8 Classic, Over-the-Top Films About Mental Illness

From the early days of cinema to the blockbusters of today, the tone of films about mental illness have ranged from wildly histrionic (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane) to hopelessly grim (Shutter Island). That doesn’t mean such films are necessarily bad; on the contrary, many are groundbreaking examples of the genre, whose stars (such as Joan Crawford in Possessed) attempt to channel the experience of an individual suffering from mental illness. It can be argued that some of these films perpetuate a variety of unhealthy stereotypes about mental illness. But watch these films not for their medical credibility, but for their directorial technique, strong performances, and entertainment value, and you will not be disappointed.

  1. Possessed (1947):

    Possessed starts the iconic Joan Crawford as a woman in love with a man who does not love her. Over time, her unrequited feelings drive her to more and more obsessive behavior, with tragic consequences. In the film, “insanity” and “schizophrenia” are used rather broadly to explain what ultimately sends Crawford’s character over the edge. To her credit, Crawford did in fact visit mental institutions and speak to psychiatrists to help develop her empathetic portrayal of “a psychotic.” She said later that the role was the most difficult she ever played, and for her efforts, she was nominated for an Academy Award.

  2. The Snakepit (1948):

    The Snakepit is based on author Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, which became hugely popular after its publication in 1946. Ward spent several months in a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown and was subjected to scalding baths and electroshock therapy as part of her treatment. Ward’s book and the film, starring Olivia de Havilland, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, is credited for beginning the first serious public dialogue about the treatment of psychiatric patients, which instituted several much-needed reforms in several states. No question, the film was groundbreaking for its time.

  3. The Three Faces of Eve (1957):

    Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Eve, a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), who displays three distinct personalities. The film is based on the case of Chris Costner Sizemore who suffered from DID, although her real identity and connection to the film wasn’t revealed to the public until 1975. Lizzie, another film about a woman with multiple personalities, was released the same year as The Three Faces of Eve.

  4. Psycho (1960):

    Director Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho brought a whole new level of violence, sexuality, and psychobabble to mainstream films, and taking a shower would never be the same. Anthony Perkins plays a nerdish, sexually repressed hotel clerk named Norman Bates who is strangely connected to and very protective of his mother. Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, checks into the Bates Hotel, but she doesn’t check out. Film critics have analyzed the film, including the three floors of the hotel, in Freudian terms, but Psychois more a cinematic work of art than a subject for layman psychoanalysis.

  5. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962):

    This bizarre, gruesome, and yes, completely over-the-top star vehicle for two women, who in real life certainly reveled in melodrama, was likely green-lit thanks to the earlier success of Psycho, as well as the casting of Joanne Woodward and her real-life nemesis Bette Davis. The crazy, abusive behavior of Davis’ character Baby Jane toward Woodward, who plays her crippled sister Blanche, including serving Blanche a dead rat for supper, is both terrifying and hilarious to watch. Much to Woodward’s chagrin, Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.

  6. Shock Corridor (1963):

    And then there’s Shock Corridor, “The medical jungle doctors don’t talk about!” Written and directed by the Samuel Fuller, Shock Corridor is more allegory than shock, although the trailer and publicity around the film plays up the film’s sex and violence. But Fuller was going for something deeper with this story of an ambitious, investigative reporter who fakes insanity (or does he?) in order to be committed to a mental institution where an unsolved murder has taken place. Fuller’s subtext of America as a giant open-air lunatic asylum makes Shock Corridor much more unnerving to watch today than say, The Snakepit. One of the film’s many groundbreaking moments occurs when a mental patient named Trent who delivers an off-camera racist rant and declares himself a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan before the camera pulls back to reveal he is black.

  7. Birdy (1984):

    Alan Parker’s powerful film Birdytells the story of two buddies, the sensitive, bird-obsessed Birdy, played by Matthew Modine, and the tougher, yet vulnerable Al, played by Nicholas Cage. Birdy and Al return from the war in Vietnam, each with a serious injury; the once vain Al has burns over most of his face while Birdy is shell shocked to the point where he has convinced himself that he’s actually a bird. Al tries his best to bring Birdy out of his catatonic state before his friend is committed for good to a mental institution.

  8. Shutter Island (2010):

    This extremely stylish, extremely successful, and extremely depressing film stars Leonard DiCaprioas a U.S. Marshall sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a home for the criminally insane, and from the first cigarette he shares with his partner on the ferry to the island where the home is located, things just go from bad to worse. Despite countless cliches from the horror genre (an evil, mocking German psychiatrist, a scrawny, crazy woman who gives DiCaprio’s character the “shush” gesture as he enters the crazy house, and more rain and thunder than a thousand Vincent Price movies), the film is a solid, scary ride, worth watching if only for the level of artistry exhibited by its director, the great Martin Scorsese, and a gut-wrenching performance by DiCaprio.