Right from the dawn of Cinema one of Hollywood’s favourite subjects has been the nature of insanity and the way it is treated in society. With his latest film Shutter Island being set on an island for the criminally insane, Martin Scorsese is certainly no stranger to this long tradition. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the driving seat, and an outstanding cast that includes Sir Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams and Mark Ruffalo, Shutter Island is guaranteed to make you question the nature of your sanity, and have you running from the next person you offers you some asprin.
Come with us as we look back on some of Hollywood’s previous offerings of life in an insane asylum that will have you climbing the walls…
Shock Corridor, (1963)
Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious journalist determined to gain literary recognition and thinks that the quickest way to succeed is by posing as a mental patient to uncover a mysterious murder. As he discovers more and more, Johnny is slowly driven insane with hallucinations and horrifying dreams. Finishing his book does eventually secure Johnny’s literary reputation, but only at the price of his sanity. While this movie doesn’t give a great reputation to asylums (no-one ever seems to get better, and a sane man is driven insane on his really very short stay), this black and white mystery is the sum of all that we love about asylum movies.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, (1975)
As only the second film to ever win all five major Academy Awards, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic portrayal of crazy-living. In a ploy to avoid the hard labour he would undertake serving a standard prison sentence, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), gets himself transferred to the care of Nurse Ratched undertaking what he assumes will be a pleasant stay in a mental institution. However, while under the Nurse’s tyrannical control, McMurphy make friends with his fellow patients and starts his quest to liberate their minds, but at what cost?
The Silence of the Lambs, (1991)
Following in the footsteps of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Silence of the Lambs was the third film to ever win all five major Academy awards, proving that it pays to set your movie in a mental institution! Hannibal Lecter, played by the urbane Anthony Hopkins, is an intellectual psychiatrist-turned-cannibal recently entered into the Baltimore State Hospital for the criminally insane. Lecter’s knowledge and intellectual ability enables him to run rings around the psychiatrists enlisted for his medical progress, and makes him one of the most terrifying man-monsters of the silver screen to date.
Don Juan De Marco, (1994)
Breaking the mould of other psych-ward, crazy person films Don Juan De Marco stands out for its bold and upbeat depiction of mental illness, with Johnny Depp providing a heartbreaking performance of a young man who believes he is the legendary lover Don Juan. While most delusional people seem to get their kicks out of bringing others down, Don Juan is able to nurture love and passion in others rekindling enthusiasm and excitement in his psychiatrist who is played by Marlon Brando.
12 Monkeys, (1995)
Mistakenly being sent back to the wrong date in time (to 1990 NOT 1996), James Cole (Bruce Willis) is incarcerated in a Baltimore state hospital, where he is diagnosed with delusional paranoia and treated by Dr. Kathryn Railly. Balked in his mission to save humanity, Cole is lucky enough to have been locked up with the main suspect of the film (a very entertainingly insane – or is he?- Brad Pitt) allowing him to save the world while also making friends and falling in love. As only a vehicle for preventing Cole from saving the world, the institute in 12 Monkeys never comes across especially well.
Girl, Interrupted, (2000)
Based on a best selling memoir, Girl, Interrupted follows the story of Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) through her stay at Claymoore Hospital following an overdose of asprin. The film scrutinizes the appropriateness of treatments for all the fascinating and tragic characters, and following the episodic nature of the book allows the audience to understand the fragmented nature of the mind. With amazing performances from Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Whoopi Goldberg amongst many others, Girl, Interrupted is an incredible coming of age story full of passion and emotion.
Session 9, (2001)
When Gordon Fleming (Peter Mulan) ambitiously claims that he can remove all the asbestos from the abandoned Danvers State Hospital in only two weeks, he knows he is setting himself a hard task: With a squabbling team, a new baby and a wife to contend with the job proves even harder than he could have imagined, and when members of his team start going missing Gordon finally snaps. Cut together with taped interviews (Sessions 1 – 9) from a previous patient of the hospital, Session 9 is a slow-burning, chilling horror that couldn’t have possibly be set anywhere other than an abandoned mental institution.
Turning the genre on its head, Gothika sees Dr. Miranda Gray (Halle Berry) being institutionalized into the very hospital that she was working at when she becomes the main suspect in her husband’s murder. Gothika makes full use of all the horror conventions that we would expect from horror movies with plenty of atmospheric darkness, blood splattering all over the place that are all drawn together with a scary soundtrack and lots of screaming. Fundamentally undermining the mental hospital that she worked for by proving that at least two of their inmates are perfectly sane, Dr. Miranda also uncovers a serial rapist who roams the hall at night, making this possibly one of the scariest hospitals of the lot.