Cinema has had a long love affair with nutjobs, because psychopaths are just better business. Would you rather plunk down your $12 at a theater to listen to an actress wax philosophical about her kids while doing the dishes or see Leonardo DiCaprio struggle with his sanity at the creepy mental hospital in Shutter Island? Exaaactly.
With this week’s infectious update of George A. Romero’s 1973 horror film The Crazies and Shutter Island on top at the box office, now is a crazy time to look back at some of the most memorable cinema crazies in history.
By Robert B. DeSalvo
It’s a known fact that all writers are crazy and tormented writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), working as the winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel, is no exception. It isn’t long before cabin fever sets in and Jack is chit-chatting with ghosts and having crazy dreams about cutting up his family with an ax. When your husband spends weeks typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again instead of actually writing, write yourself an exit strategy fast.
A Clockwork Orange
In Stanley Kubrick’s dark sci-fi satire, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is a charming psychopath with a penchant for Beethoven, mascara, rape and extreme violence whose gang terrorizes London until he is finally arrested. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Alex is placed in a straitjacket and forced to watch scenes of ultra-violence while being given drugs to induce reactions of revulsion. To elicit a similar reaction today, you would instead show him Gigli on an endless loop.
Brad Pitt’s mental patient Terry Goines has a nervous tic, is prone to fits, and has one eye that points in a different direction than the other—an unmistakable sign of cinematic craziness, if not craziness in general. He orchestrates a plan to release a deadly virus into the world, giving some scientists the insane idea to send Bruce Willis back in time to put an end to this nonsense, but that’s just crazy talk.
Well, it’s all in the title, isn’t it? Business is down at the Bates Motel, leaving Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) time to drill peepholes to spy on guests and prop up his dead mother in his house’s cellar and talk to her. Mothers can sometimes drive their sons batty, but in this case Bates dresses up as his dead mother and hacks a hotel guest to death in the shower. Forty-nine years after Psycho opened, that’s still pretty crazy.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The hunger for fame can instigate the craziest behavior. Jealous child star Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) lives in a decrepit mansion with her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), whom she tortures by serving her a dead canary and roughing her up at every opportunity. The moment Jane dresses up like a little girl, sings “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” and starts screaming in the mirror, you wish all crazy people had one moment of clarity.
The Dark Knight
With his green hair, runny white clown makeup and smeared red lipstick, the Joker already looks mad before he robs banks, booby-traps ferries and threatens to blow up a hospital. For the role, Ledger isolated himself in a hotel room and formulated the Joker’s voice and personality while jotting down his character’s thoughts. He once described the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” or, more succinctly, batsh*t crazy.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is the chilling end product of the Me Generation—a successful New Yorker with no idea how to connect with other human beings. To make people feel his pain, he dispatches friends and others in the grisliest ways. Then, no one believes his confession because he seems to fit in so well. The lesson here is that if you want people to think you’re crazy, you had better look crazy.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a borderline schizophrenic teen who leaves his house to talk to a giant silver rabbit named Frank who tells him the world is going to end and a jet engine will crash into Donnie’s bedroom. When his new girlfriend is killed in a car accident, Donnie somehow goes back in time so the falling jet engine kills him instead, meaning he’ll save her life. Hey, crazier things have happened—ok, not really.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes, the “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. There are subtle signs that Wilkes has a screw loose: she uses words like “oogie,” she puts Spam in her meatloaf, and she drifts between la-la land and impromptu profanity-laden outbursts. When she discovers Sheldon has killed off her favorite character, Misery, she smashes his legs with a sledgehammer and forces him to write a new story. Are you paying attention, J.K. Rowling?
Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford as a two-faced, germaphobic fame monster—one who smiles for the cameras and loves her fans only to wake her adopted daughter in the middle of the night and whip her with wire hangers if she hangs her clothes on them. When someone calls Joan “box office poison,” she wakes Christina to help her rip out all the roses in the garden and screams to the young girl, “Bring me the ax!”—four words a child never wants to hear from Mommy.
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a lovable suburban housewife and mother hiding her lunacy behind good social behavior: recycling, banning gum chewing in the house, familial devotion. The latter proves to be her undoing, however, when Beverly uses a leg of lamb, a falling air conditioner, a car, a fire poker and more to murder those who threaten her idyllic home. At the trial, her daughter (Ricki Lake) hawks “Serial Mom” T-shirts outside the courtroom, proving what we’ve always known—crazy is genetic.
Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) spends his days in seedy porno theaters and nights working as a cab driver—a real recipe for the crazies. When he blows a chance with a pretty girl, Bickle channels his frustration into being a street avenger, rescuing a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from a sleazy pimp. He crosses the line when he shaves his hair into a Mohawk and tries to assassinate a senator—a universal sign of crazy.
What Daniel (Michael Douglas) thinks is a quick fling turns into a nightmare when Alex says she “will not be ignored”: she tries to commit suicide, calls incessantly, claims she’s pregnant, pours acid on his car and even drops by Daniel’s home when his wife is there. It all boils down to Alex boiling the pet bunny on the stove, however. Everyone knows that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but cooking pets is just a recipe for crazy.