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A Salon film critic picks her 10 favorite paranoia-inducing movies.


1. “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) — “It has an undertaste. A chalky undertaste.” That’s what Mia Farrow says as she nibbles at the chocolate mousse that’s been sent over as an after-dinner treat by her friendly neighborhood Satan worshiper, Ruth Gordon. Little does Farrow know that the mousse contains super-knockout drops that will lull her into a deep stupor, so she won’t know she’s coupling with Beelzebub to conceive his little sproutling as the satanic senior citizens who occupy her apartment building look on approvingly. Evil lurks in the hearts of men, especially on the co-op board.

2. “The Birds” (1963) — Nature turns against humankind, suddenly and inexplicably, as birds of the world unite and decide they’re just not gonna take it anymore. The sight of humans reduced to being caged captives while the birds go free is only one of the unsettling and malevolent images here.

3. “The Conversation” (1974)Francis Ford Coppola’s moody thriller tells the story of a surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) who becomes caught up in a crisis of conscience after he’s hired to tail a young couple. It’s also a study of a man who feels as if he’s being driven out of his own skin by fear and guilt. The only thing worse than feeling that the world’s against you is knowing that you’re no longer for yourself.

4. “The Matrix” (1999) — The Wachowski brothers make an amusement ride out of paranoia in their tale of an alternate world that controls what we only think is the real one. It may be facile, but it sure is fun.

5. “Conspiracy Theory” (1997) — Mel Gibson is a mentally unbalanced New York taxi driver who sees government conspiracies everywhere he looks: He may be nuts, but unfortunately, he’s also right. Director Richard Donner’s mode of storytelling is nerve fraying, but it’s the isolation and muted despair in Gibson’s eyes that really get you.

6. “The Insider” (1999) — Russell Crowe plays a tobacco industry exec who speaks out against the evils he has seen, only to have the whole world, including his family, turn against him. The ultimate modern drama about being punished for actually having principles.

7. “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) — Bruce Willis is a time-traveler convict who’s sent back in time from 2035 to the 1990s to track the genesis of a killer virus that has wiped out most of the world’s population; naturally, none of the earth’s denizens believe him when he tries to warn them of the impending doom. Inspired by experimental filmmaker Chris Marker’s eerie and deeply moving 1962 short film “La Jetée,” “Twelve Monkeys” is unnervingly suspenseful — and leaves you feeling both satisfied and desolate.

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8. “Klute” (1971) — Hang-up calls, obscene and unsigned letters, a voyeur who eyes his prey through a skylight in the roof of an apartment building. Jane Fonda plays a successful call girl who tries to deny her troubling suspicions that someone is scattering garbage on her stoop, shuffling through her mail, watching her every move. The simplicity of director Alan Pakula’s approach is what gets you, like the shot of a man’s hand clinging to a chain-link fence as we get a camera’s-eye view through Fonda’s window. Creepy.

9. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) — An American soldier (Laurence Harvey) is captured in Korea and brainwashed by Communist operatives into becoming an assassin who kills without remorse, programmed to carry out a deadly mission upon his return to the United States. Frank Sinatra, the captain of Harvey’s platoon, is plagued by recurrent nightmares in which he sees Harvey kill a young soldier in cold blood, but he’s not sure what they mean. John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece of Cold War paranoia works so beautifully because it takes place in a world that’s only half gone mad. The other half is all too recognizable, a world in which the biggest villains are also the most piously patriotic figures, politicians gleefully play and feed upon the fears of citizens and both the far right and the far left happily rewrite the concept of “freedom” to fit their own agendas. In other words, trust no one.

10. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) — Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams gradually come to realize that plant pods from outer space are taking over the bodies of their friends, neighbors and loved ones. Philip Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 horror classic is better than Don Siegel’s original, and resonates for much longer. If you’ve ever seen “Invasion” on the big screen, the final shot, a screech of horror that segues into a soundless credit sequence, may have left you feeling like the last person in the movie theater. The last real person, that is.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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