10 Best films about psychics

James Oliver 30 January 2022

Grab a crystal ball and get your mystic on because we're about to dive into psychic territory. These are the best films to see-r

Ah! There you are. Come on in. Dim the lights, sit down and—whatever you do—don't break the circle. Now, if we're ready, is there anybody there?

No? OK, fair enough.

You can blame the release of Nightmare Alley for all this; Guillermo Del Toro's new film is about a phoney fortune teller (...among other things), and it's given us the idea to look at clairvoyants in movies. So we're polishing up our crystal balls and peering at the most notable cinematic psychics, from the utter frauds to the real deal.

So, take the hand of your spirit guide and we shall begin.

Blithe Spirit

And where else can we begin than with the greatest Medium in movie history? Not to be confused with any later remake, this adaptation of Noël Coward's theatrical comedy was directed by David Lean in which a man (Rex Harrison) is haunted—quite literally—by the ghost of his first wife. Tired of the problem, he recruits dotty local spiritualist Madame Arcarti (Margaret Rutherford) to sort things out. Which isn't his smartest move.

No one could do “dotty” like Rutherford and she's at her absolute peak here. Her communications with the netherworld might not go according to plan but it's a comedy performance for the ages.

The Clairvoyant

You probably don't know much about screenwriter Charles Bennett. He was, though, an important figure, not least because he wrote many of Hitchcock's early films, doing much to help the Master of Suspense hone his style. Sadly Hitchcock had nothing to do with The Clairvoyant, which is why it's rather obscure but it's well worth seeking out.

Claude Rains plays a theatrical “mind reader” whose act is a sham, until one day he starts to have visions about the impending future. To say more risks wandering into spoiler territory; suffice it to say, however, Charles Bennett was a heck of a writer.

Family Plot

 

And talking of Hitchcock, it would be wrong to ignore his very final film, which is itself a little bit overlooked. A shame, because it's tremendously breezy fun. Our medium here is Madame Blanche (Barbara Harris). She doesn't really have “the gift” but don't tell her clients that, especially not the one who's hired Blanche (and boyfriend George, played by Bruce Dern) at vast expense to track down a missing nephew.

This being Hitchcock, one does not need to be able to see into the future to know that there will be complications afoot. Rather more, in fact, than Madame Blanche has foreseen.

Ghost

Whoopi Goldberg might not have had the lead here—that would be Demi Moore (as Molly, a woman grieving for her beloved) and Patrick Swayze (as Sam, the dear departed)—but she won an Oscar (and looks to be having the most fun) as the medium who discovers she actually has the powers she only pretended to have, and who helps Sam settle up with Molly and say goodbye properly. The rest of the film isn't bad either, a proper three-hankie tear-jerker that briefly made pottery sexy.

Miracles For Sale / The Amazing Mr X / Charley Chan At Treasure Island

A triple bill, all available on the old YouTube. Miracles for Sale (1939) is a proto-Jonathan Creek, about a stage magician who busts the con artistes pretending to have psychic powers, something that the title character of The Amazing Mr X (1948) might know more than a little about. Charley Chan At Treasure Island (1939) sets the Hawaiian super-sleuth on a similar sort of beat, in an adventure that weirdly prefigures the Zodiac serial killer. (No! Seriously!)

But the important point is this: all were made when psychics were far more widely believed in than now. Most of them were unabashed hucksters, exploiting the bereaved. In their own way, these films were public services, helping to drive the crooks out of business.

Seance On A Wet Afternoon

Another film about a fraudulent mystic but an altogether more sombre piece. Kim Stanley is the would-be seer here, only she's not the most mentally stable of sorts: she has persuaded her milquetoast husband (Richard Attenborough, close to his best) to kidnap a child. She then intends to “solve” the case with her “powers” and then she will be duly acclaimed. Or at least, that's the plan.

A study of delusion and more, it is a masterpiece of quiet devastation, not to mention one of the neglected classics of British cinema.

Magic In The Moonlight

Directed by Woody Allen—let's set aside the shouting for now—this is one of the better films made during his European sojourn. Set in 1928, Colin Firth plays a sceptical stage magician recruited to do a spot of debunking, taking on a fashionable mystic (Emma Stone) currently playing her trade on the Côte d'Azur. Trouble is, she seems to know an awful lot about her would-be tormentor: could uncanny powers be at work for real? Even worse, is he falling in love with her?

Red Lights

It's been established in a court of law that Robert De Niro's quality control has gone right down the drain in the last few years: fork out enough dough and he'll happily appear in your home movies. That's not to say that everything he touches is bobbins though, as Red Lights proves.

Here the Greatest Actor Of His Generation plays a prominent psychic, who is being investigated by a professional Doubting Thomas played by Cillian Murphy. But the investigation isn't going terribly well. Strange things are afoot, inexplicable things. Could it be that the sceptics are wrong? And if they are, maybe they're at risk of revenge...?

It might not be Taxi Driver or King of Comedy but it's nice to be reminded of a time when De Niro knew what a decent script was.

Read more: Gregory Porter: If I Ruled The World

Read more: The best new movies of 2022

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