Tag Archives: Neil McRobert

Fright Club: Asylums in Horror Movies

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.

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.


Fright Club: Best Stephen King Movies

We greet an honest to god expert for this week’s podcast, as Dr. Neil McRobert (you may know him better as NakMak!) joins us to talk about Stephen King films. Neil’s doctoral thesis concerned itself in part with King’s writings, and yet, somehow Hope decided she was still the more appropriate choice to determine the rankings of King films. Listen in and let us know who does a better job with the list. The whole conversation goes on HERE.

5. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Taylor Hackford helms this generational saga of women in a man’s world. Not truly a horror film, it follows the tale of stern Mainer Dolores (the magnificent –as-always Kathy Bates), who’s been accused of murdering her contemptible boss, Vera Donovan (an outstanding Judy Parfitt). Dolores’s estranged daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) returns to the Maine island of her birth to support her mom from being railroaded, as the entire town believes Dolores has already gotten away with murder once.

The film is an achievement in casting above all things. Bates is brilliant, and so is David Strathairn, playing against type as abusive white trash husband and father. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is delicately faithful to King’s novel, a character-driven drama that boasts some excellent lines – most of them landing in Parfitt’s mouth. Luckily she’s up to the challenge and makes it look easier than it should to be a bitch.

4. Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates had been knocking around Hollywood for decades, but no one really knew who she was until she landed Misery. Her sadistic nurturer Annie Wilkes – rabid romance novel fan, part time nurse, full time wacko – ranks among the most memorable crazy ladies of modern cinema.

James Caan plays novelist Paul Sheldon, who kills off popular character Misery Chastain, then celebrates with a road trip that goes awry when he crashes his car, only to be saved by his brawniest and most fervent fan, Annie. Well, she’s more a fan of Misery Chastain’s than she is Paul Sheldon’s, and once she realizes what he’s done, she refuses to allow him out of her house until she brings Misery back to literary life.

Caan seethes, and you know there’s an ass kicking somewhere deep in his mangled body just waiting to get out. But it’s Bates we remember. She nails the bumpkin who oscillates between humble fan, terrifying master, and put-upon martyr. Indeed, both physically and emotionally, she so thoroughly animates this nutjob that she secured an Oscar.

3. The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont really loves him some Stephen King, having adapted and directed the writer’s work almost exclusively for the duration of his career. While The Shawshank Redemption may be Darabont’s most fondly remembered effort, The Mist is an underappreciated creature feature.

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head to town for some groceries. Meanwhile, a tear in the space/time continuum opens a doorway to alien monsters. So he, his boy, and a dozen or so other shoppers are all trapped inside this glass-fronted store just waiting for rescue or death.

Marcia Gay Harden is characteristically brilliant as the religious zealot who turns survival inside the store into something less likely than survival out with the monsters, but the whole cast offers surprisingly restrained but emotional turns.

The FX look good, too, but it’s the provocative ending that guarantees this one will sear itself into your memory.

2. Carrie (1976)

The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.

Sissy Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance. Her simpleton characterization would have been overdone were it not for Piper Laurie’s glorious evil zeal as her religious wacko mother. It’s easy to believe this particular mother could have successfully smothered a daughter into Carrie’s stupor.

One ugly trick involving a bucket of cow’s blood, and Carrie’s psycho switch is flipped. Spacek’s blood drenched Gloria Swanson on the stage conducting the carnage is perfectly over-the-top. And after all the mean kids get their comeuppance, Carrie returns home to the real horror show.

1. The Shining (1980)

It’s isolated, it’s haunted, you’re trapped, but somehow nothing feels derivative and you’re never able to predict what happens next. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece rendition of Stephen King’s The Shining.

Though critics were mixed at the time of the film’s release, and both Kubrick and co-star Shelley Duvall were nominated for Razzies, much of the world’s negative response had to do with a needless affection for the source material, which Kubrick and co-scriptor Diane Johnson use as little more than an outline.

A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding the film never shakes.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

Next week we will look at the best Canada has to offer the genre.

The following week, we are thrilled to tackle our sophomore effort at live recording the Fright Club podcast! We will unspool The Orphanage (2007) at Gateway Film Center on November 11, counting down the best Spanish language horror at 7:30, just prior to the 8pm screening.

In the meantime, help us prep for upcoming podcasts. What filmmaker, actor or actress deserves an entire podcast? Let us know on Twitter @maddwolf, on facebook @maddwolfcolumbus, or leave us a comment here.