Not rated, but it really felt like Sam Fuller was trying to upset people with this movie. It deals with mental illness primarily, but in a really exploitative way. As part and parcel of this, the movie discusses incest, racism (including racial slurs), murder, and sexuality (with a comically over-the-top portrayal of nymphomania). It should be pointed out that the female lead is a stripper, but there is no actual nudity in the film.
DIRECTOR: Samuel Fuller
Years and years ago --heck, definitely more than a decade ago --I got really excited to watch Shock Corridor. There were Criterion movies and then there were the deep-dive Criterion movies. You know, these often weren't the movies that showed up in conversation like a Bergman film or Jules & Jim. Nah, stuff like Shock Corridor fell into a category borderlining on cult. Yeah, it was a Sam Fuller film, but that just meant that it would be a hard-boiled noir to a certain extent. I got all jazzed up to watch this movie, saw the title screen...and then quit. I couldn't tell you what happened. Honestly, I got a couple seconds into the opening credits and I know I never watched beyond that point. I worked at the video store. I tended not to hold onto movies for more than one night. But something in me returned this movie before I had a chance to sit down and watch it. Well, it's 2021 and finally decided to give this one ago, especially considering that Criterion had it remastered.
Shock Corridor has a really appropriate title. It's somewhere between a cinematic masterpiece and absolute schlock. Like, it really has elements of both. I've seen my fair share of Sam Fuller movies. I know what to expect when I'm about to sit down for a Sam Fuller movie. There's going to be an examination of man's obsession with vice leading to his grim downfall. I feel like you should be making your way through a fifth of whiskey while watching a Sam Fuller movie. He knows how to shoot a movie and he knows how to tell a story. But I also knew that Shock Corridor was going to be a little bit different. I can think of the OG Criterion box and how it just mirrored one of those Something Weird titles we had in the cult section. And for my long way around the subject, for as much as this movie is kind of a hard-boiled film noir, it also is a super deep dive into exploitation cinema.
A lot of me is judging this from my comfortable, holier-than-thou perspective of 2021. Mental illness is a very real problem and is treated like this awful stigma, despite the fact that much of it is considered very treatable. But Shock Corridor probably shares more in common with Freaks than with any contemporary views on mental health. Johnny Barrett as the sane avatar / protagonist has an in-universe reason for being in this asylum. He is investigating a murder and he must pretend to be mad to roam freely among the residents. That's all fine and dandy. But the real reason that Johnny Barrett is in the mental institution isn't to find the killer. Instead, he acts as our guide for the multiple larger-than-life personalities within the system. He is taking us around the zoo and showing off the exhibits. But that's all okay, because it is under the notion of telling a story and mental illness just happens to be the setting. (There's a healthy amount of sarcasm in what I write. I don't know why I'm hiding behind this, considering that it makes my writing all that much more unclear.)
But it is so interesting to see Fuller apply the laws of film noir over Shock Corridor. As much as much of this comes across as a hard-boiled detective story, it kind of isn't. Johnny's downfall almost reads like a Twilight Zone episode. The structure is all there. There are very clearly delineated act breaks and we see this guy whose hubris seems justified for the greater good get his just desserts. I mean, everything kind of feels like Rod Serling. And it's funny, because Johnny is doing something objectively noble. If I removed all of the trappings of this story, he is a member of the fourth estate sacrificing himself to uncover the truth. That would make him a noble hero. But Fuller doesn't allow Barrett to have that kind of glory. Everything that happens to Barrett over the course of the story is well deserved. Cathy continually reminds him and warns him about the dangers of subjecting himself to those kinds of living conditions. And he's not pursuing the truth for altruistic reasons, like truth or justice. No, he just wants the Pulitzer Prize. By devaluing the lives of the inmates of the asylum, Johnny's downfall mirrors something that Rod Serling would stress: he has become the very thing he viewed as less-than-human.
Fuller's clear condemnation is the state of the mental health industry. Portraying it as formulaic and cold, the doctors involved with Johnny's incarceration seem cold and corrupt. (I'm not sure if I understood the story properly when the killer is revealed. I'm pretty sure that Dr. Cristo was the head of the whole conspiracy, but Johnny never really makes that connection. Perhaps that's because he doesn't care about the details; he just wants the answer.) But I don't know how effective --or how passionately --Fuller fights to get his theme across. This isn't exactly a well-researched piece about the conditions of the mental institutions across America. This is full of people who suffer from delusions about who they are. And every personality is grandiose. It's the kind of characterization that we would see in soap operas, where people were convinced that they were Napoleon and the like.
I do find it interesting that race plays such a big role in mental illness in this film. Out of the three witnesses who are given larger attention than any inmate shy of Pagliacchi, two of these disorders are tied to race. The first witness was a Communist sympathizer who now believes that he is a Civil War general for the Confederate States of America. For me, I instantly saw the racial connection, but Fuller treats this more as the Grand-Ol'-South of the Lost Cause Theory. (If you don't know the Lost Cause Theory, you should study the crap out of it right now.) But the second one is the more telling one. Dave Chappelle ended up making a whole bit about the Black man who is a Klansman because he doesn't know he's Black. (I'm not going to make a direct connection to one of my favorite films of the past decade, BlacKkKlansman, because that's a whole different scenario.) That character almost makes the film worth it by himself. I mean, it's really over-the-top. I can't deny that. But Fuller seems to be calling out his audience directly. Seeing what bigotry has done to this kid, forcing him to echo the sentiments that he has heard. Coupling that with the references to the Freedom Riders is something that is absolutely devestating.
The most effective element of the movie is the one that has me thinking the most though. Right before any character reveals moments of non-scientific lucidity, the film goes to full color. It's very striking. (Coincidentally, the next movie I'm writing about is Rumble Fish, another monochromatic film that dabbles with color.) It's very effective, but I don't know if the three times element is the best way to go about it. Fuller presents these flashbacks that seem like they are comprised of stock footage. The first one kind of works with Stuart's flashback to Japan. Because it is only one scene and it is weird that he's showing of Japan instead of Korea, I could pretend that was always intended for Fuller. But the other flashbacks clearly stress that these are just random shots. Johnny Barrett never once mentioned a fear of water. But when the end of the movie had to show colorful waterfalls, it did create that effective close of his hallucination tied to rain. It just all seemed a little forced. Regardless, it worked.
Yeah, it's a good movie. I actually really enjoyed it. But it is a bit too cornball for anything serious to really come out of it. I mean, the nympho scene alone look like it was set designed by community house players. These women came across like vampires or zombies without even a hint of nuance to the performance. The movie, as much as it draws attention to the mentally ill, never really treats them with any sense of humanity. If anything, they are considered to be a virus, stealing humanity from the unlucky souls who must share space with them. It's a good movie, but it is also a bit lazy at times.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.