Hypnosis and mind control can lead to some fascinating stories, character developments, and plot twists. These are plot devices that grant filmmakers ample room to run wild with their tales.
Under hypnosis and/or mind control, a character can act against their will, be forced to retrieve lost memories, or even view reality in a distorted way (without us, the viewers, realizing it).
It can give rise to unreliable narrators, who are perfect for plot twists and red herrings, but even when we do know a protagonist is in a trance, it's still thrilling to witness them slowly discover it themselves.
Here are my picks for the best movies with hypnosis and mind control, which span various genres and styles to explore how hypnotism and brain manipulation can affect characters.
15. Shallow Hal (2001)
Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
Starring Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jason Alexander
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 54m)
The Farrelly brothers employed dramatic irony in Shallow Hal to make us laugh and teach a valuable lesson. That lesson—don't judge a book by its cover—is pretty clichéd, but still important!
Jack Black stars as the titular Hal, who's far from being a prize pig himself but shamelessly continues to be extremely judgmental of how other people look. Especially women.
After being stuck in an elevator with real-life motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Hal is unknowingly thrown into a hypnosis that makes him only see people's inner beauty.
Once he stops objectifying women, Hal manages to find the love of his life (disguised as the beach blonde beauty Gwyneth Paltrow).
14. The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters
Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller (1h 53m)
You've probably heard of the chaos theory illustration: a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a tornado on the other side of the world. Not literally, of course. It's just a metaphor about how small events now can compound into massive changes down the line.
Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber use this illustration as the basis for their sci-fi thriller The Butterfly Effect, starring Ashton Kutcher as Evan, who suffers with periodic amnesia.
Evan eventually realizes that he's able to travel through time and inhabit the body of his past self, meaning those blackouts are periods when he's possessing himself. When he does this, his younger self is put into a trance-like state for him to control.
What seems like a blessing soon turns into a curse: even the tiniest changes he makes in the past always seem to snowball into huge changes that vastly alter his future.
13. K-PAX (2001)
Directed by Iain Softley
Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (2h)
Regression hypnosis is a therapy technique used to access repressed memories and gain insight into childhood traumas—but it's mainly used in movies because medical practitioners deem it unscientific.
Dr. Mark Powell (played by Jeff Bridges) turns to hypnosis when he hits a wall with his delusional patient, who has the uncapitalized name of prot (played by Kevin Spacey). At a psychiatric hospital, prot claims he's an alien from the planet K-PAX, which is 1,000 light years away.
What baffles Powell is how prot is unaffected by drugs and has a genius level of knowledge about his home galaxy. But from his regression sessions, Powell finds that prot is simply the alter ego of a suicidal man from New Mexico. Or is he?
12. Trance (2013)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 41m)
Trance isn't the best or most well-known James McAvoy movie, but his acting remains fine as ever here as he stars opposite Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson.
That said, the person with the most presence in Trance is auteur Danny Boyle. The director throws it all back to his early days of grime, thrills, and trippy visuals, wincing through a fast-paced inspection of the psyche's darkest corners.
Trance is a little confused, but that's mostly done on purpose as the protagonist suffers with amnesia and transference. This isn't ideal when a gang of thieves ends up torturing him for information about a missing painting.
Trance was critiqued for being style over substance, but we'll give it the benefit of the doubt and say it's supposed to feel like a B-movie.
11. Dark Shadows (2012)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter
Comedy, Fantasy, Horror (1h 53m)
Keen senses, immortality, and shapeshifting are well-known traits associated with vampires. However, many films and folklores also award them the power of hypnosis, as is the case with Dark Shadows.
Adapted from the gothic soap opera that aired on ABC, Tim Burton casts Johnny Depp as the eccentric, loyal, charming, and a touch melodramatic vampire Barnabas Collins.
A secret witch puts Barnabas's fiancée in a trance, forcing her to jump off a cliff in 1760. Cursed to spend 200 immortal years in a coffin, Barnabas wakes up in the 1970s (when the original show was made) and uses his own hypnotic powers to seek revenge.
It may have done poorly at the domestic box office, but overseas viewers loved Dark Shadows for its energy and comedic timing.
10. Dead Again (1991)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 47m)
Dead Again is one of those films you may have to watch twice to fully grasp—and appreciate—what transpires.
The plot twists, memory loss, dual narratives, and unreliable characters will have you as befuddled as its central amnesiac Grace (played by Emma Thompson), a mute who turns up at an orphanage door.
To try and claw back some of her memories, Detective Mike Church (played by Kenneth Branagh) sends Grace to a hypnotist for past life regression. Rather than her own memories, though, Grace seems to recall those of a 1940s couple in third-person POV.
Kenneth Branagh also directs this film, chucking aside his usual Shakespearean tales for mainstream neo-noir thrills. If you can get past his American accent—which isn't inaccurate so much as just annoying—you're in for a treat.
9. Office Space (1999)
Directed by Mike Judge
Starring Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman
Comedy (1h 29m)
There have been several notable movies that depict the woes of working life, including Clerks, Burn After Reading, and Horrible Bosses. Modern office life has its own specific culture that was best parodied in The Office, but before that there was Office Space.
Director Mike Judge has a passion for American satire, as we see in his filmography of animated sitcoms that include Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, Daria, The Simpsons, and The Goode Family, as well as Silicon Valley and Idiocracy.
Office Space is one of the few movies he's made, and luckily it was a success. It's a memeified cult comedy about cubicle drone Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston), who's given new life when he's literally hypnotized into becoming carefree.
8. Europa (1991)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Barbara Sukowa, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
Drama, Thriller (1h 52m)
Europa is on a completely different wavelength than most of the films on this list. It is, after all, an experimental European drama produced between six different countries.
Lars von Trier's psychological war film was first released as Zentropa in North America, which also happens to be the name of Von Trier's production company and the film's railway company (a stand-in for the real train company Mitropa).
The use of hypnotism is more abstract in Europa. Max von Sydow narrates the film in second person, like that of a hypnotist. He counts us down, and "when you have counted to ten inwardly, you will be in Europa." It's like waking up from (or perhaps in) a trance.
Expressionism, superimpositions, projections, noir elements, and a mix of black-and-white with color are what make Europa a unique film experience you won't soon forget.
7. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh
Drama, Thriller (2h 6m)
How about some conventional film noir? This one's based on the 1959 political novel by Richard Condon. Released as the Red Scare was drawing to a close, The Manchurian Candidate depicts communists as brainwashers fighting for world domination.
Frank Sinatra plays the central Korean War veteran Raymond, who's subjected to communist "brainwashing" (a term The Manchurian Candidate popularized) and put into an almost hypnotic state. He's "programmed" as a sleeper agent, ready to kill when triggered.
But even though it was produced in the early 1960s, you shouldn't take the film's political stance too seriously because it's actually a parody of the McCarthyite movement. (The CIA also admitted that Raymond was the goal outcome of Project MK-Ultra.)
6. Whirlpool (1950)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Starring Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer
Crime, Drama, Noir (1h 38m)
Film noir has a flair for the hypnotic, both visually and narratively. Hypnosis does have a shadowy, mysterious aura about it after all.
Otto Preminger's adaptation of Guy Endore's 1946 novel Methinks the Lady... takes a journey into the subconscious. More precisely, Ann Sutton's subconscious (played by Gene Tierney).
Imagine committing a murder and having no memory of it. That's what Ann is accused of after meeting the seemingly heroic hypnotist David Korvo (played by José Ferrer). Next thing she knows, Ann is plagued by insomnia and keeps falling into trances.
Whirlpool also plays with the idea of self-hypnosis, which experts are still debating the plausibility of to this day.
5. Nightmare Alley (2021)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 30m)
The 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's novel is a great movie for any classical film noir fans, but I'm picking the more modern version that caters to a wider audience.
Guillermo del Toro layered on the creepiness for his rendition of Nightmare Alley, featuring an all-star cast of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara, led by Bradley Cooper.
Here, Bradley Cooper plays a traveling carnie who learns the tricks of the clairvoyant trade in 1940s New York. Although Nightmare Alley does deal with all things mind-reading and manipulation, nobody gets straight-up hypnotized.
Instead, the whole film has a general hypnotic, unsettling, mesmerizing quality, like we're drinking the opium-laced liquor used to lure in and trap the carnival workers.
4. Oldboy (2003)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong
Action, Drama, Mystery (2h)
Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) has been inexplicably imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years when he's suddenly hypnotized, kidnapped, and then set free. He awakens on a rooftop and goes downstairs to a sushi restaurant—an innocent act that ends up haunting Dae-su for the rest of this vengeful movie.
Loosely based on the Japanese manga series, Oldboy is an acclaimed slice of South Korean postmodernism that treads a darker path than most romance movies. Inspired by Oedipus the King, hypnosis plays a pivotal role in Oldboy's anguished finale.
Dae-su learns that sometimes it's better not to know, and this revelation leads him on a voluntary journey of memory loss akin to that seen in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 7m)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a huge cultural and cinematic milestone. It's the emblem of German Expressionism, the first-ever horror film, and the gateway to film noir.
This silent classic is characterized by angular, pointed, or bending structures, giving Robert Wiene's nightmarish world a very distinct, twisted-up visual style. But what's it actually about?
Werner Krauss plays the mysterious (and completely mad) hypnotist of a traveling sideshow attraction. Dr. Caligari places a somnambulist (sleepwalker) called Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) under his spell and sends him on a murder rampage.
2. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, which manifests as a creepy giant rabbit called Frank. Frank warns Donnie the world is about to end and leads him down a rabbit hole of time travel and apocalypse theories.
The whole eerie atmosphere of Donnie Darko, coupled with Donnie's visions, sleepwalks, and blackouts, give this cult classic a constant hypnagogic quality. At one point, Donnie actually is hypnotized—by his therapist to find the root of his mental illness.
What he does under those few minutes of hypnosis speak to how easily Donnie's mind is intercepted, but also to how there may be a subconscious mental block to stop others uncovering the truth. The whole thing is basically a hallucinatory, Freudian fever dream.
1. Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 44m)
Get Out took the number one spot in most "best films of the year" polls in 2017. Jordan Peele used the horror genre to probe into so-called "post-racial America," which is anything but post-racist.
It begins with Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend's wealthy family. He was nervous even before her mother persuades Chris into a hypnotherapy session, to which he eventually agrees in order to quit smoking.
But it all takes a detour into the "Sunken Place," and the Sunken Place is not where you want to end up. When a bunch of weird things start happening, Chris tries to escape—but is disarmed through hypnosis.
With Chris tied up in the basement, Peele takes us on a horrifying psychological voyage where the Armitage family admits to transplanting white brains into black bodies, then preps Chris for his surgery, his consciousness forever to remain in the Sunken Place.