Crazy Sweaty Cool: Thirteen of Our Favorite Paranoid/Conspiracy Movies
If you are a fan of conspiracy theories, you are living in the right era. Pizzagate, Epstein, personality cults, furniture retailers selling children in armoires… It’s all so weird and dumb, and belief in this stuff is terrifyingly widespread.
But we didn’t start the fire. Cinema du Conspiracy has been thriving since the ’60s, amply fueled by the confusion and uncertainty that followed in the wake of the Warren Commissions report on JFK’s assassination. Again and again, the JFK story reappears in films and other fictional thrillers about conspiracies and paranoia. But even though the JFK conspiracy is the Big Daddy of them all, there are also movies about other conspiracies and the general paranoia stew that was the late 20th century.
Here are some deep cuts from Conspiracy and Paranoia land, chosen by AFS Lead Programmer Lars Nilsen. We assume you are familiar with some of the heavy hitters in the genre, THE CONVERSATION, JFK, THE PARALLAX VIEW, BLOW OUT, etc. Here are some others that you may not be familiar with and can help provide you with a few therapeutic hours of controlled mania before you turn on the news and are again confronted with the deep weirdness of real life.
For the Letterboxers among you, here is a link so you can add these films to your own watchlist.
BLUE SUNSHINE (1977, Dir, Jeff Lieberman)
In this true classic of seventies paranoia, a bunch of people start flipping out and committing murders for seemingly no reason, until someone pieces together the fact that they had all taken a mysterious strain of LSD back in the ’60s. Dark secrets, harrowing bad trips, it’s all here. A spectacular piece of low-budget horror filmmaking.
CAPRICORN ONE (1977, Dir. Peter Hyams)
This picks up where the “moon landing was faked” theory lets off. Here, it’s a Mars landing, staged in a TV studio. The astronauts whose lives are in danger are played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson and the reporter who flips over desks in his crusade to discover the truth and protect the hapless astronauts is played by Elliott Gould! A fast-paced, mildly silly ride, but it’s fun.
Streaming on HBO Max & Shout Factory TV
CUTTER’S WAY (1981, Dir. Ivan Passer)
When Jeff Bridges’ character Richard Bone sees a crime perpetrated by a wealthy man go unpunished, he is thirsty for justice. But when he brings his physically and mentally scarred Vietnam vet friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) into the picture, he unleashes a hurricane of righteous fury. A fascinating character study that assumes you agree with the premise that America is hopelessly corrupt and evil and goes from there.
EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973, Dir. David Miller)
A lot of these films allude in various ways to the JFK assassination. This one meets it head-on, postulating a theory, put forward by assassination historian Mark Lane, about how and why the President was killed. Starring Burt Lancaster and scripted by Donald Trumbo, it’s a very dramatic Hollywood take on the events, in a good way. This one was pretty controversial and was pulled from theaters. A few short years later, in the aftermath of Watergate, it fit right in with the national tone of skepticism and mistrust in institutions.
THE HIDDEN (1987, Dir. Jack Sholder)
In this one, the shape-shifting evil that is making people commit mass murders comes from a galaxy far, far away, and so does its adversary, a space cop temporarily occupying the very symmetrical body of Kyle MacLachlan. Hyperviolent, humorous and genuinely surprising in its plot convolutions.
LAST EMBRACE (1979, Dir. Jonathan Demme)
A real left turn by Demme, whose previous film had been the Altmanesque ensemble dramedy CITIZENS BAND. Here Roy Scheider plays a tough CIA agent on the mend from a nervous breakdown who finds that his employers are not thrilled to have him back. A great cast (the underrated Janet Margolin, Charles Napier and weird young Christopher Walken) adds a lot to this, as does the incredible orchestral score by the legendary old-Hollywood composer Miklos Rosza.
SECONDS (1966, Dir. John Frankenheimer)
The unsung star of this speculative fiction movie is cinematographer James Wong Howe whose career stretches back to 1923. Always an innovator, here he was allowed to produce some wild effects in the service of the story of a drab, middle-aged man who fakes his death and undergoes a complete identity change including plastic surgery, only to find that all is not what it seems.
Streaming on Kanopy
SHIVERS (1975, Dir. David Cronenberg)
Cronenberg’s first feature shows us a tightly controlled utopian condo of the future faced with a parasitic venereal infection that turns its residents into zombie sex freaks. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD meets J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise.” The touchy-feely self-help vibe of the condo overlords creates a truly creepy counterpoint to the gory body-horror proceedings within. We’re all scared of the CIA, but this movie makes us fear our horny neighbors too. Sheesh.
Streaming on the Criterion Channel
SPARE PARTS (1979, Dir. Rainer Erler)
This one is pretty obscure. Made by Germans in the US for German TV. You can find it on YouTube and on at least one of those 50 movie DVD sets. It’s surprisingly suspenseful and good. A young German couple on their honeymoon in New Mexico (OK, we’ll let that one pass) are pursued by freelance organ harvesters in a supercharged ambulance. There are many plot convolutions involving the military and hospitals and it all ends with a big action-filled bang in New York City.
THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973, Dir. Ivan Dixon)
This one is something different entirely. An adaptation of a novel written by former US Information Agency official Sam Greenlee about a black man who, recruited by the CIA as a token, becomes disillusioned with the philosophy and utility of the agency and goes rogue, deploying the training and tactics of the racist US government against it. This is a truly groundbreaking film, and there was some offscreen espionage surrounding its release. It was removed from circulation and the negative was (intentionally?) mislabeled and misfiled in the vault. The actor/producer Tim Reid, an admirer of the film, found the negative thirty years later and gave the film its first truly widespread release in 2004. Current Austin Studios Director Martin Jones was an Executive Producer of the rerelease, by the way.
THE STUFF (1975, Dir. Larry Cohen)
Larry Cohen’s curmudgeonly companion piece to John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE is about a decadently delicious dessert called THE STUFF. Nobody knows what’s in it, or where it comes from, but Cohen’s favorite over-the-top actor Michael Moriarty is a former spy hired by Big Ice Cream to find out. It’s silly, of course, but as usual with the acerbic Cohen, there’s an underlying distrust of authority figures running through the narrative.
Streaming on Amazon Prime and Hoopla
TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977, Dir. Robert Aldrich)
The tagline says it all: “WE HAVE INVADED SILO 3. WE ARE PREPARED TO LAUNCH NINE NUCLEAR MISSILES. WE DEMAND TEN MILLION DOLLARS, AIR FORCE ONE… AND YOU, MR PRESIDENT.” That’s the crux of the drama, but it has some of that good old anti-establishment juice as well. The leader of the insurrection is a disgraced former general (Burt Lancaster again) who wants the public to hear the real truth about why America was in Vietnam. Gritty, grimy and kind of dimly photographed, it benefits from Robert Aldrich’s dependable mastery of film direction and ratchets up that tension big time.
WINTER KILLS (1979, William Richert)
Maybe the platonic ideal of a conspiracy movie, it has just about anything you would ever want. Jeff Bridges plays the half-brother of the assassinated President “Keegan,” whose father, played by John Huston, is a string-pulling zillionaire. When Bridges gets a hot tip about who killed his brother, he finds that seemingly everyone is out to stop him. While it works as an exhilarating thriller, it also works as a pitch black comedy and social satire. It was not a hit at the time, to put it mildly, but the passage of time has been kind to the film, and audiences seem to finally be ready for it.
Streaming on Amazon Prime, Hoopla, Kanopy