Mad scientists! Anarchic villains! Mentally AWOL soldiers! Atavistic terrorists! Insanity and power combine in cinema to create characters who are combustible, compelling, and all the more mesmerising for their madness.
Operating beyond the bounds of what is acceptable, these figures embody aspects of humanity that are usually repressed, as they set about subverting the foundations of God-fearing, law-abiding, and civilised society. If films are thought experiments expressed in sight and sound, then their crazier characters are pioneers and outriders, taking us across the frontiers of everyday experience to places, actions and ideas that would otherwise remain unexplored—and also seeing what can happen when the normal rules no longer apply. Just as importantly, their psychosis can often reflect the clashes and contradictions of contemporary politics, as their own madness becomes the world’s in microcosm.
Dr. Moreau and Komoda Jogoro (“Horrors of Malformed Men” )
“Do you know what it means to feel like God?” asks. Intent on evolving wild animals into near-human slaves, H.G. Wells’ overstepping biologist Moreau pokes and prods at a very modernist anxiety: in the wake of Darwinism, has science opened the conventionally closed borders between the bestial, the human and the divine? For in the experimental world created on Moreau’s island, social morality is reduced to an arbitrary set of rules that vested interests, merely disguised as gods, have imposed “from above.” A potent figure of secular fear, Moreau would reappear in subsequent versions of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1977 and 1996), and clearly influences the arthropod-obsessed Dr. Heiter in “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” (2009).
Moreau’s most unhinged incarnation, however, is Komoda Jogoro (played by butoh founder Hijikata Tatsumi) in Ishii Teruo’s “Horrors of Malformed Men” (1969)—a pioneering film for the whole “erotic-grotesque” subgenre. Much as this feature stitches together different short stories by Edogawa Rampo, as Jogoro plans to graft and hybridise first his island’s (abducted) inhabitants—and then the populations of the world beyond—into mutant freaks, and to have his medically trained son “build a statue of a horse god” from living horses and humans. Jogoro is no doctor, and his “dream of 30 years” is motivated not by the usual scientific arrogance, but rather by a desire to fashion all humanity in his own deformed image (the frog-like webbing on his hands evokes nightmarish memories of postwar irradiation), and by the sheer will to realise a thoroughly demented vision.
Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver” )
On their first date, bourgeois party activist Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) describes blue-collar New York cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) as “a walking contradiction.” She has been struck by both his polite solicitousness and direct intensity—yet the contradiction of Travis choosing a porn film for their second date proves too much, and the indignant Betsy angrily dumps the tight-wound Vietnam veteran. By the time Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) is over, the official line, as suggested by newspaper clippings, a grateful parent’s letter and even a softening of Betsy’s attitude, is that Travis is “something of a hero” for having aggressively rescued Iris (Jodie Foster) from a child prostitution ring. But before this, Travis’ disturbed voice-over, and his insane, entirely apolitical attempt to assassinate the Presidential candidate for whom Cybill has been canvassing, make it clear that he is a ticking time bomb, alienated from the people around him and edging towards one hyperviolent action or another. Travis’ assault on the pimps is hardly framed as a rational act, but even more unnerving than his own psychotic behaviour is the easy way in which he is assimilated and integrated into the very society that he endangers. For if Travis is a contradiction, then so is the Vietnam-era United States in which he walks and drives—a schizophrenic environment where violence is always bubbling beneath the surface of dignity, decency and democracy. “Taxi Driver” is a film in which a deranged gun freak really can be a great American hero.
Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (“Apocalypse Now” )
Like Travis Bickle, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) embodies the contradictions of America in Vietnam—but where Travis Bickle goes from marginalised zero to acceptable hero, Kurtz’s journey is in the opposite direction. For Kurtz is a “brilliant” soldier and decorated war hero, destined for high military office, when he goes rogue and off the grid, taking the battle directly to the enemy in Cambodia, beyond all (b)orders. There, with an outfit of fellow renegades and Montagnards who worship him like a god, Kurtz conducts acts of terror and slaughter that are as outrageous as they are effective. “Very obviously he has gone insane,” says General Corman (G.D. Spradlin) after playing a recording of the Colonel’s obscure mumbles about nightmarish snails and razor blades. Yet, as Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) heads up river to assassinate Kurtz, his increasing admiration for the man is offset by his disgust at the scenes of more authorised insanity (and hypocrisy) all around. When we finally meet the Colonel, surrounded by mutilated corpses and primitive idols, we have come to recognise, with Willard, that the moral horror this soldier has reluctantly embraced is war’s very heart of darkness, as well as its logical endpoint. Kurtz may be “worse than crazy” as one of Willard’s escorts is quick to conclude, he may even be “evil,” but he also represents the kind of commitment and clarity, unrestrained by ethical qualms that is required to win a war, and that American adventurism in Vietnam otherwise patently lacked. “Apocalypse Now” reveals the horror of necessary madness.
Tyler Durden (“Fight Club” )
Submissively disgruntled with the emasculating effects of postmodern life, the Narrator (Edward Norten) is naturally drawn to fellow traveller Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a more proactive enthusiast for subverting the status quo. Playing rampaging id to the Narrator’s buttoned-up ego, Tyler enacts the Narrator’s darkest fantasies of sexual abandon and sweaty machismo. Soon they have moved in together and started a secret “fight club,” attracting other disaffected men— but as it gradually becomes clear that, while the Narrator sleeps, Tyler has been galvanising malcontent males across the nation to bring down the state and “go back to year zero,” this odd couple is headed for a violent split.
Tyler is presented throughout as the alpha male, the coolest kid on the block, the rebel that everybo(d)y wants to be—and so his schizophrenic terrorist plot, only gradually revealed, is made an object of uneasy desire, as he exposes the repressed yearning in all of us to watch our world burn down. David Fincher’s “Fight Club” may have been made in 1999, but with its final images of buildings collapsing over what Tyler expressly calls “the beginning, Ground Zero,” it is perhaps the most post-9/11 film to have been made pre-9/11, capturing perfectly both the stirring discontent of the Nineties and the madness (both geopolitical and especially economic) that would erupt globally in the decade to come. For in his love of anarchic (self-)destruction, Tyler shows the new Millennium through a glass darkly.
The Joker (“The Dark Knight” )
Accused of being “crazy” by Gotham City’s more conventional gangsters, “I’m not,” insists the Joker (Heath Ledger) firmly, “no, I’m not.” He certainly looks crazy with his clown makeup, his grinning scars, his green-tinged, greasy hair and his garish suits—and he certainly does not play by the rules, whether they be society’s laws or the criminal code. He regularly kills his own men (many recruited straight out of Gotham’s asylum); he painstakingly recovers a tower of illegal cash only to burn it to the ground; and he involves all of Gotham’s citizenry in devilish dilemmas with rigged outcomes. He is “a new class of criminal,” an “an agent of chaos”—and when he asks, rhetorically: “Do I look like a man with a plan?,” his intention is to deceive, as everything that he does seems, and must be calculated many steps in advance. The Joker is, indeed, a man of two faces, a masked performer with an eye constantly on the impact of his antics, which makes him the malevolent inverse of Bruce Wayne’s “Dark Knight” and the seductive template for Harvey Dent’s Two Face. In his acts of arbitrary(-seeming) terror, the Joker exposes the easy potential for anarchy and bestiality within Gotham’s fragile civilisation. As such, in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” he was to become cinema’s poster boy for international terror, with Batman’s extra-legal responses—vigilante violence, external rendition, torture and mass surveillance—darkly reflecting Bush’s America caught in its own moral compromise.
See also: "Five Film That Shocked the World" "Ten Films That Will Give You Nightmares" Credits: Cover Image: The Joker from "The Dark Knight." Photos © respective film studios