A far-off scream turns into a cackle of deranged laughter. Hands reach out through steel bars. Straitjacketed crazies cower in padded cells; lights flicker on and off down endless maze-like corridors; groans and whispers echo through the shadows—is there anywhere that exerts a stronger pull over the darker recesses of our cinematic imaginations than the insane asylum? Film has a unique facility to portray impressionistic, subjective states—dreams, nightmares, memories, aspirations—and therefore, of course, madness, because what is madness other than being inescapably trapped in a totally subjective reality? So it’s no wonder there’s long been a filmic fascination with the subject, and within the storied tradition of films set, wholly or partially, in psychiatric institutions, a particularly seminal entry celebrates its 50th anniversary this very day—Sam Fuller‘s exploitation classic “Shock Corridor.”
The schlocky tale of a Pulitzer Prize-hungry journalist who goes undercover in a mental institution to solve a murder and finds himself struggling to hold on to his own sanity, “Shock Corridor” is elevated above its splashy, trashy brethren in the exploitation genre by a couple of things, most notably Fuller’s kinetic editing and shooting style (in jagged, stark black and white, bar one color dream sequence) which lends even the hammiest moments a jolting immediacy. It’s also overtly a document on the America of the time, with the insane-asylum-as-microcosm of society theme writ large; at several junctures, patients deliver long speeches that are more social commentary than characterization, and often the symptoms of their illnesses are themselves not-so-thinly-veiled references to various social ills and issues. And so the witnesses to the crime that the reporter wants to investigate include the inmate driven insane from the bigotry he experienced as the first black student admitted to a previously segregated Southern university, who now believes he is a founding member of the KKK, along with other representations of nuclear panic and the Red Scare (note comedian Dave Chappelle sort of aped/re-tweaked this concept decades later for his comedic means).
That Fuller manages to pack in all this text/subtext and also feature electroshock therapy, stripteases, nymphomaniacs, riots and other salacious diversions is a testament to just how deliriously in-your-face a film can be when you jettison such niceties as good taste or high production values. Undisciplined, unprincipled and totally compelling, the Criterion-approved “Shock Corridor” got us thinking about other representations of asylums on screen through the ages, from the well-known to the more obscure. So take a walk with us through the ward, as we pull back the viewing hatches and observe the following ten snarling, spitting headcases:
Whoever said that less is more when it comes to horror, and that thrills imagined can be more effective than those shown clearly never sent the memo Mathieu Kassovitz’s way. Some years, and several films after his scorchingly brilliant sophomore feature “La Haine,” Kassovitz went to Hollywood and to Halle Berry, for what we hope was a big fat paycheck, and seems to have thought, well, what the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound. And so the resulting film, a mishmash of madness, murder mystery, possession and ghost story sees him throw everything at the wall (occasionally his lead actress) to see what sticks. The result is an overwrought, hysterical hot mess in which the “twists” and revelations are so groaningly telegraphed that it all plays out like déjà vu even the first time you watch it. The film’s biggest problem, aside from Kassovitz’s never having met a strip light that didn’t fizz on and off ominously—at one point that’s happening inside (“That damn generator!”) while lightning flashes outside—is that there’s simply no tension, no ambiguity in the central character at all. She may be possessed, haunted, insane or whatever, but Berry’s Dr Veronica Grey must also be morally good, and what’s really the only reason a woman can murder her defenseless husband with an axe and have it seem like the right thing to have done? The audience gets there a looooong time before the film does, but at least we have time to ponder such questions as: what was the point of Robert Downey Jr’s completely superfluous character? And with him as a doctor and Berry and Penelope Cruz as inmates, is this in fact an Institution for the Criminally Photogenic? Kassovitz would trundle even further down turkey lane with the incomprehensible “Babylon AD,” but really, the greatest shame about “Gothika,” aside from the whole “wtf were you thinking, Halle Berry?” which could arguably be applied to her entire post-Oscar career, is that in its delirious, maximalist embrace of every genre cliché, it stops just short of the all-out camp that could have made it a cult classic.
“The Snake Pit” (1948)
At the time described as transgressive—even horrifying—to a modern eye 1948’s “The Snake Pit” plays as a relatively progressive and measured take on the 1940s mental health system (through framed of course through the all-pervading patriarchy of the period). Directed by Anatole Litvak, it’s a strange hybrid of women’s picture, social critique and defense of the usefulness of psychiatry, and contrary to the impulses of the more melodramatic “madness pictures,” it presents a broad overview of a women’s mental hospital in which the inmates are largely to be pitied rather than feared, and for some of whom at least, cure or the management of the their condition is possible. Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar-nominated performance is one of the elements that gives the film its surprisingly modern feel—for those of us more used to seeing her fretting in period garb or simpering over Errol Flynn, her Virginia here a minor revelation, with her luminous prettiness dialed down and a certain strength underlying her evident fragility. Virginia is committed to psychiatric care with a heavy heart by her devoted new husband, after a series of worrying incidents in which she becomes distressed around a certain date in May. In hospital, a kindly, pioneering doctor takes her case, but even he can only do so much within an underfunded and under-resourced system. Virginia is given electroshock therapy and counseling; she has breakthroughs and setbacks and, having been moved from ward to ward, is eventually deemed well enough to go home. The film, however, is never overly simplistic about her case nor the circumstances of her care—there are multiple reasons for her condition, not one “A-ha!” incident from her past (as in, say Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”) that can account for her retreat from reality. And the professionals in the hospital, with the exception of one unnecessarily strict nurse, are mostly presented as decent people too, perhaps overloaded with too many cases, but well-meaning even when they behave counter to Virginia’s best interests. It’s an engrossing, remarkably un-salacious story that also, in the bravura shot in which an image of the worst ward taken from overhead slowly transforms into that of the titular pit, boasts one of the most memorable images in any asylum film.It’s possibly one of the reasons why, in the intervening years it’s become something of a touchstone, and its title, at least, is referenced in two of the other films on this list (“Nightmare on Elm Street 3” and “Session 9“).
“Shutter Island” (2010)
Part of the enjoyment factor of B-movies is usually how the cronkiness of the story is reflected in the cronkiness of the filmmaking, sometimes leading to the kind of gonzo inventiveness that “Shock Corridor” teems with. But “Shutter Island,” despite all its pulpy, edging-on-hysterical twists and genre trappings, is directed by Martin Scorsese with all the glossy high-production values and technical proficiency that his late period work has been defined by, leaving us with that most paradoxical of beasts: the high-falutin’ B-movie. It gives Scorsese the opportunity to pull out all the stops in terms of flashbacks, dream sequences, layered-on gothic atmosphere and exquisite production design that only a hokey mystery story set in a sinister lunatic asylum could ever really allow, but it does all ultimately serve little purpose—it seems to have been a lot of fun to make, but, overlong, overplotted and overstuffed with ludicrous genre stereotypes (Nazi doctors, hard-bitten ‘tecs, untrustworthy orderlies) “Shutter Island” compromises on anything like relatable characterization. Still, it’s a fun puzzle box to sort through, especially if you manage not to guess the twists too far in advance of when you’re supposed to, and it does all look brilliant, with Scorsese reveling in having a vehicle into which to be able to funnel, in the most affectionate way possible, so much of his encyclopedic movie knowledge, especially the films noir and gothic melodramas of the 1940s and ’50s. But that he’s done so with such a broad remit, and with such resources at his disposal (not least the incredible cast of Leonardo di Caprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, Elias Koteas, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and more) kind of feels a little like a cheat, and so, whatever its visceral pleasures, and however neat a package of lunatic asylum cliches it may make for the purposes of this list, “Shutter Island” remains a fun but resolutely minor entry in the great Scorsese catalog.
A fun little horror anthology film, especially enjoyable for fans of British cinema of the 1970s (the cast is a who’s-who of British acting talent at the time, including Peter Cushing, Robert Powell, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee, Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and an extremely gorgeous, young Charlotte Rampling) “Asylum,” which also goes by the evocative title “House of Crazies,” is a direct-line descendant of the Hammer horrors of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. The broader story is of Dr Martin (Powell) heading out to an archetypal isolated gothic mansion/asylum to interview for a job, only to be set the task of determining which of four patients is actually the previous head of the psychiatry staff there, now become an inmate. This, of course, is the threadbare excuse for the film to tell four different horror stories—all of which show the supernatural explanations for the patients’ manias. There’s the tailor who’s asked to make a suit out of a glowing material that has the power to reanimate the dead; the adulterous husband who offs his wife only for her butchered and wrapped body parts to come back to life to terrorize him and his mistress; the troubled young girl whose pretty, dynamic alter ego turns murderous; and the mad professor type who creates tiny automaton dolls, containing organic viscera, that do his nefarious bidding. But the biggest twist of all (which isn’t saying very much—this is gentle, almost affectionate stuff that feels very familiar to anyone at all versed in old-timey horror films) is reserved for the overarching story of the head doctor gone mad and the fate of the arrogant outsider, Dr Martin. It’s a hit-and-miss affair, elevated by strong performances across the board and by the fact that none of the storylines sticks around long enough to really wear out their welcome, but it’s most famous now for being the screenwriting work of “Psycho” novelist Robert Bloch, and just one of many kinda great horror anthologies produced by masters of cut-above British schlock, Amicus Productions.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” (1987)
One of the better ‘Elm Street’ sequels, and certainly streets ahead of its subpar predecessor, ‘Dream Warriors’ expands the universe of Freddy Krueger mythology to a group of teens who’ve been incarcerated because the adult world believes the physical evidence of the harm Freddy does them in their dreams is evidence that they are a danger to themselves. Enter Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), survivor of the first ‘Elm Street,’ now given a more adult role as an intern who seeks to bring her own personal experience to bear on helping the kids. The film is elevated by some of the better plotting of the series, but also by the strong young cast which here includes Patricia Arquette and “Larry” Fishburne in early roles, though poor Craig Wasson gets the wooden spoon in terms of characterization with his role as a shrink all-too-quickly sold on the supernatural aspects of the case by the fact that he has the hots for Nancy. Returning series creator Wes Craven (who skipped out on ‘Nightmare 2,’ ironically, because he didn’t want to create a franchise; ‘Nightmare’ currently runs to 9 films, a TV show a graphic novels series and several books) exerts a tighter grip on the plot this time out, and uses the dangers of the well-meaning institution into which the kids are placed (group therapy, hypnotism and sedation) as clever ways for them to learn how to team up and defeat Freddy, albeit losing several of their number along the way. It’s pretty tame stuff by today’s standards, but it’s a fun 15s-rated horror flick nonetheless that introduced both the quippier side of Freddy’s persona and also the practice of including a heavy metal track on the films’ soundtracks (just check out how seamlessly Dokken incorporate themselves into footage from the film in the video to “Dream Warriors”)
“Session 9” (2001)
It’s hard to tell if they were deliberate stylistic choices or simply a factor of a low budget and inexperience, but it has to be said that the video-y cheap aesthetic and odd arrhythmic herky-jerk storytelling of Brad Anderson’s “Session 9” definitely do contribute to the film’s effectiveness as an offbeat, low-key exercise in unease. While by no means reinventing the wheel of the haunted house/madhouse genre, the story feels different from others on this list in its strangely prosaic concept: here the victims are not inmates of the place, but a ragtag cleaning crew, specialising in the disposal of hazardous waste, brought in to clean it up many years after the facility has been shuttered. The second stroke of inspiration is that by far the majority of the film takes place not at night, but in the bright light of day, with sunlight streaming in through the windows and only occasional lapses into “the generator’s failing”-style theatrics to bring the scares. In fact “Session 9,” boasting a weirdly eclectic cast (including Peter Mullan, David Caruso and Josh Lucas) as the cleaning team who start to unravel at the seams, is actually never jump-scary, or rather when it tries to be, it fails. But as the group becomes splintered, each crew member falls prey to his vices within the vast, never-ending corridors, rooms and stairwells—Gordon (Mullan) may be hearing things and is having trouble at home with his wife and new baby; Phil (Caruso) is forced to work with Hank who stole his girlfriend and appears to be falling back into a (pretty benign actually) reliance on pot; Hank himself (Lucas) finds a stash of coins and jewellery that he goes back for, unwisely, after dark; and Mike (Stephen Gevedon) the book-smart one become semi-obsessed with the tapes of a psychiatrist’s sessions with a patient suffering from multiple personality disorder. The usual questions about this sort of thing abound (like why on earth would complete files and records still be around for anyone to flip through?), but despite some hokey moments, and some creaky acting (Caruso and Gevedon in particular don’t fare too well) kind of magnified by the overlit, home-video-style look, still “Session 9” is a more than worthy addition to the canon of asylum films, that burrows its own path under your skin with only minimal use of otherwise-standard asylum movie cliches.
Made just two years before “The Snake Pit,” the resolutely B-level movie “Bedlam,” starring classic horror actor Boris Karloff in a role loosely based on a real-life Head Physician at Bedlam (the common name for “Bethlehem Royal Hospital”) in the 1700s, couldn’t be further away from the Olivia de Havilland film’s relative subtlety. Playing a little like an extended recruitment film for the Quaker religion, it details the progression of Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) from 18th century party girl to pious, committed and socially aware reformer. It’s a conversion occasioned by her first witnessing, and then being forced to participate in, life in the overcrowded, underfunded notorious hospital for the insane, under the corrupt stewardship of Master George Sims (Karloff). During her involuntary incarceration, she starts off terrified of the “loonies,” as everyone cheerfully refers to them, but gradually through the unwavering application of kindness and warmth, melts even the most criminally minded. But a few interesting elements pierce the cloying over-sentimentality, chief among them being Karloff’s handwringing turn as the oleaginous, grasping, conniving Head Physician and the sticky end he meets at the hands of the very inmates he so mistreated and neglected. And it does also have an interesting provenance, taking elements of various real-life scandals that preceded an 1871 round of reforms in the hospital, and combining them with inspiration drawn from William Hogarth’s painting “The Rake in Bedlam” which provided not only a vivid visual template for the privations of the inmates, but also depicts the practice, common at the time, of well-dressed society ladies dropping by to be entertained by their antics—something also referred to in the film. Still in what’s overall a pretty dull little film, it’s the scenes of the straw-strewn filth and sub-zoo-like conditions that the inmates were subjected to that leave the deepest impression—from what the historical record suggests, they may not have been all that more extreme than the reality.
A weird, Aussie “Carrie” knock-off, boasting a lower budget and a rather bland visual style (especially when compared to de Palma’s lurid classic), “Patrick” is still a pretty decent little B-movie, mainly thanks to a genuinely unsettling turn by the Marty Feldman-esque Robert Thompson as the titular bedridden maniac. (Note to self: if ever you need to cast a character who sits and stares unblinkingly for the majority of the film, make sure to cast someone who resembles Marty Feldman as closely as possible). After killing his promiscuous mother by electrocuting her in the bath, Patrick slips into a catatonic state for three years, from which it is thought that he’ll never recover, though the head doctor at the hospital where he stays keeps him alive at great expense and trouble, for his own, glory-seeking purposes. When attractive nurse Kathie (Susan Penhaligon) arrives, she discovers that not only can Patrick communicate, he has the power of telekinesis which he uses to rid himself of potential rivals for Kathie’s affection. The film’s pacing slacks off far too much to justify its two-hour running time, and too many precious minutes are eaten up with long expository telephone calls, but the scenes with Patrick present, whether spitting, hurling creepy doctors across the room with his mind, or talking to Kathie via an electronic typewriter are pretty good. Aussie director Richard Franklin subsequently dallied briefly with Hollywood, directing the sequels to both “Psycho” and “F/X: Murder by Illusion,” before attaining the ultimate accolade and being namechecked by Quentin Tarantino as a genre influence, particularly for the film that came after “Patrick,” serial killer flick “Road Games.”
“Girl, Interrupted” (1999)
Leaving even “Gothika” in the dust in terms of the pulchritude of its inmates, the girls, interrupted of “Girl, Interrupted,” led by Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Elizabeth Moss, Brittany Murphy and Clea DuVall do their best to inject some life into a film that’s ultimately too smoothed down and too comfortably directed (by James Mangold) to really punch its point home. If, indeed, it has much of a point at all. In what should be a far more jagged and jarring story (and by all accounts is much more so in the source autobiographical novel) Ryder plays Susannah, a Gauloise-smoking, pixie-cut-sporting Jean Seberg-esque young woman, confused by onrushing adulthood, distracted parenting and the social upheavals of the 60s (so we’re told) into a kind of existential fugue serious enough to lead her to make a potential suicide attempt and then commit herself to an institution. Once there, it seems clear that as troubled as she may be, she’s a lot less so than most of her fellow inmates, and over time she forms bonds with many of them, especially the volatile, potentially sociopathic Lisa (Jolie), whose amorality may trouble Susannah but not as much as her wildness attracts her. But the film’s over-earnest insistence that Susannah is the central character and the central focus of our attention becomes a major flaw as we realize that of all of the women there (including Whoopi Goldberg as the head nurse and Vanessa Redgrave as a shrink), she’s probably the least interesting (Jolie is definitely the film’s MVP), and the most obviously destined-to-be-fixed of them anyway.So the potentially strong supporting cast are reduced to ciphers, mere waystations on Susannah’s route to inevitable rehabilitation, characters designed and presented solely to teach our heroine a series of lessons. That fact is as much as Ryder dresses, looks and smokes the part of the thoughtful, writerly outsider in denial over the depth of her pain, and as much as Jolie snarls and slaps her way to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the film doesn’t have a great deal of importance or insight to say about mental illness, the turbulent period in which it’s set, or even the pros and cons of institutionalization. As an entertaining, well-acted yarn, it’s likeable enough; it’s just a shame it’s had all its sharp edges removed.
“Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970)
There’s so much to be appalled by and so much to be transfixed by, in Werner Herzog’s 1970 film “Even Dwarves Started Small” that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but it’s clear that already in his second film, Herzog was a director of singular vision and utter fearlessness when it came to bringing that vision to life. Set in some sort of an institution housed within an isolated compound, it’s the narratively sketchy story of an inmate rebellion against the authorities, during which buildings are destroyed, plants are burned, animals tortured (including the crucifixion of a monkey) and whatever few boundaries of civilization that ever existed inside the walls are broken down. Oh and did we mention that every member of the cast is a dwarf? Yet somehow, despite Herzog’s trademark disgust with humanity and his recognition of the essential brutality of nature (even the chickens turn cannibalistic toward each other) there’s an even-handed objectivity to the way the film is presented that makes direct judgment difficult and accusations of mere exploitation impossible. Indeed, even the moments in which our attention is explicitly called, by Herzog’s fascinated camera, to the deprivations of his small-statured cast in the simple terms of having to stretch to use a door handle or to struggle clumsily to hold a telephone receiver, are robbed of any hint of schadenfreude by the overtly allegorical, surreal tone he establishes so brilliantly. At the time, many critiques of the film were offered in terms of its social commentary on the issues of the day—Vietnam, political protest (one of the inmates is even held prisoner by the besieged “warden” for use as a bargaining chip)—but looking at it now it seems its themes are more timeless and much less specific. We are all, suggests Herzog, as ill-suited to our environment as the small cast are to theirs, and all that stands between any of us and complete social breakdown is an intangible adherence to rules and obedience to authority which, under even the slightest of tests can be found to be illusory. Then again, what the nearly three-minute scene of the dwarf laughing at the kneeling camel signifies is anyone’s guess, though we’d imagine Herzog is delighted at its new life as an internet meme. It’s certainly among the most thought-provoking and unsettling asylum-set films we’ve ever seen, and pretty much a must-view for anyone in danger of forgetting, in light of recent documentaries about cave painting and roles in Tom Cruise movies, just how thoroughly Herzog earned his provocateur reputation. He claimed the film occurred to him in a nightmare and its striking imagery and creepy tone of abandon certainly haunt ours to this day.
Honorable mention: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
Yes, Milos Forman’s unassailable 1975 classic doth bestride this list like a colossus, but we felt enough has been written about the multi-Oscar-winning masterpiece to make it hardly necessary for us to add our two cents. But rest assured, the film, one of only three ever to win the Big 5 Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) is one of the most heartbreaking and yet scathing portrayals of a mental hospital that you’ll ever see, and features a peerless Jack Nicholson in one of his absolutely essential performances. It’s simply brilliant and if by some odd stroke of fate you haven’t yet seen it, you should seek it out immediately.
Dishonorable mention: “Sucker Punch”
As much as we’re vocal in our adoration of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ we’re equally so in our condemnation of the shitshow that was Zack Snyder’s ungodly mess “Sucker Punch,” and so ironically it’s left off the list for the same reason (we think we’ve made our opinions known on it elsewhere, repeatedly). Suffice to say that if we left off ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ to make room for a less lauded film, we left off “Sucker Punch” because no one could bear to write about it any more and our store of vitriol is running low.
Elsewhere, there were plenty of films that could have been included like “The Jacket,” the stylish but oddly forgettable Adrien Brody/Keira Knightley vehicle from director John Maybury; “Don Juan de Marco” with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp; “Lost Angels” which stars Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz alongside Donald Sutherland; the remake of “House on Haunted Hill” which is truly frightening for the first half and then unbelievably stupid in the second; Ashton Kutcher vehicle “The Butterfly Effect” which is stupid all the way through; the rather sappy “Awakenings” with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro; and the rather good Alan Parker-directed, Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine-starrer “Birdy.” A fair few comedies have also taken psychiatric institutions as their setting, like “Crazy People,” Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” and more recently “It’s Kind Of a Funny Story,” while there are also plenty of titles in which a mental hospital may feature in a few scenes but is not the main location of the action. However in a few of those cases, those scenes are among the most memorable in the films overall, so worth a mention at least: Brad Pitt’s quirk-laden turn in Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” (Gilliam featured a similarly dystopian loony bin in “The Fisher King” too); Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” features a portrait of Arkham Asylum; while Renfield’s cell in various Dracula movies through the years, (especially Coppola’s take, but mainly because that Renfield is played by Tom Waits) is also one that’s come to define our idea of cinematic insanity. Shout out your favorites, or the ones we should be locked away for neglecting to mention, below.