Cuckoo's nests

'Shutter Island' is the newest stop on cinema's tour of asylums and their inhabitants

In “The Snake Pit’’ (1948), Olivia de Havilland has no idea why she has wakened in a mental hospital. In “The Snake Pit’’ (1948), Olivia de Havilland has no idea why she has wakened in a mental hospital. (20th Century Fox)
By Ty Burr, Mary Feeney, and Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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“Crazy people are the perfect subjects,’’ Leonardo DiCaprio tells Mark Ruffalo in “Shutter Island.’’ Filmmakers would seem to agree. Crazy people are colorful, they are interesting, and they have a way of turning expectations upside down, always a plus on the big screen. They also often end up in asylums, settings that make for memorable and dramatic locations - memorable and dramatic if only because they’re usually so awful.

“Shutter Island,’’ which opens Friday, is a case in point. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, the Martin Scorsese film takes place in 1954 at a federal facility for the criminally insane on a Boston Harbor island. It’s the latest in a long line of movies set in asylums. They’re a genre unto themselves, a treasure trove of skewed camera angles, scenery-chewing acting, seizure-inducing lighting. An asylum, you might say, is the ultimate closed set. MARK FEENEY

In the beginning, there was “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’’ (1920). You think at first the title refers to a display case, albeit one holding a most unusual item. Then you realize that “cabinet’’ could be metaphorical in meaning - like a mental institution, perhaps? And who exactly is caregiver there and who in need of care? (Physician, heal thyself!) The real crazy thing about “Caligari,’’ and what has earned it its significant if dead-end place in film history is its Expressionist set design, all angled and out of kilter. It’s meant to represent the way someone insane sees the world, which might suggest the viewer is the one who should be in an asylum. M.F.

Surely the Bates Motel was an exemplary single-occupancy insane asylum. But “Spellbound’’ (1945) was the Alfred Hitchcock film set in a mental hospital. Dr. Ingrid Bergman listens to patients, one of whom ravenously confesses her revulsion toward men. Meanwhile, Bergman tries to unpack the mystery of a co-worker, Dr. Gregory Peck, pretending to be someone else. Hitchcock always took great pleasure in the fractured psyche. This time he got great eye-slashing assistance from Salvador Dalí, who concocted Peck’s dream sequence. So the psyche came at a perilously canted angle.


The mother of all asylum movies - and a source of their most enduring clichés - “The Snake Pit’’ packed a controversial punch when it was released in 1948. Not only did it examine the horrors of both mental illness and the then-fashionable institutional response to it, but there was Olivia de Havilland (that nice Melanie Hamilton from “Gone With the Wind’’) tearing the scenery apart in the lead role of a woman who wakes up hospitalized and has no idea how she got there. The film unfolds as a psychological tour of the inferno, with de Havilland progressing to ever darker wards before turning to the light; it’s feverishly melodramatic while at the same time brokering a new honesty about the afflicted. TY BURR

“Nymphos!’’ With that terrified one-liner, “Shock Corridor’’ (1963) ascends from pulp conviction to true B-movie surrealism. Peter Breck plays a newspaperman so desperate for a Pulitzer he has himself declared insane and sent to an asylum where a doctor has been murdered. Shock treatment, straitjackets, and encounters with morbidly obese opera singers and a room full of nymphomaniacs ensue. Who else but director Sam Fuller (a former tabloid reporter himself) could have concocted this blat of crude drive-in energy - a movie that at times feels genuinely unhinged. T.B.

If you were young and in love in the early 1970s, you probably took your date to a revival house showing of “King of Hearts’’ (1966), the counterculture ode to the hoary old cliché that the mad are truly sane and we’re the ones who are nuts. Alan Bates plays a World War I soldier who takes refuge in a French insane asylum whose inhabitants are gently, blissfully deranged; his love affair with the gamine Coquelicot (Genevieve Bujold) is a touching escape either from reality or to a better place, depending on who’s talking and how high you were. Audiences took to the movie like a recurring hallucination: “King’’ played at Cambridge’s Central Square Cinema for a record-breaking five years. T.B.

Once upon a time there was an asylum movie that not only swept all the major Oscars - picture, actor, actress, director, screenplay (in this case, adapted). It was a big commercial hit, too. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ (1975) qualifies as the genre’s Miss Congeniality. What’s not to like? Randall McMurphy is the ultimate Jack Nicholson role. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) has the greatest villain name this side of Snidely Whiplash. There’s even an NBA connection: Robert Parish got his nickname, Chief, courtesy of Will Sampson’s character. But if “Cuckoo’s Nest’’ is everyone’s favorite asylum movie, doesn’t that almost make it not an asylum movie? And if that sounds crazy, well . . . oh, never mind. M.F.

You just haven’t tested yourself as a star until you’ve played a high-class call girl accused of killing a client and fighting to prove your sanity, while sporting a salon-grade haircut. In “Nuts’’ (1987), Barbra Streisand plays Claudia Draper. She talks dirty and crazy. She yells and flings that hair in heartbreaking self-defense. La Barbra never got around to Lady Macbeth or Medea. But it didn’t matter. There was Claudia. “I’m not just a daughter or a wife or a hooker or a patient or a defendant,’’ she insists, in the movie’s most amazing monologue. “You get that?’’ Si, señora. Claro. W.M.

Poor “12 Monkeys’’ (1995). Terry Gilliam’s film stars Bruce Willis as a man trying to save the world who is thrown in the nuthouse instead, and it sits in that awkward gap between “misfire’’ and “misunderstood.’’ Is this a great work of time-traveling future-shock or more Bruce Willis blockbusting? The trouble has always been that it’s a little of both. There was consensus, however, about two things. One: The movie’s inspiration, Chris Marker’s “La Jetée,’’ is better. Two: The best thing about Willis’s misdiagnosis is fellow inmate Brad Pitt. The years have shown that his acting makes the most sense when he’s out of his mind. W.M.

A sort of “Snake Pit’’ by way of “The Bell Jar,’’ “Girl, Interrupted’’ (1999) examines what it meant to be young, sensitive, and suicidal in the 1960s. Based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, it’s a convincing tour of adolescent hell, with Winona Ryder believably stressed in the main role and a sharp, underrated performance by the late Brittany Murphy as a sexually abused anorectic. All anyone remembers, though, is a young actress named Angelina Jolie in an Oscar-winning turn as the raging force of nature down the hall. “Lisa thinks she’s hot [expletive] because she’s a sociopath,’’ says one of the interrupted girls. No, Lisa thinks she’s hot (expletive) because she’s Angelina Jolie. T.B.

Halle Berry, you just made Oscar history as the first black best actress winner! What on earth will you do next? “Gothika’’ (2003)? Oh. What’s that? A horror-thriller in which you play a shrink locked in your own psych ward. Halle, really. You’re on top of the world, while your costars - Robert Downey Jr. and Pénelope Cruz - are floundering. (So much for that.) The movie says your crime is murder. But perhaps the real killer is on your management team. Girl, there’s a knife in your career’s back. We still desperately await its removal. W.M.

In “Asylum’’ (2005), the late Natasha Richardson starts the movie as Joan Crawford and ends it as Joan Fontaine, and the film itself seems to have the Turner Classic Movies playbook in its back pocket. A tale of a psychiatrist’s wife and her doomed passion for an inmate (Martin Csokas), it’s bughouse melodrama in the old-fashioned, hyperbolically elegant tradition of the great black-and-white Warner Bros. tempests of the 1940s. Ian McKellen makes a reasonable stand-in for Claude Rains, and there’s even a nod to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo’’ toward the end. What “Asylum’’ never convinces us of is why any of this should matter. T.B.

Think of “Changeling’’ (2008) as “Mother, Interrupted. It’s Los Angeles in the 1920s, and Angelina Jolie’s son disappears. The police bungle the investigation so badly they stick her in a mental ward to keep her quiet. Things get pretty nasty, until the intervention of a crusading minister springs her. He’s played by John Malkovich. Yup, John Malkovich as a man of God. Now that’s really crazy. M.F.

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