With the recent release of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island on Blu-ray and DVD, I thought it would be neat to take a look at the top 10 insane asylum films. In a couple of cases, the films do not take place at asylums or mental hospitals, but the conditions the characters find themselves in, has them hanging on by a thread to their sanity.
Lists like these are always subjective, and consist of the choices I have made over the last few days. I’m sure someone else would put them in a different order, or perhaps choose ten completely different films.
10. The Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Public relations man Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) meets and falls in love with secretary Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). She is a teetotaler, with a taste for chocolates, while he enjoys frequent two martini lunches. Joe introduces her to social drinking. Reluctant at first, after her first few Brandy Alexanders, she admits that having a drink “made me feel good.” The couple marries and has a daughter, but soon find they are both full blown alcoholics.
After commitment to a sanitarium, Joe finally gets sober for a while, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, a dedicated sponsor named Jim Hungerford (Jack Klugman) and regular AA meetings. When Joe tries to help Kirsten, he instead ends up drinking again, resulting in another trip to the sanitarium. Considering this was made in the early sixties, Lemmon’s scenes in the violence ward are substantial: confined to a straight jacket, we watch his violent withdrawals.
9. Midnight Express (1978)
American Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey. Determined to make an example of him, the Turkish courts sentence him to more than thirty years in a very tough prison. Hayes has two opportunities for release: the appeals made by his lawyer, his family, and the American government, or the “Midnight Express”.
While this film doesn’t include any scenes in a traditional mental hospital, it is very much a story of trying to keep your sanity in unbearable conditions. As anyone who has watched Midnight express knows, some do it better than others. You can read my Blu-ray review here.
8. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
An unknown and lethal virus has wiped out five billion people in 1996. Only 1% of the population has survived by the year 2035, and is forced to live underground. Convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) volunteers to be sent back in time to 1996 to gather information about the origin of the epidemic (he’s told it was spread by a mysterious “Army of the Twelve Monkeys”) and locate the virus before it mutates, so that scientists can study it. Unfortunately Cole is mistakenly sent to 1990, six years earlier than expected, is arrested and locked up in a mental institution. There, he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the insane son of a famous scientist and virus expert.
7. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
I know, this is from the silent era, but I’m a film historian, so I like to throw in something a little obscure. A man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) relates a story about his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski) and his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover). Alan takes him to a fair where they meet Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who exhibits a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt) that can predict the future. When Alan asks how long he has to live, Cesare says he has until dawn. The prophecy comes to pass, when Alan is murdered, and Cesare is a prime suspect. Cesare creeps into Jane’s bedroom and abducts her, running from the townspeople and finally dying of exhaustion. Meanwhile, the police discover a dummy in Cesare’s cabinet, while Caligari flees. Francis tracks Caligari to a mental asylum. He is the director, or is he?
6. The Snake Pit (1948)
Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Haviland) finds herself in a state insane asylum and can’t remember how she got there. In flashback, her husband Robert (Mark Stevens) tells the story of thier courtship, marriage, and the onset of her symptoms. The asylum staff isn’t really bad people, but fear, ignorance and regimentation keep Virginia in a state of misery, as Dr. Mark Kik (Leo Genn) struggles to find the root of her illness.
5. The Ugly (1997)
Unfit to stand trial, Simon Cartwright (Paolo Rotondo) has been locked away in a mental hospital for five years, and watched over by the sinister Dr. Marlowe (Roy Ward). Dr. Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Ward) wants to get through to him. She agrees to interview Simon who wants to prove that he is cured. He seems incapable of unspeakable acts of violence. He tells her of a terrifying force within him, which drives him to destroy those around him. He says this force has gone. Karen listens to his story. At first she trusts him, even believes him. But then her trust gives way to skepticism. His confession is replaced by deception. The interview unleashes demons from Simon’s strange internal world – threatening Karen’s previously stable sense of reality.
4. Shutter Island (2010)
While not what most would consider an outright scary film, director Martin Scorsese creates undeniable tension with his use of characters, place, music, etc. Read my Blu-ray review here.
3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Who doesn’t know this one? No matter how many times I see it, I get a little nervous every time FBI cadet Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) takes that seemingly endless walk for her first meeting with serial killer, Dr. Hanibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
2. Girl, Interrupted (2000)
Based on the memoirs by Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted tells the story of an 18-year old’s two year stint in a mental asylum for a failed suicide attempt. In what was originally supposed to be a two week term, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and was institutionalized for 18 months. Upon her release, she began a career as a novelist and, with the help of her lawyer, obtained her case file from the hospital and wrote about her experiences in the hospital.
Much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest twenty five earlier, Girl, Interrupted allows viewers to see that healing is not always supplied by the doctors and nurses charged with the task, but from the patients themselves. Unlike Cuckoo, the staff in this film is not evil, but instead helpful doctors and nurses. This is not a film about killing someone’s soul, but about finding one’s place in the world and discovering the importance of life.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a man with several assault convictions to his name, finds himself in jail once again. This time, the charge is statutory rape when it turns out that his girlfriend had lied about being eighteen, and was, in fact, fifteen (or, as McMurphy puts it, “fifteen going on thirty-five”). Rather than spend his time in jail, he convinces the guards that he’s crazy enough to need psychiatric care and is sent to a hospital. He fits in frighteningly well, and his different point of view actually begins to cause some of the patients to progress. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) becomes his personal cross to bear as his resistance to the hospital routine gets on her nerves.