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.