“You live in the image you have of the world. Every one of us lives in a different world, with different space and different time.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky
Whilst the basis of western filmmaking is based on a rigid structure of narrative, including character stereotypes and practical cinematography, its origins lie in something far more experimental. Some of the earliest and most influential films of all time, including the likes of A Trip to the Moon from George Méliès and Metropolis by Fritz Lang, inspired tales of strange ethereal wonder that utilised a wide range of eclectic film styles and forms of expression.
Over a century later and cinema has enjoyed a vast increase in its amount of filmmaking devices, with the dawn of animatronics, green screen and the brand new StageCraft, allowing filmmakers to conjure new worlds previously restricted to the corners of a creatives’ own mind. Filmmakers such as David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Gaspar Noé are famous for toying with such experimentation, using the medium of film as a sandbox to design their own eccentric worlds.
Spanning multiple genres, cinematic styles and cultural influences, the most experimental films of all time offer a psychedelic delight of twisted colours, technical wizardry and mind-bending storytelling. These are the films that make us consider our reality from a new angle, from the wild animated worlds of René Laloux to Alejandro Jodorowsky landscapes of dreams, wonder and insanity.
The 10 best psychedelic films of all time:
10. Uzumaki (Higuchinsky, 2000)
Embracing the strange and the surreal, the Japanese culture celebrates fantastical tales of enigmatic charm, with Uzumaki (Vortex) from Ukraine-born director Higuchinsky, presenting such a tale that suffuses horror into a fantasy dream world.
A vivid, visceral tale of horror, Uzumaki follows the inhabitants of a small Japanese town who become increasingly obsessed with and tormented by mysterious spirals. A horrifying tale that is both captivating and oddly repulsive, director Higuchinsky stated that he wanted to make a film like Star Wars before stating in an interview, “Because I’m Japanese, I should do something different”.
9. The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)
Master of the surreal, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is the Chilean-French filmmaker’s most well-known feature film, traversing genre to embrace a surreal tale influenced by René Daumal and Luis Buñuel.
An unmistakable film of Jodorkovsky’s idiosyncratic world, The Holy Mountain is intoxicating and bewildering, an acid trip suffused with revolutionary creative energy. The untamed illusory dream follows a man, played by Jodorowsky, leading a Christ figure to a mountain of immortal wise men in a colourful kaleidoscopic journey that dances in insanity and celebrates the phantasmagoric.
8. Pink Floyd – The Wall (Alan Parker, Gerald Scarfe, 1982)
Re-establishing the band’s connection with their true fans, whilst excavating into their own identity simultaneously, Alan Parker’s, Pink Floyd – The Wall is a treat for the retinas, a feature-length thrill of animated psychedelia and live-action drama.
Depicting walking hammers, monstrous creatures and apocalyptic visions each working to metaphorically represent existential concepts of war and fascism, Bob Geldof stars as a rock star building an internal and physical wall to block out the outside world. As Alan Parker stated, “It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before – a weird fusion of live-action, story-telling and of the surreal”.
7. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
The first addition to Reggio’s trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi is visual poetry at its finest, a striking reflection that is contextualised within the constructs of modernity, examining how the advance of our technological developments have changed the world forever.
Produced by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, the director stated the film was “important for people to see,” and helped to distribute the film to a wider audience. The film itself is an exploration of the human landscape, navigating through the desert and into the populated city, where pioneering editing and camera techniques combine with Phillip Glass‘ orchestral score to create a symphony of life. Getting lost in Reggio and Glass’ world is a perplexing, hypnotic treat.
6. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
There are very few filmmakers with the same innovative eye as the Argentine director Gaspar Noé, having formulated a fascinating landscape of cinema including the likes of Irréversible, Climax and Enter the Void.
Released in 2009, Enter the Void remains one of the most mind-bending, psychological brain-twisters ever made, telling the story of an American drug dealer killed in a drug deal who begins to observe his past life and seek resurrection. A hypnotic, cosmic journey Gaspar Noé does not abide by the rules of cinema utilising first-person filmmaking, ingenious hallucinogenic cinematography and extraordinary editing. Time to go down the rabbit hole.
5. Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968)
Whilst the rest of The Beatles’ films could be seen as an exercise in vanity, Yellow Submarine is a true musical masterpiece. Whilst the band worked to inspire and influence the music industry onstage, Yellow Submarine would impact the future shape of animation.
Perhaps the closest thing you can get to actually experiencing the energy, vibrancy and creativity of The Beatles in contemporary life, Yellow Submarine is a trippy orgasm of colour and psychedelia. Paving the way for the interludes of Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus, the art of animator Chris Caunter, who also worked on Pink Floyd: The Wall, is truly incredible, coming to life in the ecstatic ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ sequence.
4. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)
A filmmaker highly admired by the great Quentin Tarantino, Shinya Tsukamoto’s work on Tetsuo: The Iron Man would help to define his later career, having a seminal influence on the shape of the cyberpunk movement in Japanese cinema.
“In Tetsuo, I really wanted to show Tokyo as an urban jungle, and if you’re living in a concrete jungle, you forget about human instincts, that we are animals,” Tsukamoto explained in an interview. The experimental film, backed by an excellent punk soundtrack, is an insane trip that follows a businessman who is cursed by a strange individual who turns the man into a gross hybrid of flesh and metal.
According to Tsukamoto, Tarantino was so enamoured by his films that he approached the Japanese legend with a special request to produce the third instalment of the Tetsuo series, unfortunately, the project never came to fruition.
3. Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)
Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychedelic animated masterpiece takes us on a gruelling journey using the animated medium to portray some of the most heinous acts known to us, thereby curating a subversive and paradoxical experience.
Told through stunning visual spectacles, Belladonna of Sadness is a beautiful meditation on mysticism, telling the story of a female peasant who is subjected to physical and emotional torture but gains agency over her destiny by utilising the power of witchcraft. Consisting largely of still watercolour paintings influenced by the western art of Gustav Klimt among others, Eiichi Yamamoto is a significant artistic and cinematic triumph.
2. Fantastic Planet (René Laloux, 1973)
Crafted from the mind of the iconic French animator René Laloux, Fantastic Planet has inspired the world of music and experimental film since its release in 1973 as the jewel in the director’s crown alongside such films as Time Masters and Gandahar.
An allegory of human rights and racism, René Laloux’s film is a classic of science fiction, depicting a faraway planet where strange blue giants rule and humanoid rebels are repressed. Laced with an acid-induced floating soundtrack blending psychedelic funk and jazz, Fantastic Planet is a delightful meditation that takes you through a fantasy kingdom terrifically realised and viscerally brought to life.
1. Hausu (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)
Possibly the most idiosyncratic film of all time, Hausu is a psychedelic trip like no other, featuring a flurry of animation, surreal violence and enigmatic Japanese energy from filmmaking master Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Conjured into the mind of the director after a conversation he had with his daughter, Hausu follows a group of seven schoolgirls who travel to one of their aunt’s country homes that turns out to possess an ancient evil. For lovers of Japanese culture, and particularly their surreal sense of humour, Hausu is an absolute must, possessing a bizarre energy that is in equal parts unnerving and hilarious.
Suffusing his world with a mix of vivid hand-drawn animation and surreal cinematic choices, Hausu takes the viewer on a dance of phantasmagorical absurdity.