Sometimes, they really are out to get you. Who ‘they’ are of course, varies from movie to movie, but in every instance in this list, their protagonists have every reason to feel paranoid and anxious. Whether it’s the feeling that they’re being watched by government agencies, or the sudden realisation that reality as they know it is a complete sham, cinematic paranoia can take many forms.
From sci-fi flicks to thrillers, here’s our pick of 10 favourite paranoia-filled movies…
10. The Matrix
In their hyperactive, pre-millennial sci-fi movie, The Matrix, the brothers Wachowski borrowed freely from numerous literary and cinematic sources, and not just from the realms of science fiction – there are allusions here to Alice In Wonderland, the Bible, and the works of philosopher René Descartes.
Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a computer hacker who lives in a world straight out of classic film noir. With Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) as his guide, Neo is taught that the reality he thought he knew is merely a simulation, and that humanity has been enslaved by a dominant race of sentient machines.
Such paranoid interrogations of reality were the trademark of author Philip K Dick, and it’s clear that his writings were a source of inspiration for the Wachowskis. And for the first hour, The Matrix is a good approximation of Dick’s preoccupations, and Neo himself is, initially, a protagonist straight out of a PKD novel.
Pursued by mysterious men in black suits, Neo gradually realises that he’s caught in the middle of a conspiracy that is far bigger than he could have possibly comprehended. Later, the curtain of reality is peeled back, and Neo is shown its ugly inner workings – humans are actually little more than batteries for their robot masters.
Before it descends into big-budget action chaos, and Neo is transformed from a Phildickean protagonist into a god-like superhero, The Matrix is a masterful exercise in cinematic paranoia, and it was this element that was sorely missing in both of the film’s sequels.
9. Rosemary’s Baby
Based on a book by Ira Levin, there’s much that’s dated and rather quaint about the 1967 horror film, Rosemary’s Baby. At the same time, its restraint and quiet build-up of tension is excellently handled, and the movie ends with a dark, perhaps even blackly comic final revelation.
Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, a young woman who, like so many protagonists in paranoid movies, appears to have a perfect life. She’s just moved into a pleasant old apartment in New York with her handsome husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), and she’s just bought herself a trendy Vidal Sassoon haircut. Rosemary’s neighbours seem friendly, if a little eccentric, and Guy manages to land himself a decent role in stage play.
Then Rosemary has a disturbing dream about a Satanic ritual, in which she’s ravished by what appears to be a denizen of hades. And when she falls pregnant a few weeks later, things get really weird.
Predictable though it often is, Rosemary’s gradual realisation that everyone around her has a hidden, devilish agenda is superbly done, as is the conclusion, in which she discovers the true identity of her newborn baby…
8. Dark City
Released just one year before The Matrix, Alex Proyas’ Dark City is very much the polar opposite of the Wachowskis’ movie. Unlike the loud, bombastic Matrix, Dark City is comparatively restrained. But where The Matrix was a hit, almost no one went to see Dark City. This was due in part, perhaps, to its release date – at the time, the world was going into a frenzy over James Cameron’s sinking ship romance, Titanic, and appeared to have little appetite for a noirish sci-fi thriller.
If anything, Dark City is even more paranoid and angst-ridden than The Matrix. Its protagonist, Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has a group of strangers after him, wakes up in the middle of a crime scene, the details of which he has no recollection, and lives in a city that is shrouded in perpetual night. Again, like a Philip K Dick protagonist, Murdoch later learns that he’s party to a conspiracy far greater than he initially realises. The city he inhabits is, in fact, a giant machine floating through space, manipulated by an alien race called the Strangers, who can also control the memories of its inhabitants.
A visually startling film, Dark City is more than worthy of the gradual re-evaluation it has enjoyed in recent years. Proyas’ vision of a gigantic mechanical city, that can be altered and manipulated at will, is great idea, and the film’s story is a heady fusion of film noir, German expressionism and Kafkaesque fear.
7. Total Recall
A movie we regularly return to at Den of Geek, Total Recall is a sci-fi action classic. And beneath the bone-crunching violence, there’s still a nugget of Philip K Dick’s original short story to be found.
Arnold Schwarzenegger may be an odd choice to play an everyman PKD protagonist, but his predicament is nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the author’s work. Arnie plays Doug Quaid, a brawny construction worker with an attractive wife, Lori (Sharon Stone, before she did all kinds of naughty things in Basic Instinct). Doug’s small yet apparently perfect little world is soon brought tumbling down around him when he takes a visit to Rekall, a company that specialises in planting pleasant memories in the minds of its customers.
The procedure appears to have the opposite effect, however, when Doug begins to recall previously repressed memories of his life on a Martian colony. It then transpires that everyone he knows, including his wife and former best friend, are all out to kill him – as are a group of assassins, led by Richter (Michael Ironside).
A clever, masterful director, Paul Verhoeven never lets this paranoid element of the story out of sight, even when he’s decorating the screen with blood and bullets. As Doug heads to Mars to discover his true identity, neither he nor the audience is sure if what is happening is real or part of the hero’s psychotic episode back at Rekall.
6. Shutter Island
With both Shutter Island and Inception, heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio has proved himself to be unexpectedly adept at playing troubled protagonists with unspoken histories, and his performance as US Marshal Teddy Daniels is one of his very best.
The original Greek meaning of the word paranoia literally means to be out of one’s mind, and there’s plenty of madness and paranoia in its modern sense in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Interestingly, Lehane once said in an interview that Shutter Island was influenced by that most paranoid of movies, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and there’s more than a touch of that film’s angst here.
Set in the 50s, Teddy and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) head to a prison for the criminally insane, located on the remote island of the title, to investigate the case of a patient who has apparently vanished into thin air. To say much more about the plot would be a disservice to anyone who’s yet to see it, but I can say that Scorsese brings all his powers as a filmmaker to bear on this tense, disturbing film. Viewers may well be divided over the film’s denouement, but the journey to it is full of nightmarish atmosphere, with nods to the noir films of Val Newton and, unless I’m mistaken, faint traces of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man…
5. The Wicker Man
Speak of the devil, and he doth appear. Great though Shutter Island is, it’s no match for Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic, in which an uptight, pompous Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) heads to a pagan island to solve the mystery of a missing girl.
A brilliant exercise in subtle horror, it should also be noted that The Wicker Man is also deliciously, blackly funny. Christopher Lee appears to be having a great time in his role as Lord Summerisle. No doubt glad to get away from the castles and capes that became his stock-in-trade for many years, he gets most of the film’s best lines, and his verbal sparring with the devoutly Christian Howie are charged with energy.
And as is so often the case in paranoid cinema, it does indeed turn out that everyone’s out to get the protagonist, a fact that Howie fails to grasp until it’s entirely too late.
4. Invaders From Mars
William Cameron Menzies’ low-budget 1953 sci-fi classic is a movie I’ve mentioned in other lists in the past, but that’s because it’s worth returning to again and again. Aliens fall from the sky and land in a field behind a young boy’s back garden, and then gradually begin to take control of his parents and other authority figures, one at a time.
One writer (whose name escapes me) once described Invaders From Mars as “Kafka for kids”, and the film does indeed capture the similar sense of nightmarish persecution that permeated the Czech author’s most famous works. This is due at least in part to Menzies’ extraordinary production design, which comprised weird, distorted sets that gave the film a dreamlike air.
Of all the “Red menace” films to emerge in the 50s, Invaders From Mars is bettered only by Don Siegel’s extraordinary Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Invaders From Mars is ultimately undone by its low-budget (the aliens are revealed to be men in green suits with clearly visible zip fasteners on the back), over-reliance on stock footage, and its disappointing “it was all a dream… or was it?” conclusion.
For the first glorious 40 minutes, though, Invaders From Mars is a singularly powerful piece of cinematic paranoia. For a while there, poor little David really is all alone, with mindless zombies for parents and alien invaders lurking just over the brow of the next hill.
3. The Lives Of Others
I’ll admit that the inclusion of The Lives Of Others in this list is a bit of a wild card. It is, after all, based on real events, and unlike the other entries here, isn’t a genre movie. The Lives Of Others is, however, about the terrifying power of an oppressive regime, and how state control can instil fear and paranoia in the people it oppresses.
Set in the Communist German Democratic Republic in the 80s, The Lives Of Others tells the story of Wiesler, a captain in the Stasi, the State’s secret police agency. Wiesler is assigned to monitor the and record the words and actions of a playwright, Georg Dreyman, whose association with blacklisted liberals has apparently aroused the suspicion of the State. Wiesler later learns, however, that a high-ranking party minister simply wants George out of the way so that he can continue his affair with the writer’s wife.
At the same time, Wiesler begins to experience a kind of awakening, and sensing the emptiness in his own life and the corruption in the State for which he works, he begins to use his position as a spy to help Georg and his wife.
As a depiction of a society ruled by fear and spiteful pettiness, The Lives Of Others has yet to be beaten. There are numerous parallels between this film and George Orwell’s classic anti-totalitarian novel, 1984. Except, of course, the Stasi was real, and while the drama of The Lives Of Others is fictional, many of the tactics the State employed are entirely true – at one point, the Stasi had no less than two per cent of the population in its employ, all spying on one another and carefully recording every tiny impropriety or suspicious movement.
That all this happened less than three decades ago, and not at some distant, hazy moment in history merely makes this film’s events more chilling.
2. The Conversation
Another classic film with the subject of surveillance at its core, The Conversation ranks among Francis Ford Coppola’s very best films. Gene Hackman is superb as Harry Caul, an expert in wiretapping who, ironically, is utterly obsessed with protecting his own privacy – tense and eccentric, he wears a plastic mac in all weathers, only uses public telephone boxes, and lives in a fortress-like apartment with numerous locks on the door.
Caul is soon tasked with recording the conversation of a mysterious couple as they walk through a crowded San Francisco square. Unable to interpret the meaning of their exchanges, Caul becomes anxious about the content of his recording, and begins to listen to it over and over again. Already paranoid at the start of the movie, Caul begins to fear that his recording may somehow lead to the couple’s death – his surveillance work had resulted in a similar event several years before.
The Conversation is a brilliantly made thriller, elevated further by the extraordinary sound design of Walter Murch. It’s a film all about listening and voyeurism, and Murch’s attention to detail contributes significantly to the film’s power. This, coupled with Coppola’s eye for startling images (the blood overflowing from a toilet is one unforgettable moment), and Hackman’s performance as a man wracked by anxiety and guilt, make for one of the best thrillers of the 70s.
1. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
The very definition of cinematic paranoia, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has the feverish quality of a nightmare, and its impact transcends age, budgetary constraints or genre. Directed by Don Siegel in 1956, when US anti-Communist sentiment was at its height, Body Snatchers may well be the defining film of that decade.
Its simple story, about a small-town doctor (a perfectly cast Kevin McCarthy) whose patients begin to complain that their friends and family are being replaced by emotionless doubles, is urgently told by Siegel. It soon transpires that an alien race of pod people is indeed replacing human beings with sullen doppelgängers, an invasion that is simply too silent and insidious to counter.
A movie that perfectly captures the political and social tensions of its era, Body Snatchers has been alternately interpreted as an indictment of America’s casual acceptance of the cruelty of McCarthyism, or a criticism of the controlling power of Communism itself. Jack Finney, the author of the novel on which Body Snatchers is based, meanwhile, has insisted that he hadn’t intended to place a political allegory at the heart of the book.
That the movie has been so analysed and reinterpreted is a testament to its lasting brilliance, and whatever Finney’s reasons were for writing the book, and Siegel for directing its remarkable adaptation, the result is a masterpiece of cinematic paranoid angst, and its themes of isolation and societal breakdown are as relevant today as they ever were.
Honourable mentions: The Adjustment Bureau, The Bourne trilogy, Conspiracy Theory, The Thing