What’s the borderline between normal and insane? In legal terms, the word ‘insanity’ can be thrown around to try and give a clear perception of a crime, but in medical terms, how does a person is deemed ‘insane’? As one definition goes, being insane means that we are in a state of mind which prevents normal perception or social behavior. It makes me ask what is ‘real’ or ‘normal’. If I am searching for a fundamental or spiritual truth which my society isn’t aware of, am I an insane person? How does a society with flawed, mad practices could judge its people to be sane or insane? The terms ‘psychotic’ or ‘paranoid schizophrenic’, etc may gives us a concrete idea of madness, but ‘mental illness’ is very much a grey area to contemplate. And, despite the cutting-edge treatment for mental illness, the word ‘mental asylum’ (or mental institution or psychiatric hospitals) is another morally grey area. The de-humanizing & intimidating images of mental asylum are hard to erase from our mind, in spite of all the alleged therapeutic treatment in modern ‘care homes’.
Part of the reason for that is cinema, where we have seen haunting images of caretakers behaving as ‘lion-tamers’ in dealing with the mentally vulnerable individuals. We have seen how the patients are ‘zombified’ and reduced into a ‘drooling creature’. It has also provided a setting for intense atmosphere to scare us. Who can forget the somber surroundings in the opening sequence of expressionist masterpiece “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”; the incendiary documentary “Titicut Follies”; the traumatized, weird world of Fenix in Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre”; or that soul-sucking psychiatric hospital dance party sequence in Refn’s “Bronson”?
Films are also guilty of reducing mentally afflicted individuals, placed in the institutions as ‘comical caricatures’. But, films on this list explore how the rigid or empathetic constructs within a mental asylum plays a role in reforming or degrading the minds of those vulnerable individuals. The genre of films included in the list varies from dark comedy, drama, horror, mystery and thriller. And, finally I think it is insane of me to mention the words ‘best’ and ‘mental asylum’ in a sentence or statement. But, then I have been slightly afflicted, since making a movie list is itself is a minor act of insanity. So, despite the definitive-sounding title, I might have forgotten to add or discover profound movies related to the topic. If so, please enlighten my mind in the comments section.
15. Bedlam (1946) | Dir. Mark Robson
One of the 18th century England’s greatest shame was the insane asylum, commonly referred by Londoners as ‘Bedlam’. Mark Robson’s horror thriller tracks the experiences of a spirited, young girl Nell’s (Anna Lee) efforts to expose the cruelty & reform ‘bedlam’. But, the sadistic Sims (Boris Karloff), running the asylum commits the girl into the institution on a trumped-up charge. The film isn’t devoid of conventional Hollywood elements, but it is several cuts above the typical horror films of the decade. The acting and production desgin, based on Hogarth’s paintings, lends an authentic atmosphere, which definitely have inspired countless movies of the era, dealing with similar themes.
14. Don Juan DeMarco (1994) | Jeremy Leven
In Jeremy Leven’s oddball fantasy, Johnny Depp plays a delusional young man, who is convinced that he is the world’s greatest lover, Don Juan. His magnetic eyes and steamy words make some women believe that, including the nurses at the psychiatric institution he has been committed to (“Have you ever loved a woman until milk leaked from her” asks Don). The youngman’s ‘erotomania’ is assigned to be treated by distinguished psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Brando), who is on the process of reviving his own dispirited marriage. The film is a light-hearted portrayal of a state asylum and the film’s direction or pacing have nothing much to offer. But, the film does brood over the topics of fantasy, imagination and the boredom of harsh reality.
13. Session 9 (2001) | Dir. Brad Anderson
Brad Anderson’s horror/mystery is like his future work “The Machinist” is a peek into the dark side of human psychology. But, the majestic & rotting Danvers State Hospital plays a vital role in its protagonist’s sinistral downfall. It is almost inconceivable to think of the film’s effectiveness without the terrifying atmosphere of the asylum. The plot centers on an asbestos abatement crew, winning a bid to do a job in abandoned insane asylum. One member of the crew plays the tape of a former, dangerous patient with multiple personalities and Gordon (Peter Mullan), the crew leader, starts to behave in a mysterious manner. The eerie, labyrinthine, alienating rooms of the institution pervades like a deadly virus in the mind of Gordon. Its exploration of insanity might be unconvincing; nonetheless it remains scary.
12. Girl, Interrupted (1999) | Dir. James Mangold & Jonathan Kahn
American author Susanna Kaysen’s memoir relates her brief stay (during the 1960’s) in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. In James Mangold’s movie adaptation, Winona Ryder gives the powerful angst-ridden portrayal of Susanna, while Angelina Jolie plays the charming sociopath Lisa. Those who have read the memoir might feel the absence of Susanna’s unique voice and dark humor in the visuals, although the ensemble (including Whoopi Goldberg, Jeffrey Tambor & Vanessa Redgrave) delivers a fine-tuned performance. With the hidden society of misfits, “Girl, Interrupted” conveys the neurosis of contemporary young woman, embracing their girlhood witihin rigid societal constructs. Ryder’s ‘interrupted’ character soulfully points at the ignorance of the manifold yearnings of young woman.
11. Brainstorm (2001) | Dir. Laís Bodanzky
Brazilian film-maker Lais Bodanzky painful docu-drama, similar to “Girl, Interrupted”, chronicles author Mr. Carrano’s stay in hellish mental institution for a detox program. Middle class teenager Neto (Rodrigo Santaro—played as Xerxes in “300”) is a normal boy, but feels alienated from his family and hangs out with friends for music & drugs. The father, when he sees his son smoking joints takes a drastic step by tricking him to confine at a corrupt, mistreating mental asylum. The unattractive palette of colors makes us comfortable, infusing a certain level of dizziness. There are usual cliched dialogues & scenarios, but the raw performance of Santaro plus the decadent atmosphere is hard to shake off from our mind.