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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVQkJJxjdIM

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYC83LCttW8

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0A0sfxM6AE

Fright Club: Marital Problems in Horror

For some filmmaker and even audiences, a horror film can provide catharsis. It can be a way to channel one particularly horrifying experience into art. A crumbling marriage can inspire this kind of horror. Of course, it can also become the tidy underpinning of a mystery or a comedically evil revenge plot.

Here are our five favorite horror films about marital problems.

5. Candyman (1992)

Candyman is a seduction film, like a vampire fable, and for it to work this film needed two things.

1) A seducible heroine.

Enter Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). While she researches her graduate work on urban legends, her professor husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) philanders with nubile co-eds.

2) A seductive villain, which it delivered with a dreamy baritone in the form of Tony Todd.

No, he’s not classically handsome. In fact, on paper, Candyman is not that sexy of a villain. He has a hook for a hand, bees in his chest, that moldy velvet robe thing has to smell awful. But Todd’s voice is the push over the cliff. When he tells Helen, “Don’t fear the pain. The pain is exquisite,” you can’t help but want to believe.

4. The Crate (segment from Creepshow) (1982)

Several of the shorts featured in the George Romero/Stephen King collaboration focused on troubles between husband and wife, but there was one particularly toxic marriage.

College professor (very popular figures in bad marriage horror, eh?) Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook) has a problem. His wife.

One might guess at the focus of his early attraction to Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau), but we’re introduced to the couple well into their worn out, unhappy pairing. Wilma’s a belligerent drunk, you see, and Henry’s friend needs a little help with this monster he’s unwittingly unleashed from a crate beneath the stairs back on campus…

Henry probably thought of Wilma as a tasty dish once before, too.

3. Diabolique (1955)

Pierre Boileau’s novel was such hot property that even Alfred Hitchcock pined to make it into a film. But Henri-Georges Clouzot got hold if it first. His psychological thriller with horror-ific undertones is crafty, spooky, jumpy and wonderful.

And it wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the weirdly lived-in relationship among Nicole (Simone Signoret) – a hard-edged boarding school teacher – and the married couple that runs the school. Christina (Vera Clouzot) is a fragile heiress; her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the abusive, blowhard school headmaster. Michel and Nicole are sleeping together, Christine knows, both women are friends, both realize he’s a bastard. Wonder if there’s something they can do about it.

What unravels is a mystery with a supernatural flavor that never fails to surprise and entrance. All the performances are wonderful, the black and white cinematography creates a spectral atmosphere, and that bathtub scene can still make you jump.

2. 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVQkJJxjdIM

1. Possession (1981)

Speaking of sex and monsters – wait, were we? – have you seen Possession? WTF is going on there?

Andrzej Zulawski – writer/director/Czech – created this wild ride with doppelgangers, private investigators, ominous government agencies, and curious sexual appetites. It’s more precisely fantasy than horror, but it strikes me as David Cronenberg meets David Lynch, which is a pairing I can get behind.

Sam Neill plays Mark. Mark has just left his job. He’s being offered a lot of money to stay, but he needs to go home. We don’t know why.

Back at home, he greets his genuinely adorable son Bob (Michael Hogben). I love that his name is Bob. Bob – it’s so normal, and yet feels so unusual for a small child. Mark’s wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is also at home with Bob. There’s nothing normal about Anna.

Mark and Anna’s relationship boasts an intentional artificiality- a queasying sexuality- that makes it hard to root for either of them as their marriage deteriorates. Anna, it seems, is in love with someone else. Is it the sexually open – really, really open – Heinrich? Is it a bloody, mollusk-like monster? Is Mark boning Anna’s mean friend with a cast on her leg? Does Bob’s kindergarten teacher bear an unreasonable resemblance to Anna? Is anyone caring properly for Bob?

These questions and more go basically unanswered in a deviant, summary-defying, fantastical bit of filmmaking. Surreal and unnerving as it is, Possession is maybe the bet cinematic nightmare interpretation of a crumbling marriage you will find.

Fright Club: Evil Children

If horror films reflect the hysteria and fear of the moviegoing public, then we, as a planet, are definitely afraid of our children – or of children in general. There are countless examples of murdering, mutant, bloodthirsty, demonic youngsters. Whether they are born monsters or have been claimed by the Dark One, whether they belong to roving bands of toughs or happen to be your own evil offspring, children seem to play upon our deepest fears. So let’s celebrate that today with a count down of the scariest children ever!

6. Let The Right One In (2008)

In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flicks in years. A spooky coming of age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure. Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar, with his blond Prince Valiant haircut, falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Linda Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.

As sudden acts of violence mar the snowy landscape, Oskar and Ali grow closer, providing each other a comfort no one else can. The film offers an ominous sense of dread, bleak isolation and brazen androgyny – as well as the best swimming pool scene perhaps ever. Intriguingly, though both children tend toward violence – murder, even – you never feel anything but empathy for them. The film is moving, bloody, lovely and terrifying in equal measure.

5. The Bad Seed (1956)

The minute delicate Christine’s (Nancy Kelly) husband leaves for his 4-week assignment in DC, their way-too-perfect daughter begins to betray some scary behavior. The creepy handyman Leroy (Henry Jones) has her figured out – he knows she’s not as perfect as she pretends.

You may be tempted to abandon the film in its first reel, feeling as if you know where the it’s going. You’ll be right, but there are two big reasons to stick it out. One is that Bad Seed did it first, and did it well, considering the conservative cinematic limitations of the Fifties.

Second, because director Mervyn LeRoy’s approach – not a single vile act appears onscreen – gives the picture an air of restraint and dignity while employing the perversity of individual imaginations to ramp up the creepiness.

Enough can’t be said about Patty McCormack. There’s surprising nuance in her manipulations, and the Oscar-nominated 9-year-old handles the role with both grace and menace.

4. Them (2006)

Brisk, effective and terrifying, Them is among the most impressive horror flicks to rely on the savagery of adolescent boredom as its central conceit.

Writers/directors/Frenchmen David Moreau and Xavier Palud offer a lean, unapologetic, tightly conceived thriller that never lets up.

A French film set in Romania, Them follows Lucas and Clementine, a young couple still moving into the big rattling old house where they’ll stay while they’re working abroad. It will be a shorter trip than they’d originally planned.

What the film offers in 77 minutes is relentless suspense. I’m not sure what else you want.

Creepy noises, hooded figures, sadistic children and the chaos that entails – Them sets up a fresh and mean cat and mouse game that pulls you in immediately and leaves you unsettled.

3. 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.

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.

But it’s the climactic image of procreation – of motherhood and childbirth – and the way the filmmaker and his leading lady subvert that life-giving moment, turning it into something beastly, that will stick with you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVQkJJxjdIM

2. The Omen (1976)

Gregory Peck brought impenetrable gravitas to this film, making everything seem very serious and worthwhile. This could be no ordinary horror flick – not with Atticus Finch in the lead.

Peck plays Robert Thorn, a rising politician and best friend to the President of the United States. He agrees to a delivery room switcheroo when he’s told his own son perished during childbirth, but another baby born simultaneously was orphaned. He brings home the tot, his loving wife (Lee Remick) none the wiser.

Eventually she does develop a sixth sense about the cherubic little Damien, though.
This mid-Seventies gem is gloriously over-the-top with its self-serious approach to the coming of the antichrist. Richard Donner – who would go on to direct a couple Superman movies, a bunch of Lethal Weapons, as well as the Goonies – made a name for himself as a director with this bloated and deadly serious bible thumper.

The film’s sinister elements – Mrs. Baylock, that dog, and Jerry Goldsmith’s intensely creepy (and Oscar winning) score – combine with Peck’s elegant heroism to keep the film fascinating, but all would have been for naught except for Harvey Stephens’s impish perfection as Damien.

1. The Ring (2002)

Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce few Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu.

The Ring – thanks in large part to the creepy clever premise created by Koji Suzuki, who wrote the novel Ringu – is superior to its source material principally due to the imagination and edge of the fledgling director. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric, and creepy as hell.

This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a video tape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.
The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Bunuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!

And Samara.

From cherubic image of plump cheeked innocence to a mess of ghastly flesh and disjointed bones climbing out of the well and into your life, the character is brilliantly created. (It’s actually a full grown man who climbs herky-jerky out of the TV.)

Fright Club: Pregnancy Horror

It’s nearly Mother’s Day, and what better way to celebrate than to reminisce on the hell that is pregnancy? Oh, what our mothers go through just for us! The handicapping size, the fear of demonic possession, zombiism, blood-thirstiness…well, the list just goes on forever. And so do the horror movie options. Lucky for you (and your mom!), we’ve pruned that list to just the five best.

5. Jug Face (2013)

Writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle brings together a fine cast including The Woman’s Sean Bridgers and Lauren Ashley Carter, as well as genre favorite Larry Fessenden and late-life scream queen Sean Young to spin a backwoods yarn about incest, premonitions, kiln work, and a monster in a pit.

As a change of pace, Bridgers plays a wholly sympathetic character as Dawai, village simpleton and jug artist. On occasion, a spell comes over Dawai, and when he wakes, there’s a new jug on the kiln that bears the likeness of someone else in the village. That lucky soul must be fed to the monster in the pit so life can be as blessed and peaceful as before.

Kinkle mines for more than urban prejudice in his horror show about religious isolationists out in them woods. Young is particularly effective as an embittered wife, while Carter, playing a pregnant little sister trying to hide her bump, a jug, and an assortment of other secrets, steals the show.

4. The Brood (1979)

Dr. Hal Ragland – the unsettlingly sultry Oliver Reed – is Hal’s 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.

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.

But it’s the climactic image of procreation – of motherhood and childbirth – and the way the filmmaker and his leading lady subvert that life-giving moment, turning it into something beastly, that will stick with you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVQkJJxjdIM

3. Sheitan (2006)

The fantastic Vincent Cassel stars as the weirdest handyman ever, spending a decadent Christmas weekend with a rag tag assortment of nightclub refugees. After Bart (Olivier Barthelemy) is tossed from the club, his mates and the girls they’re flirting with head out to spend the weekend at Eve’s (a not-shy Roxane Mesquida). Way out in rural France, they meet Eve’s handyman, his very pregnant wife, and a village full of borderline freaks.

It’s a ripe scene: sinners sinning at Christmas, inbred freaks, creepy dolls, impending childbirth.

The film is savagely uncomfortable and refreshingly unusual. Cassel’s performance (or, performances, so to speak) offer the work of lunatic genius, and his time onscreen is never less than memorable. It’s the kind of horror movie you’ll only find in France.

2. Inside (2007)

Beatrice Dalle’s insidious performance is hard to shake. Fearless, predatory, pitiless and able to take an enormous amount of abuse, her nameless character stalks a very, very pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis). Sarah lost her husband in a car crash some months back, and now, on the eve of Christmas, she sits, enormous, uncomfortable, and melancholy about the whole business. She’s grown cynical and despondent, more depressed than excited about giving birth in the morning.

Alexandre Bustillo’s film seeks to change her mind, make her want that baby. Because Dalle’s lurking menace certainly wants it. Her black clad silhouette is in the back yard, smoking and stalking – and she has seriously bad plans in mind.

Bustillo and directing partner Julien Maury swing the film from intelligent white collar angst to goretastic bloodfest with ease. The sadistic humor Dalle brings to the performance adds chills, and Paradis’s realistic, handicapping size makes her vulnerability palpable.

1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Along with Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), Rosemary’s Baby is part of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” – disturbing films of tension and horror in which metropolitan life and nosey neighbors conspire to drive a person mad.

Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Polanski takes all the glamour out of Satanism – with a huge assist from Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her turn as the highly rouged busybody Minnie Castevet. By now we all know what happens to poor Rosemary Woodhouse, but back in’69, thanks much to Mia Farrow’s vulnerable performance, the film boiled over with paranoid tension. Was poor, pregnant Rosemary losing it, or was she utterly helpless and in evil hands?