie doesn’t show its character (Bateman) going mad – it begins with him being already insane!


2 Trevor September 9, 2008 at 9:02 am

Great idea for a list. What about Michael Douglas in Falling Down.


3 jamie September 9, 2008 at 9:05 am

evidently no movies depicted descent into madness pre-1976?

clearly i think ‘the lost weekend’ or something like ‘in a lonely place’ are better then most of the movies listen here…


4 The Dude September 9, 2008 at 9:33 am

No, there are several. The Lost Weekend is really more about the effects of addiction relapse, and Lonely Place begins with a pugnacious protaginist so there really is no “descent” into madness. Good movies though.


5 Kenny September 9, 2008 at 1:51 pm

Good list. Mulholland Dr. is a good one as well.


6 Reed September 9, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Michael Biehn is not the main character, but he does go mad in The Abyss, which has as much descending as any film.

Others that could join the club:
Fight Club
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Jacob’s Ladder
Apocalypse Now
The Manchurian Candidate
Full Metal Jacket
Heavenly Creatures

Worst descent into madness: Val Kilmer in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Solid list, Randall. Great category, too.


7 jamie September 9, 2008 at 4:51 pm

“No, there are several. The Lost Weekend is really more about the effects of addiction relapse, and Lonely Place begins with a pugnacious protaginist so there really is no “descent” into madness. Good movies though.”


not sure Patrick Bateman descends then as well, as par the novel we was smoking people in college. so he stays at that descent, same for ‘misery’ as well, she wasn’t super insane at the beginning as well. but no hard feelings– i just hate to see post 1980 movie bias in all these lists, you guys are usually great i’m speaking more for around the net.

seems klaus kinski should be on this list as well. (for just about ANY role)


8 Ruger September 9, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Bet you liked ” 300″ alot!!


9 Layne September 9, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Personally, I would’ve put Crowe’s performance in “A Beautiful Mind” at the top of the list, but I do agree with everything you included.


10 Eric Melin September 10, 2008 at 12:07 am

Klaus Kinski! “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” Yes. For anyone who doesn’t understand why people like me revere Werner Herzog, rent those two movies and find out why. Also, cheers to Randall for including “Braindead,” a Corman-produced flick I’ve never seen but am curious about now…


11 ajish September 10, 2008 at 2:49 pm

why is it that the list doesn’t have “Requiem For a Dream”????

it is rated 8.5 in IMDB and is 62nd in IMDB all time greats…


12 SEAN ALCORN September 10, 2008 at 5:34 pm

I agree, good list…Though I would probably have made Nicholson’s Jack Torrance #1, or at least #2 (Pink Floyd?)…


13 RCM September 10, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Eric, after finally seeing “Encounters at the End of the World” I was myself reminded why people like us revere Herzog.

This one’s pretty contemporary, (sorry jamie) but I would think “There Will Be Blood” could make this list. Talk about a film showing a man driven mad through greed and capitalism.


14 Josh September 10, 2008 at 11:06 pm

i love christian bale in american psycho, i still think it might have been one of his most fitting roles. i would have to agree with travis bickle as your number one, good pick. i thought it was going to be jack torrance (too obvious).


15 Kenny September 12, 2008 at 12:17 am

I think the choice for the number one was a well-founded one. DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver is one of the most realistic characters in movie history. His descent into madness is of a more sensible nature than Bale and Nicholson in American Psycho and The Shining. Taxi Driver is as relevant now as it was then.


16 arpymo October 13, 2008 at 7:27 am

Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a serious spiraling of sanity into the depths of mental hell. Great!


17 Brent October 13, 2008 at 12:19 pm

no “Apocalypse Now”?
Good list, but I feel like there are a lot of movies that could have been replaced with that.

I would also consider the two Danny Boyle movies “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”
Both I realize are kind of a stretch, but I think they qualify.

Other than that, good list.


18 Guyfromholland October 13, 2008 at 4:08 pm

What about The Machinist?


19 eb October 13, 2008 at 7:36 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator” should be here. Can’t argue with #1 though.


20 Eric Melin October 13, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”


21 Willis October 15, 2008 at 8:13 am

Eric, I think you and I must watch all the same films. I wanted to be the first to post about Klaus Kinski in both movies you mentioned and I was going to throw in Day-Lewis. So I’ll go retor and mention 2 Hitchcock movies. Psycho and Vertigo. I think both good examples of madness.

“Y’see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little…push.”


22 alison October 18, 2008 at 11:44 am

sister ruth in the black narcissus. a nun driven mad by sexual frustration in a monastary in the himalayans!


23 blackhawk12151 November 5, 2008 at 11:26 am

Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) in “Vertigo”


24 Danny Steel March 20, 2009 at 3:14 am

Good list, however there are several films missing from this list, some of them have already been mentioned:

Pi: The Movie – Sean Gullette
The Tenant – Roman Polanski
The Machinist – Christian Bale
Repulsion – Catherine Deneuve
Woyzeck – Klaus Kinski
In The Mouth Of Madness – Sam Neill
Blowup – David Hemmings
Benny’s Video – Arno Frisch
Trainspotting – Ewan MacGregor
And who could forget one of the most classic and tragic figures, Macbeth? (played wonderfully by Jon Finch in Polanski’s adaptation)

Ones to avoid:

1408 – John Cusack
The Butterfly Effect – Ashton Kutcher
The Number 23 – Jim Carrey


25 eva February 27, 2013 at 4:39 am

donnie darko was great too


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