Who’s crazy, who’s not? Whose perspective can you believe? Why can’t I look in the basement?
All fine questions that have been asked in film since around 1920. We sifted through all the loonies and the asylums to generate a list of the best and nuttiest available.
Thanks to Senior Lunatic Correspondent Dr. Neil McRobert – affectionately known as NakMac – for returning, hangover and all, to help us count down the best horror films in set an asylum. You can listen to our full podcast HERE.
5. Lunacy (2005)
So, here’s one that lives up to its title. If you were to choose any “lunatics running the asylum” film, this is the one to go with.
Set in Czech Republic 2005, disturbed young Jean (Pavel Liska) accepts an invitation to stay with a man who believes himself the Marquis de Sade (Jan Triska) – frilly shirts, horse-drawn carriage and all.
If you’ve seen any of the films of Jan Svankmajer, you know to expect the unexpected. It turns out, his talent for the surreal and the grotesque so perfectly fit the topic of the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone else making it.
Animated meat cutlets, insane speechifying, burlesque and unpleasantness aplenty work together in a film that defies summarization but leaves an unmistakable impression.
4. The Brood (1979)
Dr. Hal Ragland – the unsettlingly sultry Oliver Reed – is a psychiatrist leading the frontier in psychoplasmics. His patients work through their pent-up rage by turning it into physical manifestations. Some folks’ rage turns into ugly little pustules, for example. Or, for wide-eyed Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), rage might turn into bloodthirsty, puffy coated spawn. This is Cronenberg’s reimagining of procreation, and it is characteristically foul.
What’s she so mad about? Her divorce. So angry, indeed, that she’s gone mad – and begun neglecting, even endangering, her puffy coated actual daughter.
Cronenberg wrote the film during his own ugly divorce and custody battle. He created a fantasy nightmare rooted firmly in the rage, despair, and the betrayal that comes from watching someone who once loved you turn into someone who seems determined to harm you.
Cronenberg is the king of corporeal horror, and The Brood is among the best of the filmmaker’s early, strictly genre work. Reed and Eggar both are unseemly perfection in their respective roles. Eggar uses her huge eyes to emphasize both her former loveliness and her current dangerous insanity, while Reed is just weird in that patented Oliver Reed way.
3. Session 9 (2001)
Nyctophobia, dissociative identity disorder, creepy tapes, an abandoned asylum – the pieces are there for a spooky, if recognizable, horror movie. Credit writer/director Brad Anderson for swimming familiar waters and yet managing a fresh, memorable and disturbing film.
Gordon (Peter Mullan) needs some cash – and some sleep. Troubles at home aside, he’s having problems getting his latest assignment completed on time. With just a skeleton crew and an unreasonable turnaround time, Gordon has to remove the asbestos from the long-abandoned Danvers Lunatic Asylum.
He sneaks away a lot to call his wife and listen to these therapy tapes he’s found. Meanwhile, a couple of his guys are bickering over a shared girlfriend, another one’s a pothead, and then there’s Gordon’s sweet, mulleted nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), who’s afraid of the dark.
Atmosphere is everything in this film. And though several surprises may not really surprise, performances are outstanding and Anderson has some seriously scary moments in store. Oh, poor Jeff.
2. Titticut Follies (1967)
In 1967, the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman announced his presence with authority, producing the first film in American history to be banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security.
While the American legal system may have believed the filmmaker had violated the privacy of the patients of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater, the film suggests it cared less about the patients’ other rights.
Haunting and spare, juxtaposing patients’ day-to-day abasement against choreographed musical numbers performed with a saucy baritone on staff, Wiseman’s film rattles you. The filmmaker offers no voiceovers to guide you. Instead, he assaults your sensibilities with the raw and unacceptable truth.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Few films of the silent era or any other are as visually striking as this. A German Expressionist, director Robert Wiene uses light and shadow, exaggerated angles and gloomy spirals to envelope us in a nightmare.
In a story told in flashback we learn of Francis, who is visiting his bewitched beloved in an asylum. He tells the tale madness – a traveling hypnotist and his somnambulist, performing at a town fair; murder, magic and lunacy.
The film’s twist ending and framed storytelling have become commonplace in horror – particularly in “asylum” horror – but the look of this film has never been truly recreated.
Taken in the context of the time, Caligari becomes a metaphor and premonition of Germany’s mindless obedience to a lunatic, homicidal authority figure. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz wrote it just after WWI to reflect their experiences in the war, but it mirrored a growing, terrifying phenomenon in their country.