Our Ten’s List: Movies Set in Insane Asylums
Madness Month is nearly over, so we’ve decided to take a day tour of the local cinematic sanitarium in order to bring you the cream of the crop, the maddest of the mad. Here are ten of our favorite films, all of which take place inside padded cell walls. Check out our list and get ready for a little good-natured shock therapy!
10.The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
One of the earliest films to grapple with insanity, and another excellent example of the early German Expressionist cinema (see our review of Metropolis here,) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent horror film shot in black-and-white that has influenced many horror films over the decades. When you see M. Knight struggling to pull off a shocking twist ending, you’re watching the legacy of Robert Wienne’s seminal work.
The film recounts the tale of three people sucked into the madness of Dr. Caligari, a traveling doctor who is showing off his experiments with sleep-walking patients in a carnival side-show manner. Shortly after he arrives in town with his patient, Cesare, strange murders begin to occur, and suspicion quickly points the hero, Francis, to the unhinged doctor. Following his trail, Francis learns that the man is actually the director of an insane asylum who has been trying to recreate the fabled exploits of an Italian physician named Caligari who could use sleep-walkers to commit crimes. Francis turns the doctor in to the police, but a surprise twist calls into question who is truly insane…
The film stars Conrad Veidt, who went on to inspire the character of The Joker in his equally terrifying film, The Man Who Laughed. Many critics and film historians praise this film as the earliest surviving horror film, and the forebear of many cult and independent classics.
9. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Funny farms have long been used to silence and manipulate women into social subservience. Girl, Interrupted gives a modern look at the gender bias of mental health work, showing how spontaneity, sexuality, and assertiveness are all deemed “mental disorders” when the person in question happens to be female. The film not only manages to question the priority of women’s needs in the treatment of mental illness, but does a fine job of showing many of the behaviors that young people of any gender use to cope with society, authority, and pressure in a way that is sympathetic but also tough-minded.
Susanna (Winnona Ryder) is checked into a mental health facility after nearly overdosing on aspirin. While not suicidal, she does have a strong desire to escape her current life, where pressure to succeed in school has her experiencing anxiety and anti-social behavior. She meets a group of young women, all suffering from maladies that range from the truly disordered (self mutilation and sociopathy) to troubles arising from a rigid society (body image issues and sexuality.) Through interacting with this group, Susanna learns that her cure ultimately consists of accepting herself. Unfortunately, not all of the women are able to return to society as easily, and the film ends with a bittersweet note where Susanna notes that many of the girls either escaped or found their own path…but some were never able to live outside of the confines of the sanitarium.
8. 12 Monkeys (1995)
If anybody knows madness, it is Terry Gilliam. His movies are packed to bursting with neurotics, psychotics, and the mentally damaged. It is fitting, then, that in the one movie where the hero is not actually insane, a good chunk of the action takes place inside an asylum. Cole (Bruce Willis) is actually a time traveler hoping to thwart a terrorist attack that kills most of humanity, but his story lands him inside the looney bin. The trauma of the sanitarium actually begins to break his psyche, which is quite a trick, since he has presumably survived both the apocalypse and a boot-leg version of time travel. At least we can be proud of our American medical system being the best at something…
7. A Page of Madness (Kurruta Ipejji) (1926)
Inspired by Dr. Caligari and other German Expressionist works, A Page of Madness (written by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata) follows the misadventures of a Japanese family who have their lives destroyed by madness. A janitor at an insane asylum dutifully watches over a female patient, who turns out to be his wife. One day, the young daughter of the mad-woman arrives to visit, but she is oblivious to the fact that the janitor is her father. Flashbacks reveal the sad tale of the family’s disintegration.
Much like Metropolis, many aspects of this film are lost to time. Unlike Western silent films, this movie had no written sub-titles, as the dialogue would have been recited aloud by a professional story teller in the theater. What we are left with is a visually gripping and often chaotic montage of scenes that simultaneously show the skill of early Japanese cinema and tantalize us with any number of interpretations. I almost prefer to watch a movie this way. Without Hollywood hand feeding you the story, your imagination is free to put together the scattered pages (the Japanese title literally means “disordered pages.”)
6. The Road to Wellville (1994)
The Road to Wellville harkens back to a simpler time when a sound body and mind could easily be obtained through a high fiber diet and endless enemas. The good old days…
Loosely adapting the life of the Kellogg brothers, Wellville takes a group of individuals who suffer from mild disorders such as anemia, weight issues, anxiety, and hysteria (from back when hysteria was the catch-all diagnosis for a woman who was not behaving exactly as her peers demanded.) The Kellogg boys were scientific cranks, especially the eldest brother (played by Anthony Hopkins,) and set up a sanitarium/wellness farm that enforced strict diets (of corn flakes,) numerous milk baths and enemas, and strenuous physical exercise, all in order to put their “patients” back on the road to…you get the idea.
This film has languished critically, but the performances from Hopkins, Bridget Fonda, John Cusack, and Matthew Broderick are all equally entertaining and frightening. This film manages to capture an age of mania that seems both grotesque and all-too familiar. Next time you’re assaulted by an all vegan, free range, GMO phobic crank who swears on the Bible of Crossfit, maybe suggest they sit down and watch this little gem. It won’t make them sane, but perhaps it will give them a love for enemas, and that is justice enough for everyone.
5. High Anxiety (1977)
Mel Brooks directed and starred in this spoof-thriller, and received not only the assistance and blessings of Alfred Hitchcock but also a large amount of champagne as a gift for his comedic efforts. Knowing this fact, I both love and hate Mel Brooks forever.
Brooks is Dr. Thorndyke, a brilliant and unconventional psychiatrist who harbors a secret fear of heights. He is recruited to lead a new institute for the “very, very nervous,” but quickly becomes embroiled in a murder plot where two of the other staff members are trying to eliminate a wealthy cuckoo in order to gain his fortune. Attacked by Psychos, Birds, Vertigo, and the titles to several other Hitchcock films, Brooks must overcome his fears if he is to make it out alive and sane.
While it lacks the outright genius of Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, the consistent skewering of famous psychological thrillers (most supplied by Hitchcock) and the tremendous talent of the cast (once again, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman demonstrate why Brook’s called their numbers in his films so often) make sure that this is a consistently funny endeavor. And hey, it’s not Robin Hood Men in Tights, so that is high praise!
4. The King of Hearts (1966)
This may be the biggest unknown film on this list, and possibly one of my newest favorite films. A French comedy (I know! They exist! Even the French have to take a break from making artsy-fartsy lesbian porn films once in a while!) this film grapples with very dark issues such as Nazi occupation, military incompetence, mistreatment of the mentally ill, and a complete antipathy towards the British and yet manages to treat the issues deftly and lightly. It will gall the French, but this film feels like the brainchild of Monty Python and Mel Brooks. I mean that as praise, Monsieur!
Plumpick is a Scottish member of the liberating British coalition who arrive in France after D-Day. His regiment is tasked with taking back strategically important towns along the way to Germany, paving the road for French liberation and Allied victory…but Plumpick is really a very tiny and specific cog in a very large and untidy machine. He is in charge of communications, which boils down to raising and being overly attached to several messenger pigeons. When a confusion of names causes him to be mistaken for a bombs expert, he is sent to a Gerry-rigged town (the only time it’s appropriate to use this term!) in order to dismantle a cache of ordinance that will wipe out the populace and Scotch the bridge (once again, another chance to use a politically insensitive term perfectly accurately, what a day!)
Plumpick arrives in town just as the Germans withdraw, but things are not as they seem. An accident has caused the residents of the local asylum to be released after the townspeople flee, and the joyously delusional former inmates assume the roles of the townspeople themselves. He tries to get help and intel, but the inmates are too busy crowning him the King of Hearts, a personal hero that the lunatics have been pining for. He must put up with their antics while trying to find the weapons, but their carefree ways, the madness of war, and the love of a beautiful young woman cause Plumpick to envy the mad.
I highly recommend this film, which can be had for free on the internet easily. The cast is delightful and well-played, the comedy is both withering and lighthearted, and the film has a fun plot that is equal parts James Bond and Alice in Wonderland.
3. The Fisher King (1991)
I don’t love New York in June…but I do love The Fisher King. Robin Williams and Jeff “The Dude” Bridges give Oscar worthy performances, all while playing against type. Williams is a shy and demented homeless man who saves the life of a jaded and angry Jeff Bridges, and through his earnest insanity, manages to save Bridge’s soul in the bargain.
This movie manages to be sweet, morbid, hilarious and profane all in one go. The story is gripping and filled with absurdity that manages to be meaningful and bitter-sweet. Director Terry Gilliam supplies his trademark visual flair, and almost manages to unseat The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as his greatest film starring the mentally insane. More about that gem later…
2. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Oh, Clarice, have the lambs finally stopped screaming? They probably never will, if they’ve been witness to the film that made Hannibal Lecter a house-hold name. Sequels, prequels, and even a television series have never managed to equal Anthony Hopkins’ treatment of the mad doctor who has a taste for human flesh and fine wines.
I’ve spilled quite a bit of ink about this movie and this character, but one of the greatest achievements is that Director David Fincher and actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins created so much dread with such little space and time. Hannibal spends 90% of the film locked up, and his interactions with Agent Starling can be counted on one hand, but they manage to create a mythology, a chemistry, and an antagonism that has become a Hollywood legend. Hopkins accomplishes more in a tiny cell than most actors can with the world at their feet.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
You knew this had to be the One. Jack Nicholson and Director Milos Forman created something special here. Nicholson went on to play a panoply of mentally demented characters, and Forman went on to further grapple with genius and insanity in films such as Amadeus and Man on the Moon, but nothing since, not even The Shining, has created such a stark and awesome view of madness as this film.
Jack Nicholson plays MacMurphy, an inveterate trouble maker who is feigning mental illness in order to avoid a prison sentence. Mac figures that putting in his time at the mental hospital will be a cake walk, but he quickly learns that the ward, under the brutal control of a vindictive and abusive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher,) is closer to hell on earth. Rather than help the patients, Ratched keeps them all in a state of terror, using punishments (including shock therapy) to enforce order instead of effect treatment. MacMurphy quickly takes charge of the inmates and attempts to give them back their humanity the only way he knows how: teaching them to gamble, sneaking them out of the ward to go fishing, and even inviting call girls into the asylum to have a party. Naturally, this puts Mac and Ratched on a collision course for control of the asylum, with tragedy being the only outcome.
Nicholson and Fletcher are tremendously engaging in their antagonism, and the whole cast is rounded out with talent: Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and Brad Dourif each shine as fellow patients touched by Mac’s infectious charisma. The film by turns uplifting, violent, sordid, and shocking. You’d have to be mad to miss it!