It doesn’t matter what you prefer to call them – Insane Asylum, Mental Institution, Madhouse – while a vast majority of these films tend toward the horror angle, not every film set in an asylum has to creepy, though it’s true some of the best happen to be. Whether you want to experience some of the top drama or great horror, these movies deliver.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Where else can you start? Jack Nicholson is Murphy, an inmate who has a plan to get out of work by passing himself off as crazy. It works a little too well when he winds up in a mental institution. Not being insane, he tries to shake things up – but the decidedly not-fun-at-all Nurse Ratched (played with detached coldness perfectly by Louise Fletcher), isn’t about to let him get away with it. Fellow patients include a young Danny DeVito as Martini, the silent Chief played by Will Sampson and Brad Dourif’s movie premiere as the stuttering Billy Babbitt. The story, the characters, and the great performances raise this to the status of a classic. Plus the ending is both chilling in its implication and yet leaves you with just a little hope.
Download One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Based on actual experiences by Susanna Kaysen, Winona Ryder takes on the role of a young woman who is institutionalized for a supposed suicide attempt and then finds herself connecting with fellow patients. The strong cast also features Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Brittany Murphy and Jared Leto. Like Cuckoo’s Nest, the story and characters elevate this beyond just a typical drama. Real life experiences make for some of the most compelling films, and it certainly works in this case.
Download Girl, Interrupted
One of the few movies when a location is probably the strongest character in the film. This follows a cleaning crew taking on a big asbestos removal job in a short amount of time in order to earn quick cash. This was filmed at the rundown Danvers State Hospital – it was often sited as an actual haunted location (all facilities have been destroyed as of 2005). The place is just genuinely creepy – and it rubs off on the people working – one is afraid of the dark, one becomes obsessed with a series of recordings, another finds a left-over stash of coins in the incinerator – the films is the epitome of psychological horror and while it may be hard to accept David Caruso, just go with it, the atmosphere is worth it.
Buy Session 9 on DVD
Martin Scorsese tries his hand with a bit of thrills and a bit of mystery as Leonardo DiCaprio (Teddy) and partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of a patient at a mental facility located on an island. As the investigation goes deeper and deeper, Teddy begins to suspect everything – his partner, the staff, even his own sanity as nothing adds up. This is a film you have to watch at least twice – because it’s all about details and deceptions. You might see some things coming, but the film throws in enough twists to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Download Shutter Island
If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing a Samuel Fuller film, this is a great place to start. Johnny Barrett is after a Pulitzer Prize, and in order to earn it he’s willing to get himself committed in order to solve a murder. Too bad for Barrett that he may not be as balanced as he thinks. All he has to do is interview the three patients who witnessed the murder and hope that moments of lucidity will lead to the killer, but his own mental health becomes an issue. You can say this is a B-movie, a bit of schlock, unrealistic, absurd and even a bit demeaning – but it’s also highly entertaining and certainly unique.
Buy Shock Corridor on DVD and Blu-Ray
These are only a few examples – whether your tastes run more to Hannibal Lecter or a mind-bending experience like The Jacket, you can find plenty more examples of Hollywood making mental health, and the facilities, part of picture.
Chris Kavan is the community manager for FilmCrave.com and he’s crazy… about movies.