Insane asylums can be played for comedy or horror, a fact that Hollywood has explored and exploited since the silent era.
The best of these films remind us that when our backs are against the wall and we have something to prove, the line between crazy and normal can be exceedingly thin.
Nellie Bly was a pioneering journalist who reported on the conditions inside a sanitarium in the 19th century—in 1887 she was tasked by Joseph Pulitzer with writing a story about the mentally ill housed at an institution in NYC. She did so by impersonating a mad person and came back from Blackwell’s Island 10 days later with stories of cruel beatings, ice baths and forced meals that included rancid butter.
Mental institutions have improved since then (hopefully) but with the release of Gore Verbinski’s The Cure for Wellness we are taking a trip down the road to “Wellness.”
Verbinski’s film follows a Wall Street stockbroker (Dane DeHaan) who travels to an isolated wellness center in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s CEO. He soon starts to suspect that the miraculous treatments are not what they seem. His own sanity is tested when he unravels the spa’s terrifying secrets and finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all of the guests there longing for a cure.
The film’s been criticized for its lack of a coherent narrative — but even if it is flawed, it guarantees spectacular cinematography and production design along with a few new horrific visions to add to our nightmare catalogues.
Terry Gilliam’s film gives us time-travel, lucid dreams, apocalyptic viruses and philosophical speculations on the state of madness.
James Cole (Bruce Willis) is imprisoned in 2030 but is recruited for a mission that will send him back to the 1990s. Once there, he’s to gather information about an emerging plague that’s about to exterminate the vast majority of the world’s population. Placed in a sanitarium, he befriends the manic Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), but gets little in the way of cooperation from medical gatekeeper Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe).
We see James Cole in a variety of settings along with multiple sides of his personality. Whether he’s a free man, a prisoner, or a patient at the mental hospital, we are never quite sure which Cole to trust or which one is real.
Willis plays his multifaceted character to perfection, embodying a schizophrenic nature and expanding the definition of “insane.”
Martin Scorsese directs this noir psychological thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal who leads an investigation into the disappearance of Rachel Solando at the Shutter Island psychiatric facility.
Daniels is determined to find answers and anyone who blocks his way becomes suspect themselves—the white-haired German doctors are Nazis, gaunt inmates have secrets and, to Daniels, anyone other than his investigative partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is inevitably in on the secret of Solando’s disappearance.
Without ruining a truly mind-bending twist, be aware that the final frames leave audiences with a numbing suspicion that resonates long after the credits roll.
Milos Forman defined the “Loony Bin” genre with his adaptation of Ken Kesey’s classic anti-establishment novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Along with his work in Chinatown, Batman, and The Shining, R.P. McMurphy will likely be remembered as one of Jack Nicholson’s most career-defining and iconic characters.
The contrast of seeing a fully sane person in a nuthouse means this movie walks a tight rope between an exposé of the institution itself and a social allegory about the power its caretakers wield — here, the despicable Nurse Ratched, expertly captured by Louise Fletcher (although she doesn’t remotely resemble the character in the book).
The movie won the top five Academy Awards in 1976. With one of the greatest villains in film history and a supporting cast that included Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a truly landmark film. Add Nurse Ratched to your nightmare catalogue.
Nicolas Winding Refn directs this biopic about British prison inmate Charles Bronson (aka Michael Gordon Peterson – played by Tom Hardy) who has lived in solitary confinement for much of his life. In Bronson, Hardy dramatizes that fact to frightening and extreme lengths, delivering a daring schizophrenic performance with a dark comic edge.
Whether locked up alone or serving tea to the staff at the psychiatric hospital where he eventually spends time, Bronson finds a way to entertain himself in every situation. His madness is self-perpetuating, and therefore, limitless. The audience knows that Bronson absolutely deserves his confinement, but despite all his machinations we are still strangely charmed and rooting for him.
Hollywood actress Frances Farmer is the semi-famous subject of Graeme Clifford’s 1982 biopic. From the outset, Frances (Jessica Lange) exhibited true eccentricity, refusing to wear make-up on camera or do anything she felt was a Hollywood stunt.
This sort of saltiness garnered her significant opportunities both on stage and screen, but after an affair, a falling out with her demanding mother and a growing dependence on amphetamines, Farmer found herself institutionalized at multiple sanitariums, the last of which “treated” her with electroshock therapy and a subsequent lobotomy.
The film has a clear point of view on whether her eccentricities and substance abuse were deserving of the “cutting edge” treatments she received.
Following her release, Farmer hosted a local Indianapolis TV show until her death in 1970.