Hallucinations on film: Six startling unrealities in cinema


Aguirre, The Wrath of God - hallucination

Klaus Kinski in ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’

Some of the most memorable scenes in the cinema have involved hallucinations seen by movie characters, and although one could argue that film itself is an apparition – an imaginary product consumed as popular art – it’s hardly redundant to crow about the best such images on the screen. Here are six of the top ones, components of must-watch pictures with frightening, disturbing or amusing visions that may (or may not) be there.

Odd Man Out (1947)

Delirious IRA organiser Johnny McQueen (James Mason), wounded after murdering a man during a robbery in Belfast, is taken in by three roommates who want to “help” him, though one – a painter played by the sublime Robert Newton – is determined to create a portrait of the dying one-time pacifist. While the comrades argue, McQueen has a vision of the pictures on the wall coming down to be his audience, with his old teacher Father Tom (W.G. Fay) speaking to him silently. And then the gunman remembers what he was taught, rising to speak of “charity” vis à vis Corinthians in the Bible. This brilliant Carol Reed film certainly has charity, as it is one of the great unknown movies, a postwar document of failure and love during the Troubles in Ireland. Central is Mason’s astonishing performance, particularly this scene where he speaks in the tongues of both men and angels. An unforgettable hallucination in a masterful film.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) has murdered his way to become lord of Cobweb Castle and has even ordered the death of his friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki). During a dinner with guests, he sees the pale, disheveled ghost of his buddy sitting in his room and panics, yelling and stumbling about, even slashing the vision with his sword. Yes, this is Akira Kurosawa’s compelling, Noh-influenced version of Macbeth, and there may not be a better iteration on film. The hallucination-centric sequence is critical to the movie, with Washizu’s guilt and horror apparent … and Kurosawa in command. Artful filmmaking.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

There’s a boat in the trees. Isn’t there? That’s what the passengers on the doomed raft traveling up the Amazon in search of El Dorado see or think they see in this mind-blowing Werner Herzog film. The movie, an almost documentary-like depiction of the insane greed displayed by the conquistadors of old, often resembles a feature-length hallucination, what with its long shots of rushing water and images such as a speaking disembodied head. Yet the boat-in-the-trees image remains one of the most haunting, as it’s not explained. Are the travelers seeing a mass vision, or was the boat the remnant of another, previous expedition that somehow rose skyward in a flood? Herzog smartly doesn’t tell us, leaving us disturbed and content at the same time.

Poltergeist (1982)

You don’t want to look in the mirror when a poltergeist is in the house, but that’s exactly what paranormal investigator Marty (Martin Casella) does in this Tobe Hooper flick – with scary results. Touching his face, he finds that parts of it come off. He does it some more … and soon, he’s ripping off skin to show his under-bones. But it’s a hallucination, right? He’s perfectly normal after that. This frightening sequence, in which you know something bad is going to happen after Marty enters the bathroom, is one of the most unsettling in the film, as it suggests the ghosts are blending imagination and reality.

Videodrome (1983)

Hey, isn’t that Debbie Harry from Blondie beckoning James Woods to kiss the television? Yep. It’s a hallucinogenic, visually astounding scene in this David Cronenberg film, in which Woods’ TV programmer Max Renn searches for the “new flesh” in cable nooks hopefully not near you. During one of his initial forays, Harry’s lips fill the TV set as it bulges out to meet Renn’s face. Wild, humorous and perhaps more prescient now in this age of nothing-sacred “reality” television than it was when it came out.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

The stained-glass window comes to life as a priest, horrified, looks on. A knight jumps out and attacks him. Of course, this is a hallucination, but the priest, who has been shot with a dart containing vision-inducing poison, thinks it’s real. Barry Levinson’s movie based on the adventures of the famed Arthur Conan Doyle detective may be overblown, but the then-state-of-the-art special effects remain striking nearly 30 years after its debut. The sequence with the stained-glass knight is one of its best.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

10 thoughts on “Hallucinations on film: Six startling unrealities in cinema

  1. Pingback: David Cronenberg’s Films Ranked from Worst to Best (Part One) - CURNBLOG

  2. I love the shoutout for Young Sherlock Holmes. I saw that in the theaters, and thought the stained glass hallucination was fantastic; I watched it with my mom not too long ago and it still holds up. (The pastry hallucination…not so much.)

    I really need to move Aguirre to the top of my Netflix list. Thanks for the reminder.

    • I like Young Sherlock Holmes, too–I saw it when it came out, and I definitely count it among my guilty pleasures! And yes, the pastry scene was probably much more tolerable when it debuted. Still, I definitely think many of the special effects were well done. There was also a frightening effect toward the beginning when a diner’s bird comes alive in a hallucination … unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that one!

  3. I still have never seen Odd Man Out. Need to rectify that soon.

    My first thought when I saw the headline was “Liquid Sky!”, but then I thought about it and I can’t remember if there’s an hallucination sequence anywhere, or whether it’s just that the whole film feels that way…

  4. Not so sure about ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘Young Sherlock’ Simon, but you are spot on with the others. ‘Aguirre’ and ‘Throne of Blood’ are two of my favourite films, and the scenes that you mention are mystical and haunting indeed.
    Cronenberg has a penchant for gross-out, but he is certainly foreseeing a future of Reality TV, 3D, and audience participation here!
    Great idea, and very well realised.
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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