Fiction hasn’t been terribly kind to mental institutions. In movies, books, TV, comics and more these “insane asylums” tend to wrongfully imprison the perfectly sane, torture the harmless with their “pseudo-science” or simply fail to cure the dangerous. Maybe us “creative” types are prone to judge any institution that punishes individuals for indulging in fantasies harshly, and maybe it’s just good drama to focus on conflict in any environment, but there’s one thing I know for sure: If I’m ever facing down a jury, the last thing I want to do is plead insanity.
This weekend brings us Shutter Island, the latest film from cinema legend Martin Scorsese which finds Leonardo DiCaprio finding suspense and thrills in an isolated insane asylum, so Julia and I decided that this installment of “The Weekly Listicle” would focus on our three favorite movies set in, or at least very prominently featuring, these unsettling locales. If you find yourself complaining that I haven’t included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Silence of the Lambs, then that means you’ve already seen them and don’t need me to recommend them to you. Try these instead.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (dir. Robert Weine, 1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be one of the most important films ever made, and is considered to be not only one of the principle influences of German Expressionism and Film Noir, but also arguably the first prominent film in what we now refer to as the Horror Genre. But don’t let any of that fool you… it’s also a really cool film. Friedrich Feher stars as Francis, who encounters the mysterious Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) at a sideshow in which the doctor commands his hypnotized slave Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to do whatever is commanded of him. Soon Cesare is murdering innocent villagers and kidnapping our heroine in some of the most mindbending sets ever committed to film (they were painted onto paper, making the effect of the film all the more impressive). Caligari is later revealed to be a doctor at an insane asylum, and one of the great, earliest twist endings (not that I’d ruin it for you) only cements the film’s inclusion on my list all the more. Veidt went on to play other great villains in classics like Casablanca and The Thief of Bagdad. His performance in The Man Who Laughs, in which he played a character with a smile permanently carved onto his face, was a major influence on Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker.
THE RESURRECTED (dir. Dan O’Bannon, 1992)
Dan O’Bannon may be most famous for writing the first Alien movie, but he also directed two fine horror films: Return of the Living Dead (which introduced the now universally-accepted conceit that zombies eat brains) and The Resurrected, which isn’t one of the best films ever made but is one of the most faithful H.P. Lovecraft adaptations to date. Lovecraft, generally considered one of the greatest and most influential horror writers of the 20th century, frequently featured themes of madness in his stories, which often ended (or began) with his protagonists losing their minds as a result of the unspeakable horrors they have witnessed. The Resurrected is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s novel/novella (it’s really short) “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and stars John Terry (Jack Shepard’s father on “Lost”) as a private investigator who at the beginning of the film exits an asylum after a horrific and bloody incident that defies explanation. Via flashback he details the events in his last case, in which he investigated Charles Dexter Ward (The Princess Bride’s Chris Sarandon), a seemingly normal man who began behaving very strangely after becoming obsessed with his ancestor, an alchemist named Joseph Curwen (also played by Sarandon), and recreating his diabolical experiments. Soon the bodies begin piling up, Ward is institutionalized and then… the real horror show begins. It’s a bit awkwardly paced at times, but the atmosphere is thick, the special effects are beautifully gory and the story is crazy good.
RESTORATION (dir. Michael Hoffman, 1995)
I was really struggling to include a good film this week which didn’t treat mental institutions like a horror show (three seemed a little much), but at the end of the day I only had it narrowed down to Restoration or Awakenings, and Restoration is just so much more fun. Directed by Michael Hoffman (who also directed The Last Station, one of the my favorite films of 2009), the film stars Robert Downey Jr. at about the time when his career started to self-destruct as Robert Merivel, a young physician who finds himself in the employ of King Charles II (Sam Neill, who starred in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, another neat insane asylum movie incidentally) but loses his beloved lifestyle of royal decadence when he makes the mistake of falling in love with his own wife (Polly Walker, currently starring in “Caprica”), whom Merivel was supposed to marry in name only because she’s really the king’s mistress. Banished from the court, Merivel finds work at a Quaker sanitarium in which he makes a revolutionary effort to actually cure the mentally ill rather than sit around and hope that God sorts it all out. Along the way he falls in love with one of his patients (played by Meg Ryan, giving one of her better performances), and learns a valuable lesson about accepting the responsibilities that come with his occupation. Restoration won two Academy Awards for its incredible Costume Design and Art Direction and is as sumptuous a film as you’re ever likely to watch, but it’s Robert Downey Jr’s performance and Hoffman’s brisk pacing and humorous tone that keep the film light and entertaining until an incredibly dramatic climax, set during The Great Fire of London, really puts all of our considerable emotional attachment to our hero through the ringer.