Social institutions can be great settings for narrative films, as the following list excitedly details. But of all our esteemed social institutions, and usually people think of hospitals, police stations, or private and public schools, it is psychiatric institutions that perhaps provoke mostly anger, anxiety, and flat-out fear.
Now while this isn’t an entirely fair way to look at such institutions, and the stigmas that can surround them, there’s also a long tradition of injustice in these places, along the lines of what was exposed in Frederick Wiseman’s watershed documentary from 1967, Titicut Follies.
That important exposé plunged audiences for the first time into the marginalized and mistreated patient-inmates of clinical institutions, in this case the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
But where that nonfiction film had more on its mind than didacticism and reportage (it also exposed numerous infringements of civil liberties and influenced the closing of the institution and others like it as well), such places, as far as Tinseltown is concerned, can set the stage not just for horror and thrillers, but for romance, redemption, high camp, and laughter, too.
10. Stoker (2013)
South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy , The Handmaiden ) made his English-language debut with the Hitchcockian psychological thriller Stoker. Overfull with every manner of symbolism and rich literary references, this ravishing puzzle picture, penned by Wentworth Miller is an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with additional dollops of gothic fairytales and skewered family plotting. And yes, in the periphery looms some startling revelations connected to Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) and his secretive stay at a mental institution.
18 year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is reeling after her dear daddy Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident. Adding to India’s emotional upset is her unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden arrival/return of Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who India didn’t even know existed.
And before you can spit out the name “Joseph Cotten”, India soon suspects Charlie has some seriously ulterior motives on his mind. And while she should be concerned, India finds Uncle Charlie to be kind of dreamy. But such an infatuation can only have an unhealthy finish, particularly in the hands of Chan-wook.
As with the director’s previous work and as this write-up has illustrated, Stoker isn’t specific to anyone genre. And while the film doesn’t entirely unspool inside of an institution, the secrets around the place where Uncle Charlie stayed and what he does upon release, is at the crux of this artful, erotic, upsetting, and super stylish mystery.
9. Spellbound (1945)
While not at all a misfire from the Master of Suspense, it must be said that, any way you slice it, Spellbound is lower tier Hitchcock all the way. Why is that? Well, without getting spoiler-y, lets just say that it all comes down to a rather predictable and oft-told tale (with some convenient dissociative amnesia). But even with that caveat aside, Spellbound is worth watching for the fine performances, the menacing mental hospital setting, and the dazzling dream sequences that Hitch had Salvador Dalí design.
Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has arrived at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital where he is to replace the outgoing hospital director, one Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). It’s not long before she discovers that Edwardes is actually an impostor.
There’s an undeniable chemistry between Edwardes and Peterson, and he confesses to her that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead, he may even be the man who killed him, but cannot recall anything anything due to the aforementioned dissociative amnesia.
Dr. Peterson, convinced he is innocent of the real Dr. Edwardes’s murder, partners up with him, determined to use her psychoanalysis to smash through the barrier the amnesia has built around the truth.
Adapted by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht from the 1927 novel “The House of Dr. Edwardes” by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer, Spellbound is an exciting little exercise, and one that paints a surprisingly positive portrait of psychoanalysis. And the Miklós Rózsa is superb, too!
8. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Pretty much from the start filmmaker Werner Herzog has always been a firebrand. Roger Ebert wrote that “[Herzog] never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.” A spectacular spirit certainly surrounds 1970’s notorious Even Dwarfs Started Small.
This strange film, Herzog’s second narrative feature, takes place in a totally preposterous pocket universe where all humans are dwarf inmates in an unscrupulous institution on the brink of rebellion.
The film follows a bizarre dream logic as the inmates overrun the asylum, and go berserk in increasingly alarming ways. Ways that involve whacked-out weddings, crucified monkeys, a cannibalizing chicken, pyromania, and torture, all set to unsettling tribal music.
Herzog admits that much of the film’s misery resulted from time he spent in a third world prison (due to altercations on a previous film, his eerie documentary on mirages, Fata Morgana [released in 1971]), where he fell ill to a blood parasite. And boy, does it ever show. A mad masterpiece, Even Dwarfs Started Small is the kind of film that will haunt you, maybe forever.
7. Away From Her (2006)
Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell ) made her feature-length directorial debut in Away From Her, which she also adapted for the screen from Alice Munro’s 2001 short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.
Roger Ebert called the film “a heartbreaking masterpiece”, and once the viewer gets their head around the film’s subject matter, it’s easy to see why “heartbreaking” is the operative word in that sentence. Away From Her follows Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) who is struggling with Alzheimer’s.
Fiona’s condition devastates her long married husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), who has no other option but to take her to a nursing home where she can get the constant care her condition calls for. It’s here that Fiona’s condition worsens and she loses almost all memory of her life with Grant. Soon Fiona has a “coping partner” in a fellow resident named Aubrey (Michael Murphy), and seeing them together pains Grant severely.
Crushed and put-out, Grant finds some reprieve in reaching out to Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), but as time passes an opportunity for redemption arises.
A tear-jerker to be sure, Away From Her is also, as the BBC’s Stella Papamichael puts it, “a low-key yet powerful and uplifting story of love renewed.”
6. Man Facing Southeast (1986)
Eerily profound and engagingly multifaceted, Argentine writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s sci-fi drama hybrid Man Facing Southeast is a slow burn sensation. True, the languid pacing and overly parabolic story may put some people off, but for the rest of us, this film is a satisfying mind-twister.
Set in Buenos Aires during the summer of 1985 as an enigmatic stranger named Rantes (Hugo Soto) appears seemingly from nowhere at the José Borda Psychiatric Hospital and captures the curiosity of the sensitive psychiatrist Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros). Rantes tells Dr. Denis something incredible, that he’s an extraterrestrial who’s been sent to Earth to observe and report humanity’s illogical behavior. As the relationship between Dr. Denis and Rantes develops they become close and this doesn’t sit well with other hospital patients, staff, and Dr. Denis’s peers in the facility.
If any of this brief description of Man Facing Southeast’s plot and premise sounds at all familiar, that’s because Mike Figgis’s 1993 film Mr. Jones, starring Richard Gere, was inspired by this film, as well the 2001 film K-PAX by Iain Softley shares many similar plot points (so much so that Subiela had a plagiarism lawsuit against Softley for years, and it was never satisfactorily resolved).
Man Facing Southeast succeeds as an atmospheric slice of speculative fiction, bolstered by the intriguing mental institution setting as well as by a cryptic Christ parable that will work wonders for audiences up for innovative arthouse fare and enjoy a little challenge. Don’t miss it.