Movies That Mangle The Mind



For me it started with a screening of ‘Eraserhead’ at the Scala Cinema when it used to be in Scala Street. After, nothing else measured up for a while because it had dream-images that stayed despite their lack of logic.

Is there anything worse than a film where you can see every scene telegraphed? ‘The Theory of Everything’ was true and good and so relentlessly understanding and nice that I found it hard to concentrate on for more than thirty seconds at a time. It was like having dinner with a very nice middle-class family in the shires. Sometimes you need a relentlessly offbeat head-scratcher to grow angry watching, and now that David Lynch has gone off the boil, a few more films like ‘Synecdoche, New York’ and ‘Upstream Colour’ are needed (although the last was extremely oblique and frustrating).

Roman Polanski made a strange film called ‘What?’ in 1972, in which a beautiful young woman finds herself in a villa populated by decadent, oversexed Mediterranean types including Marcello Mastroianni. It had the logic of a dream and ended with an escape, or waking up. You could also count ‘Last Year At Marienbad’, which had a sumptuous de Chirico dream setting and the looping repetitions of a dream.

And of course, the master himself, Luis Bunuel, made so many strange and wonderful films that only make sense as fractured or spiral dreams with religious or sexual guilt as undercurrents. Bunuel is unique in that his later films are as wonderfully strange as his youthful ones, and his hilarious biography ‘My Last Breath’ is one of my favourite books. Who can resist the idea of the youthful Bunuel, Dali and Lorca going on the piss in Mexico?

Time travel films are reliable head-scratchers, from the impossible-to-unravel ‘Prime’ (I’ve seen it three times and I’m none the wiser) to user-friendly ‘Back To The Future’, which boiled down the temporal twists to something enjoyable – set pieces are rare in time travel films because the emphasis is always on paradox, not suspense.

‘Timecrimes’ and ‘The Door’ were good examples of what can be done on limited budgets. The ‘Timecrimes’ machine allowed you to go back only 59 minutes, which created immense problems for its protagonists. The best of the recent puzzlers was ‘Predestination’, from a Heinlein short story, in which Ethan Hawke finds himself hunter, hunted and all stops in between as he ferries between multiple timeframes and destinies.

Some films inhabit a dreamworld of oddness because they’re so much the product of their times. ‘Skidoo’, ’99 and 44 100ths Per Cent Dead’ and ‘Hudson Hawk’ (in which Andie McDowell impersonates a dolphin) are almost wonderful for being inept and/or wrongheaded.

Films with twist endings that transform what you’ve just seen have been ruined by M Night Shyamalan, possibly the worst filmmaker ever to come out of Hollywood (I would controversially include ‘The Sixth Sense’ in that, because if you’re a genre reader you’ve guessed the entire plot within fifteen seconds of the film’s start). However, John August’s ‘The Nines’ floored me so severely that I had to watch it again at once.

World cinema has produced some gems of confusion, from the dazzling ‘Hukkle’ to the dystopic ‘An Inconvenient Man’. Some Euro-movies are too deliberately quirky, like ‘Songs From The Second Floor’, but then there’s ‘Calvaire’, with its bar dance scene, which simply drops your jaw on the floor.

Alain Resnais, French cinema’s bad boy, made ‘Life Is A Bed Of Roses’, a quest for happiness existing in different time frames, but like ‘Orlando’ it’s relatively easy to follow (and no less enjoyable for that).

So today I’m looking for real puzzlers – films you come away from with images burned in your brain, but which don’t necessarily have to make sense…anyone?






16 comments on “Movies That Mangle The Mind”

  1. Juan says:

    Donnie Darko and Run Lola Run would be my two first choices, but also Looper has quite a few good moments (the young version of a character being tortured to reflect on the older version of that character, who is running away).

  2. Diogenes says:

    Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, Memento and Fight Club are all great mind-bending films.

  3. John says:

    Peter Greenaway’s movies are like this for me. Amazing pictures, outrageous imagery, completely unfathomable as far as what the story is supposed to mean. Last utterly “mind mangling” move I watched was Holy Motors.< Haven't a clue what it all means…if it's meant to mean anything. But it was mesmerizing to watch. Carax' movie for me takes the prize for a complete mystery on film.

  4. Jackie H. says:

    The original Solaris and Sokurov’s Russian Ark are both wonderful films, that carry you along on a tide of imagery and ideas. Marc Forster’s elusive and ambiguous Stay certainly packs a fierce emotional punch and leaves you wanting to see it again and again; like Donnie Darko, it offers dreamlike glimpses into distorted, subjective realities.

  5. BangBang!! says:

    Takashi Miike’s ‘Gozu’. I won’t even try to describe it. You need to see it for yourself.

  6. snowy says:

    There have been quite a few recently that deal with ‘dislocation’ of one sort or another, Moon, Source Code, Limitless, Inception, The Adjustment Bureau and as mentioned by Juan, Looper.

    Away from the big-budget productions, Noel Clarke directed and starred in a film called ‘The Anomaly’, which has an interesting ‘plot mechanic’, but on a single viewing it doesn’t quite ‘gel’. It is not a ‘bad’ film, it is just unable to reach it’s ambition..

    Some of the older films cheat because they are already distopian and are never going to finish with a full cast dance number! An example would be THX 1138.

    For pure visual treat, ousting the underlying story; Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Fall’ is quite stunning. It has two parallel narratives. As does another film that I avoided for ages ‘Sucker Punch’, thinking it to be quite a shallow piece of ‘fluff’. But it does have something more about it, over and above it being a pure fantasy, [Despite ‘Rocket’ one of the female leads bearing an uncanny resemblence to Eddie Izzard at times.]

  7. Xas says:

    I’m with Juan on Looper. I normally loathe Bruce Willis, but I loved that film. There’s a scene involving fingers (or rather the lack thereof) that I found incredibly chilling, precisely because it was implied rather than gratuitously violent.

    I’m not sure if it counts, but the revelation in Oldboy (the original Korean version) stopped me in my tracks, to the point that I had to rewind because my mind was too stunned to take in all the bits that happened afterwards.

  8. Vivienne says:

    Can’t think of any films, but if you like ‘Marienbad, then other books by Alain Robbe-Grillet ( who did thscipt for that one) have a similar structure, with repetition and overlapping like a pack of cards being shuffled. Haven’t read them all- they need savouring slowly and time in between, and are quite disturbing.

  9. admin says:

    Yikes! I’m shocked to realise that I have seen every single one of the films mentioned in the lists above. Although I didn’t make it to the end of Gozu,

  10. Em says:

    Any of Kenneth Anger’s films, Derek Jarman, Maya Deren, Ira Cohen….

    Also “On the Silver Globe” by Andrzej Zulawski. There’s a copy on youtube ( without subtitles but I’m not sure if there’s a proper release of it

  11. Alan says:

    I found ‘Carry on Camping’ (Gerald Thomas – 1969) rather unsettling.

  12. snowy says:

    The only thing I have left on the shelf is Fassbinder’s ‘ World on a Wire’, [but I’ve not seen it, still in it’s wrapper.]

    There is a link to a massive list of films above, you might find something there.

    [My sixth sense tells me you probably needn’t bother with ‘Sticky Fingers from the Future’ as it appears to be a film aimed exclusively at a audience with a ‘special interest’.]

  13. snowy says:

    Oh, third time is the charm! WordPress or whatever plugins are in play gets a snit on if links have hyphens in them it seems.

  14. Iain says:

    I’ve been a fan of some Japanese films that seem to form their own genre, like:

    Survive Style 5+ (which is probably the most straightforward of them – Pulp Fiction with a Hello Kitty aesthetic, sort of)

    Funky Forest: The First Contact (which is less a film, then switching randomly through the channels of a bizarre television found at 4am in the morning – though, to my surprise, the title does make sense.)

    The Warped Forest – pretty much exactly what it says it is.

    There’s also “The Saragossa Manuscript” and “The Hourglass Sanatorium” by Wojciech Has – both available on DVD (and unfortunately, the only films of his with English subtitles, apparently.)

  15. Juan says:

    As Iain says, Japanese films are one of a kind. I think the weirdest one I’ve seen is Uzumaki (Spirals), about a town with a curse that makes people transform in spiral things. And there’s also a great anime series (13 episodes) entitled Serial Experiments Lain which, after watching 3 times, I still discover new things.

  16. chazza says:

    Any films by Zulawski inhabit the WTF territory

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