15 Best Movies Set in a Mental Asylum
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.
15 Best Movies Set in a Mental Asylum
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 behaviour. 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 give 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 an intense atmosphere to scare us. Who can forget the sombre surroundings in the opening sequence of the 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 play 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 design, based on Hogarth’s paintings, lends an authentic atmosphere, which definitely have inspired countless movies of the era, dealing with similar themes.
Must Read: The Nightmare in Cinema
14. Don Juan DeMarco (1994) | Dir. 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 young man’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.
Recommended: Dead Man (1995): Poetry of the Sinners
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 centres on an asbestos abatement crew, winning a bid to do a job in an 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 1960s) in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with a 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 humour 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 within rigid societal constructs. Ryder’s ‘interrupted’ character soulfully points at the ignorance of the manifold yearnings of a 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 a hellish mental asylum 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 colours 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.
10. I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK (2006) | Dir. Park Chan-wook
Acclaimed Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park’s offbeat romantic drama set in a mental asylum, tells the story of Young-goon, who driven crazy by her assembly line work thinks of herself as a cyborg and tries to charge herself by plugging into the mains.
In the mental hospital, she stubbornly refuses food in favour of battery charge. In comes another shy, oddball Il-soon, who wants to find a way to make her eat normal food. The whole idiocy and love shown in the asylum become a parable for our own machine-run world, where we desperately try to accept & believe in others’ feelings. As a crowd-pleaser, the film definitely is cloying, but there is a fine dose of Korean whimsicality or quirkiness that we can’t deny its infectious charm.
Also by Chan-Wook Park: The Handmaiden  : A Perverted Tale of Love & Deceit
9. Dogra Magra (1988) | Toshio Matsumoto
Based on Yumeno Kyusaku’s famous novel, the movie version directed by Toshio Matsumoto deals with experiences of a young insane man, Kure Ichiro, confined to an Eastern philosophy talking psychiatric doctors of a mental asylum. Like the young protagonist who had killed his fiance on the day of marriage, we are also haunted by many unanswered questions.
It very much moves like a jigsaw puzzle, where the mystery contracts and expands at different points of the narrative. Matsumoto, the legendary underground film-maker of Japan, has designed this film to be a surrealist mindf**k, where we need to pay closer attention like a sane individual.
The tangle of madness and lies encountered by Ichiro could also be viewed as a metaphor for the emotionally afflicted Japanese youth.
8. Angels of the Universe (2000) | Dir. Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
Based on author Einar Gudmundsson’s novel, called as ‘Icelandic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, Thor Fridriksson’s movie poignantly deals with the nature of insanity in the life of Paul, an unsuccessful artist. Paul’s descent into madness starts when he is rejected by the girl he loves. Soon, he is placed in a mental asylum, where he befriends a man who thinks he’s Hitler and Oli (played by famous Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur), who thinks he wrote Beatles’ song in a telepathic way.
While the film like many asylum-based works tries to blur or comment on the line between sane & insane in the society, it also serves as a vital piece to showcase the alienated life in Scandinavian lands. It’s cynical, melancholic tone expresses how empty life would be if all there’s left to reflect in society is insanity and anger. There is also some metaphorical imagery to give the narrative a poetic beauty.
Recommended: 25 Essential Iceland Movies That Are Worth Your Time
7. The Ninth Configuration (1980) | Dir. William Peter Blatty
Novelist William Peter Blatty’s (“Exorcist”) directorial debut has attained cult classic status, in the years preceding its lukewarm commercial response. The narrative takes place on an abandoned castle that has been transformed into an insane asylum for the traumatized Vietnam War veterans. Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach in his best role) is appointed as a head psychiatrist to use unusual methods to cure the assortment of weird inmates.
As in these types of films, one tough nut patient named Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) doesn’t buy Kane’s words and argues with him on everything from God to politics. But, the dynamics between these two central characters never devolves into a stereotype and remains partly humorous & profound until the end.
Peter Blatty marvellously builds & breaks down the lines that divide rationality and insanity. As in life, there are many moments here left for us to contemplate on what is concrete and what a hollow delusion is.
6. Lunacy (2005) | Dir. Jan Švankmajer
The works of Czech surrealist film-maker Jan Svakmajer (“Alice”, “Faust”, “Little Otik”, etc) are highly divisive. You can either get into disturbing & absurdly funny premises or else reject it with vehemence. “Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to see is a horror film, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre.
It is not a work of art. Today, art is all but dead anyway” says Mr Svankmejer while introducing his lunatic film at the opening credits. For this madly genius horror film, set in a mental asylum, the director draws in inspiration from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Marquis de Sade. Two approaches are shown to run an asylum – one founded on freedom, while the other on control & punishment.
A young, naive man named Jean Berlot experiences a series of nightmares in a story that meanders with fierce fancy. Although the film’s much-talked-about asylum makes an appearance only after an hour, it doesn’t matter whether the narrative moves within the walls of the mental institution. Because Svankmejer’s vision of madness has no boundaries and the whole spacious world looks like one, hellish madhouse. This eulogy for man’s lost humanity will haunt the darkest corridors of our mind.
5. David and Lisa (1962) | Dir. Frank Perry
Frank Perry’s minor art-house film (adapted from a novel by Theodore Rubin) has the premise of a boy-meets-a-girl story. Only here, the boy David (Keir Dullea) plays an extremely intelligent boy, who turns aggressive when touched.
The girl Lisa (Janet Margolin) is a schizophrenic, who carries a deep trauma only speaks in rhymes. They are thrown in together at a private psychiatric hospital. What separates this work from usual melodramatic mental asylum films is that it approaches its characters and their surroundings with sensitivity and understanding. The internal turbulence & frustration of the characters are portrayed with rare attention to detail; not characterized by ridiculous outbursts.
The film also showcases an idealized atmosphere for the mental institution and depicts how certain kind of mental illness could be cured by better communication. Both the characters awaken for a better future in the care of attentive Dr Swinford (Howard De Silva). The film’s most unforgettable, the tender scene happens when Lisa goes to an art museum for a field trip. Watch out for the painful action when Lisa sees the statue of a mother embracing her infant.
4. Shutter Island (2010) | Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller (based on Dennis Lehane’s novel) opens with the arrival of US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) to the dark isle, where the infamous criminally insane patients are confined to Ashecliffe hospital. Teddy is there to investigate a disappearance and gradually learns that the missing element is far more elusive than he thought it to be.
The narrative is considered to be flawed due to its erratic tone that veers between a hard-boiled mystery and Gothic horror. But, the film scores full marks in creating a dense, atmospheric visual signature and in the performances of brilliant ensemble.
There’s a superfluous nature in the way, the film brings home its psychoanalysis, although the burgeoning mental breakdown of Daniels in the delimited environment gives enough cinematic pleasures.
Related: Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
3. Shock Corridor (1963) | Dir. Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller’s pulp classic takes place inside confined spaces (there is some exotic footage of locations in Japan). Even when its reporter protagonist is shown outside the mental institution he is bounded to four walls, obsessed by the risks he wanted to take for attaining the Pulitzer Prize.
The plot concerns Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), a newspaper reporter, who wants to unravel the mystery behind a murder, happened in state psychiatric hospital. To question the inmates, who had witnessed the killing, Barrett risks his sanity and by trumped-up complaint gets into the mental institution.
Despite the pulpy story-line, Fuller manages to explore the themes of obsession that turns around the sane individuals. He is able to cram in political ideas and social observation through the emotional suffering of the inmates. DoP Stanley Cortez and Fuller work in tandem to precisely visualize the disintegrating inner mental state of Barrett and the pervading insanity in the dark corridors of asylum.
2. The Snake Pit (1948) | Anatole Litvak
Anatole Litvak’s powerful feature was one of the earlier movies to deal with psychosis or mental illness in a non-melodramatic or non-sensitive manner. Based on Mary Jane Ward’s fictionalized memoirs, the film marvellously visualizes (it was the era of Hays Code) the nervous breakdown of a young woman named Virginia, afflicted by repressed childhood trauma.
An empathetic doctor Kirk (Leo Glenn) treats her to the era’s new psychotherapy for apprehending the painful memory of Virginia. “Snake Pit’s” brilliance is justified in the heartrending performance of Olivia de Havilland, who deeply exhibits inner thoughts of an institutionalized schizophrenic.
While Virginia’s emotional problems are very grounded and realistic, the real socioeconomic problems in running an asylum were also properly dealt with. The film’s title refers to the indifferent, inhumane treatment prevalent in the run-down state psychiatric facilities.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Miloš Forman
Milos Forman’s stirring classic isn’t just a work that claims for free-spirit in a tyrannical mental facility; it is a powerful anti-establishment drama, reflecting on the mentalities of oppressors and the rare rebellious thinkers, striving to break that humongous wall of sociopolitical limitations. Jack Nicholson’s live-wire performance as Patrick McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s anger inciting Nurse Ratched have been registered as two of the best performances in the history of cinema.
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The de-humanizing treatment of institutional powers is blended with the right mix of angst and humorous absurdity. The story is pretty basic and it’s definitely not a fair critique of the institution’s treatment methods, but Forman’s symbolism combined with Hasker Wexell’s fabulous cinematography gives us a phenomenal dramatic agitation.
McMurphy’s crusade for liberation or battle of wills provides abundant life lessons and the film’s final image of freedom is rich and impactful in its imagery that it still stays fresh in my mind.