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In Honor Of 'Shock Corridor''s 50th Anniversary: 10 Lunatic Asylum Films

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist September 11, 2013 at 4:15PM

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."
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Asylum 1972

Asylum” (1972)
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.

Nightmare 3

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 “LarryFishburne 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

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.

Bedlam

Bedlam” (1946)
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.

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Sam Fuller, Shutter Island, Shock Corridor


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