Films set in mental institutions have long captivated audiences; consider, for example, The Snake Pit (1948), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Girl, Interrupted (1999). Films that begin with a patient leaving a mental institution can be equally gripping. By “begin with”, I mean that, within the first third of the movie, we either witness the patient leaving a hospital or learn about his or her recent commitment. By “leaving”, I mean the patient has been released or has escaped. The 32 films compiled here, in chronological order, all build on the tension of a mental patient’s readjustment — or re-maladjustment — to society.
Eighteen of these 32 films are dramas and comedies. The rest are horror films and thrillers. Most are North American films. Otherwise, these are films that gained an audience in North America. Nearly all center on white, middle- to upper-class characters. Twenty of the 32 films present discharged or escaped patients who are male, while ten center on female patients and two on both male and female patients.
As for the era, nine of the 32 films here are contemporary. Released between 1988 and 2012, they offer the subgenre’s most authentic depictions (e.g., David Cronenberg’s Spider). Eleven of these films were made between 1904 and 1966. The five earliest are all about escapees, yet they span genres, laughing off mental illness via slapstick or heightening anxiety about it via melodrama and mystery.
A golden age for this subgenre, offering 12 films, lasted throughout the ’70s and into the early ’80s. The abundance reflects deinstitutionalization, a mental health movement that began in the US in the 1960s and served to reduce the need for permanent care. During this time, many patients with mental disorders were able to reintegrate into society thanks to advances in antipsychotics, new government programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and a wider array of community mental health services.
A marker of these films as a subgenre is how often their introductions rely on either the commentary of a mental health professional or a traumatizing backstory as a plot device; elements that are combined in no less than eight films. Trauma is pivotal, if overdetermined. Narratively, cinema tends to oversimplify the onset of a character’s mental illness by rooting it tidily in a single trauma. This is called the “presumption of traumatic etiology”, a term used by Steven E. Hyler, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, in his Comprehensive Psychiatry article, “DSM-III at the Cinema”.
Another recurring myth is that of the “schizophrenic parent”, which roots mental illness in a person’s upbringing. Most commonly, it’s a mother who is blamed for creating mental illness in her child. The theory has been out of favor among therapists for decades but has endured in films and how audiences read them.
The vulnerability of a newly released mental patient is a major factor in this subgenre, as is the vulnerability of a community into which a person with a mental health condition has escaped. Ranking the vulnerability of the patient on a scale of zero to five, with five being most vulnerable and zero being least vulnerable, only one of the women ranks below three, whereas men occupy the full range evenly.
How do gender, class, and race play into this vulnerability factor? Of the female characters starting new lives, only one is of a lower class and, therefore, doubly vulnerable. Even she, the escapee in The Woman in White, is less central to the plot than her upper-class foil (played by the same actress). As for race, minorities in mental institutions were long vulnerable to scientific racism and biased care, facing hostile limitations upon reentering society. Despite the dramatic potential, not one of the 32 films center on the experience of a racial minority.
So it is not greater vulnerability exploited in these films, but bourgeois vulnerability and privilege lost, privilege regained, privilege at risk. That rings true as well for escapee-killer movies in which privileged households and communities come under siege.
I must own up to my own fantasy of the nervous breakdown as a fantasy of privilege, induced by cinema and reinforced by this list. Eleven of the ostensibly recovered protagonists return to spacious, well-to-do homes; four can afford adventures; and five come to live in smaller yet cozy apartments. Only four start their new lives facing insufficiency or homelessness, in Touched, Sling Blade, Spider, and Clean, Shaven.
The latter three certainly qualify as the most hard-hitting and realistic dramas on the list. They also echo what the American Psychological Association (APA) considers an enduring truth, supported by study after study over decades: lower socioeconomic status is a risk factor for, if not a cause of, mental illness and psychiatric institutionalization.
These 32 films cohere as a subgenre even in their variations. Plot remains similar from film to film while tone mutates: absurd, inspiring, campy, gritty, or brutal. The portrayal of mental anguish bends from realistic to ridiculous, provoking sympathy and fear in turn. Sensitivity and insightfulness continually fluctuate alongside stereotyping and psychobabble, revealing decade-to-decade shifts in perceptions and practices. Furthermore, the films cross several genres, or bridge them, while ranging from obscure to ubiquitous, from cult classics and drive-in fare to Oscar winners.
Going by these films, there’s not much reason to have faith in the security of mental institutions that house seriously psychotic patients, nor in the judgment of psychiatrists who release patients too easily destabilized by dysfunctional families or an aggressive society.
Indeed, in these films, newly re-stabilized characters tend to find themselves at the mercy of the unstable. They must adjust to the maladjusted. They are forced to accept being judged by others whose outwardly normal-seeming, yet in closed environments clearly toxic behaviors, have never themselves been subject to therapy, diagnosis, or stigmatization; thus, power is wielded over the mentally disenfranchised.
Whether underdog or maniac or underdog predisposed to seeming like a maniac, a character who has emerged from a mental institution embodies dramatic tension. If an escaped patient is not returned to the institution, society may be at risk. If the released patient does not adjust to society, he or she may be at risk of return to the institution. Consequently, post-institutionalization operates in these films as a framing device that heightens the meaningfulness of every action, every dialogue. There’s everything to lose.
1. The Escaped Lunatic (dir. Wallace McCutcheon, 1904)
The success of this silent short film prompted an exact remake later the same year, Maniac Chase (dir. Edwin S. Porter), and similarly themed fare cashing in on the comedy of madness. The lunatic, in this case, believes himself to be Napoleon, dressing in the iconic uniform and bicorne hat. Asylum warders treat him so poorly that he jumps from his third-floor window to get away. A slapstick pursuit ensues, circling back to the asylum where the escapee returns himself to his cell. His warders find him there, reading a newspaper as if nothing’s happened.
The Napoleon costume would have been understood as comic code for generalized lunacy, if not delusions of grandeur specifically. Stan Laurel’s debut film role, in Nuts in May (1917), was also a Napoleon-dressed lunatic on the loose.
2. House of Darkness (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1913)
At the center of D.W. Griffith’s dramatic short film is the unforgettable shot of an escaped lunatic (Charles Hill Mailes) warily peering around a tree, both childlike and deranged. He crawls into the window of a doctor’s house and menaces the wife (Claire McDowell), home alone. Her piano playing saves her, soothing the psychotic man. The narrative then veers from a pearls-clutching thriller into public service message about the curative powers of musical therapy, a form of therapy just beginning to gain credibility (the first national association of musical therapists was founded in 1903).
3. The Woman in White a.k.a. The Unfortunate Marriage (dir. Ernest C. Warde, 1917)
Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White from 1859, one of the very first mystery novels, spawned seven film adaptations between 1912 and 1948. This full-length silent feature begins with the woman in white (Florence La Badie) escaping from an asylum. She was never insane, however, but a half-witted victim. The backstory is that she’d witnessed the misdeeds of a nobleman and institutionalization effectively silenced her.
Once she’s escaped, she finds out the nobleman is engaged and warns his fiancée (also played by La Badie) against marriage. As one woman tries to help another undermine the male forces against them, involuntary commitment to a mental institution — or even the threat of it — is exposed as a tool that can be used against any woman.
4. A Bill of Divorcement (dir. George Cukor, 1932)
John Barrymore plays WWI veteran Hilary Fairfield, returning home “like a lost child” after 15 years in a mental institution. Discovering his wife (Billie Burke) has divorced him makes for powerful melodrama. More central to the plot is Sidney (Katherine Hepburn), on the verge of marriage, finding out that her father suffered not shellshock alone but latent insanity brought on by shellshock.
So insanity is in his blood and in hers too. Reflecting the era’s fixation on eugenics, which advocated sterilizing persons deemed genetically unfit, Sidney fears she may “inflict” on her husband either mentally ill children or her own impending breakdown. A remake of a British film from 1922, A Bill of Divorcement was remade again in 1940 with screenplay by Dalton Trumbo.
5. Road Show (dir. Hal Roach, 1941)
Drogo Gaines (John Hubbard) decides to ditch his gold-digging fiancée at the altar. When asked why he bleats like a goat. This faking of insanity backfires, alas, as he goes from the wedding chapel to booby hatch. The private hospital’s entrance sign may pun “For the Rest of Your Life”, but Drogo quickly escapes, traveling off with a carnival owned by Penguin Moore (Carole Landis). There seems little difference between asylum kooks and carnival kooks, all more sincere than the respectable set attending the wedding at the start of this uneven but pleasant musical comedy.
6. Ministry of Fear (dir. Fritz Lang, 1944)
This film noir classic begins with Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) being released from Lembridge Asylum, having spent two years there after the mercy killing of his dying wife. His reentry into society is marked by unreality at every turn. For starters, the cake he wins at a charity fete contains sought after microfilm and the blind man on the train, to whom he offers a slice, is not blind but a Nazi spy. Stephen tumbles into an international conspiracy while London endures the Blitz. Such forces would make anyone nervous. Unlike the vulnerable protagonist in Graham Greene’s original novel from 1943, however, Milland plays a hero so level-headed that his asylum-time seems all but irrelevant.
7. Home Before Dark (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1958)
Charlotte (Jean Simmons) is the “overly emotional” wife of an unemotional academic (Dan O’Herlihy). She’s released from a state hospital one year — and eight electroshocks — after a nervous breakdown. Many patients end up committed all over again, her doctor warns, if they are released to the same situation that precipitated the initial breakdown. Charlotte is certainly at risk, returning to a sexless marriage, a condescending stepmother, a glamorous cat of a stepsister, and her coldly bourgeois hometown.
Paranoia grates against clarity for Charlotte, the plot turning on the fact that her paranoia is not wholly unjustified. Why had her husband committed her to a state hospital, she demands to know in a confrontational scene, when they could afford a private one with superior doctors. The mention of electroshock (ECT) is ambiguous in tone. Though the therapy remained common throughout and beyond the ’50s, public opinion on its humaneness was increasingly uncertain.
8. Through a Glass Darkly (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1961)
Bergman’s stark classic, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, begins a month after Karin (Harriet Anderson) is released from an asylum where she received electroshock therapy. Vacationing with family on an unnamed island, she asks her husband, “Am I so little or has the illness made a child of me?” She later sneaks a peek at her novelist father’s diary and learns two distressing things. First, there is no cure for her illness, schizophrenia — a fact her doctor spared her. Second, her father has become obsessed, as a writer, with constructing an accurate description of Karin’s “gradual disintegration”.
9. Two Weeks in Another Town (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1962)
Kirk Douglas plays Jack Andus, a movie star and manic-depressive alcoholic who attempted suicide four years ago. Since Jack is wealthy, he was committed not to a state hospital but a private one, often referred to as a sanitarium (a term originally associated with tuberculosis clinics). Ridgewood Retreat boasts lilac bushes, shuffleboard, butler-like attendants, and elegant rooms.
Jack assumes his career is washed-up forever until he’s offered a role in a film set in Rome. His psychiatrist deems him fit, if not cured, but old tensions prove rocky to navigate. And those against Jack don’t bother with the euphemism “sanitarium”. Instead they jab at him with terms like “asylum” and “nuthouse”. Will Jack’s rugged individualism win out?
10. Strait-Jacket (dir. William Castle, 1964)
Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) finds her husband in bed with a younger woman and goes insane, chopping off their heads with an axe as small daughter Carol watches from the next room. The asylum releases Lucy two decades later, right when Carol (Diane Baker) is vying to marry into wealth. In some scenes, Lucy’s vulnerability makes her an underdog to root for; in others, we savor the body count as her instability impels her toward daggers, knitting needles, and axes.
William Castle’s campy shocker was written by Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho, and built on the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? costarring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. These movies established a subgenre called “grande dame guignol” that centers on the “psycho-biddy”.
Post-menopausal and mentally unbalanced, horror’s “psycho-biddy” proved a recurring role in the ’60s and ’70s for big-name Hollywood actresses considered past their prime. Strait-Jacket exploits a grotesque conflation of mentally ill Lucy, obsessed with her faded youth, and the aging movie star playing Lucy, a specter of faded glamour.
11. King of Hearts (dir. Philippe de Broca, 1966)
German soldiers during the final days of WWI have planted a bomb somewhere in a French village. All the residents have fled except for those in the lunatic asylum. A bomb-defuser (Alan Bates) from a Scottish brigade, eluding a German patrol, hides out in the asylum and inadvertently releases the inmates. They dart about freely, playing at different roles in the town, alive in every moment and oblivious to the fact that the bomb is set to go off at midnight.
This French classic reflected aspects of the ’60s zeitgeist, like war-weariness and the “anti-psychiatry” of R.D. Laing, though it achieved its cult status in the ’70s thanks to New York’s revival theater circuit.
12. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (dir. John Hancock, 1971)
Jessica (Zohra Lampert), just released from a mental hospital, arrives at a newly purchased farmhouse and her hold on reality is still fragile. She thinks she sees a red-haired young woman inside the house and it’s telling how relieved she is when her husband and friend see the woman too—a squatter, it turns out, named Emily (Mariclare Costello). Equal parts charm and undertow, Emily is quickly invited to stay as a houseguest.
This beautiful independent film deserves its cult status, gently mingling psychodrama and the supernatural. Our identification with Jessica is strong thanks to Lampert’s subtly modulated performance, the script heightening dramatic irony via her inner dialogues. Still, we can’t quite trust Jessica’s perception: Is the town really under Emily’s spell?
13. Daddy’s Deadly Darling a.k.a. Pigs (dir. Marc Lawrence, 1972)
This anti-masterpiece, from the heyday of drive-ins, roots Lynn’s psychosis in childhood sexual abuse by her doting father. Troma Entertainment’s DVD release of the film cuts the brief yet sleaze-radiating backstory to begin with eighteen-year-old Lynn killing her father and being committed, in denial about what she’s done.
Lynn eventually escapes to find her new father figure, a lonely, unbalanced pig farmer named Zambrini. When she kills again, Zambrini feeds the corpse to his pigs. “It’s no good to remember something that’s terrible,” he comforts her. “You must forget.” Poignancy matches perversity, due partly to the characters being played by Marc Lawrence (known for gangster roles) and real-life daughter Toni Lawrence.
14. I Dismember Mama a/k/a Poor Albert and Little Annie (dir. Paul Leder, 1972)
Albert (Zooey Hall) is an antisocial hipster in a black turtleneck and he hates his mother. He tried to kill the overbearing dowager once already and she had him committed to a private hospital. He escapes to try again but, with her gone into hiding, he fixates instead on the housekeeper’s 11-year-old daughter whose “purity” attracts him, too much of a Shirley Temple-type to provoke his misogyny. Escaped mental patients like Albert also wreak havoc in Bell from Hell and Scream Bloody Murder, both from 1973.
15. Frightmare a.k.a. Cover Up (dir. Pete Walker, 1974)
A garish, darkly humorous chiller about co-dependence and cannibalism. It opens in 1957 with the trial of serial cannibal-killer Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith) and her husband Edmund (Rupert Davies). Released after 15 years in a mental institution, they come to live in a small town about an hour outside London. Dorothy is neither cured nor harmless, though, her dottiness masking a hard-bitten sadism. She earns money giving tarot readings, dealing the death card to those who reveal they are alone in the world. Edmund, as before, covers up her gory crimes.
The movie orchestrates three plot elements found in other films here. One is the shading of mental health professionals as ineffectual. The other two — that Dorothy’s so-called “cannibanthropy” is rooted in a childhood trauma and that her daughter has inherited her psychotic inclinations — seem to contradict each other.
16. The Haunting of Julia a.k.a. Full Circle (dir. Richard Loncraine, 1977)
Psychologically fragile characters prove vulnerable to the supernatural in a number of horror films. Robert Wise’s The Haunting, based on a Shirley Jackson novel, is a classic example, as is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. In Voices from 1973, a mother grieving over her drowned son is released from a mental hospital and comes to stay in a haunted house, much like The Haunting of Julia. A gorgeous adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel, it centers on a humble heiress, Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow), who accidentally kills her only daughter.
After two months in the psychiatric ward of a London hospital, Julia bolts from a husband who’d rather see her institutionalized than independent. She then purchases an antique-loaded townhouse to which only she has a key. Still, she feels she is not alone, coming to believe the house haunted by a sociopathic little girl who died there decades earlier. The more Julia fixates on the ghost of the little girl, the harder it is to tell where guilt-racked grief ends and the genuinely supernatural begins.
17. Outrageous! (dir. Richard Benner, 1977)
Disco-era Canada gave us this cult classic inspired by semi-autobiographical stories in Margaret Gibson’s The Butterfly Ward. It’s about Liza (Hollis McLaren), a schizophrenic escapee from a mental hospital, and her loyal friend Robin (Craig Russell) who takes her in. While Liza begins a new life, trying to stave off hallucinations, Robin begins a new career impersonating female celebrities.
Liza’s storyline reveals an adversarial relationship between emerging patient and mental hospital. She wants to remain functional to spite the hospital: “They’re powerless as long as I can function. I’ll never go back to that locked ward.” As for Robin, onstage he feels embraced by gay culture but offstage his genderqueerness is a turn-off for gay men. These two nonconformists may not change the social structures deeming them unfit, but they do begin to achieve personal stability and self-worth.
18. How Awful About Allan (dir. Curtis Harrington, 1978)
The original psycho himself, Anthony Perkins, plays Allan. He goes hysterically blind when his sister is scarred and his father killed in a house fire. Allan is released from a mental hospital after eight months, still partially blind. His psychiatrist insists that full recovery will require him to confront his feelings of guilt about the fire. Back home, Allan learns that his sister (Julie Harris) has taken in a boarder to help pay bills. Either this new boarder is out to get Allan or Allan has been released too soon. How Awful About Allan can be thought of as a male companion to the classic Curtis Harrington psychodrama What’s the Matter with Helen? from 1971.
19. Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978)
The most famous asylum escapee may well be Michael Myers in this stalker classic. It offers two beginnings: backstory about seven-year-old Michael killing his sister on Halloween night and, 15 years later, his escape from a state hospital to return home and kill again. His longtime psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (an iconic role for Donald Pleasance) had insisted Michael cannot be rehabilitated — “purely and simply evil” — but the hospital board failed to step up security.
As a psycho killer, Michael Myers both emerges from and invades the small, middle-class town of Haddonfield; as a mental hospital escapee, holiday convention allows him to hide behind a mask like everyone else.
20. Macabre a/k/a/ Frozen Terror (dir. Lamberto Bava, 1980)
Here’s an Italian horror oddity set in New Orleans, which means dubbed dialogue with a Southern accent. Jane Baker (Bernice Stegers) is a wealthy housewife having an affair. Her lover, speeding her home after a rendezvous, crashes the car and is decapitated; another backstory-intro doubles as “traumatic etiology”, giving way to Jane’s release a year later from a mental health center. She takes up residence in the apartment where she used to meet her lover, masturbating with his severed head that she’s somehow managed to keep all this time in the freezer.
21. Ordinary People (dir. Robert Redford, 1980)
This winner of four Oscars, including Best Picture, is another example of a film that combines traumatic etiology and a schizophrogenic parent. The trauma that prompts Conrad (Timothy Hutton) to cut his wrists is his older brother’s death in a boating accident, about which he feels survivor guilt. The parent who undermines Conrad’s ego is not the sensitive patriarch (Donald Sutherland) but his composed-to-the-point-of-ungiving mother (Mary Tyler Moore) who didn’t visit him once during his four months in a psychiatric hospital.
Conrad’s return home is so tense for him that, despite the electroshock, he actually misses the hospital. “Because nobody hid anything there,” he tells his psychiatrist.
22. Alone in the Dark (dir. Jack Sholder, 1980)
Halloween blames Michael Myers’ escape on lax hospital security, expressed through Donald Pleasance’s character Dr. Loomis. Alone in the Dark casts Pleasance as a doctor known for his laxness. Dr. Leo Bain is a blunt parody of existential psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, just as Bain’s “Psychiatric Haven” is a parody of Laing’s Archway Community where therapists and patients lived together with little sense of boundaries between them (see the 1972 documentary Asylum).
Higher security is required for criminally insane patients, of course, but Bain’s lockdown-triggering system fails the night of a power outage. Three killers (Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Erland van Lidth) escape to spend the bulk of the film terrorizing a newly hired doctor and his family in their home.
23. Touched (dir. John Flynn, 1983)
Opening credits roll and we watch a 27-year-old mental patient named Daniel (Robert Hays) on a group outing to the Wildwood Boardwalk in New Jersey. In voice-over we hear from a psychiatric report about Daniel’s inability “to function effectively outside a hospital environment”. This plot device should be familiar by now, raising the stakes as Daniel escapes from the hospital and takes a carnival job. A good-natured yet understandably forgotten drama.
24. Rain Man (dir. Barry Levinson, 1988)
Rain Man combined post-institutionalization with the road movie to become the top-grossing film of the year and win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) is an autistic savant upturns the expected plot, really, as he is concerned not with starting life anew but with fulfilling the same daily routine he’d established in the mental institution.
The administrator warns Raymond’s brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) that “any break from this routine leaves him terrified”. Nonetheless, Charlie drives Raymond halfway across the country, stopping in Las Vegas where Raymond’s prodigious math skills come in handy.
25. The Stepfather II (dir. Jeff Burr, 1989)
Released or escaped mental patients are less present in horror of the ’80s and ’90s. There’s Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981), Blood Rage (1987), The Johnsons (1992), and the iconic Stepfather II. In the original Stepfather from 1987, a family man (Terry O’Quinn), having murdered his wife and kids, alters his appearance and flees to another town to start a new life with an unsuspecting widow and her daughter.
The sequel begins at Puget Sound Psychiatric Hospital. Yet again in these films, mental health authorities underestimate a dangerous patient. The “family killer” escapes to reinvent himself as a family therapist this time. His career choice helps him to infiltrate the lives of a divorcee and her son. It’s also a way for the film to mock the authority of the mental health field, by default making the escapee plot more conceivable.
26. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (dir. Pedro Almodovar, 1989)
Slapstick fuses with the erotic in this Spanish comedy inspired by Beauty and the Beast. Its anti-hero is an impetuous 23-year-old mental patient named Ricky (Antonio Banderas) who’s been in the hospital since he was 16.
Every time he’s escaped, he’s returned himself because he “had nowhere to go”. A notable aside: His sexual relationship with the hospital director grants him a privileged status. During his last escape, however, he met Marina (Victoria Abril) and, once legitimately released, he heads straight for her to begin their new life together. The problem is, she doesn’t remember him. So he holds her hostage in her apartment.
27. Clean, Shaven (dir. Lodge Kerrigan. 1993)
We are lost in the dazed yet ever-startled silence of a schizophrenic (Peter Greene) just released from a mental institution. He has no dialogue for the first 18 minutes. Terrorized by auditory hallucinations, he believes some kind of device has been implanted into his scalp. The question is: Do institutionalization and pathological behaviors mean he could kill? A detective, investigating a child murder, seems to think so. His mother and the mother of his seven-year-old daughter would surely not doubt it.
Lodge Kerrigan has withheld proof, though, telling Film Freak Central: “(I)f people feel that he’s guilty, I hope that the picture holds them responsible for drawing that conclusion. I hope that it forces the audience to challenge themselves as to why they believe that this man is responsible.”
28. Sling Blade (dir. Billy Bob Thornton, 1996)
Karl (Billy Bob Thornton) is a mentally disabled man with a traumatic childhood. At 12, deranged by the sight of his mother having sex with someone who was not his father, he killed both using a sling blade. This Oscar-winning drama begins when he’s released after decades in an Arkansas state hospital. With nowhere to live, sadly, he returns to the hospital — to his “good bed.”
The hospital director confesses, “The truth is, I don’t know where they expect you to go. And I don’t know what they expect you to do.” Karl is not allowed to stay but the director helps him land a job at a fix-it shop. Also kind to Karl is 12-year-old Frank and his mother Linda, who take him into their home. Linda’s abusive boyfriend, however, undermines the family vibe, provoking reactions from Karl that could bring about his recommitment.
29. Elling (dir. Petter Naess, 2001)
Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) had always lived with his mother, sharing her chronically reclusive nature. When she died, he was committed. Kjell (Sven Nordin) is Elling’s simpleminded bear of a roommate at the mental hospital, obsessed with women yet a virgin. Both are middle-aged and, moving into a state-sponsored apartment in Oslo, they make for a cranky yet devoted “odd couple.”
A social worker checks in on the two, reminding them that recommitment is certain should they fail to adapt. Elling’s first big step is to leave the apartment and buy groceries. A charming entry from Norway, based on Ingvar Ambjornsen’s novel, Elling received an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film and was followed by two sequels.
30. Spider (dir. David Cronenberg, 2002)
According to the book Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology by Danny Wedding and Mary Ann Boyd, the London train station scene opening this gritty psychodrama depicts the flow of humanity: “the hustle of activity, and a multitude of people heading toward their destinations.” In contrast, acutely schizophrenic Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is “slowly de-boarding, disoriented and isolated from everyone else.”
Released from a mental institution after two decades, Spider is on his way to a group home. He mumbles, rarely saying a word aloud, and writes gibberish in a notebook. The film’s plot unfolds as Spider’s memories of a traumatic childhood surface — not all of them necessarily accurate. “The only thing worse than losing your mind,” insists the film’s tagline, “is finding it again.”
31. The Uninvited (dirs. The Guard Brothers, 2009)
Anna (Emily Browning) suffered such guilt after her mother died in a mysterious fire that she cut her wrists and was subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital for ten months. The film opens with Anna’s final therapy session and catharsis seemingly achieved. Home again, supernatural forces point Anna and her sister (Arielle Kebbel) toward their mother’s killer: a woman who has become engaged to their father and could easily use Anna’s institutionalization against her.
The Uninvited is based on A Tale of Two Sisters from 2003, one of South Korea’s highest-grossing horror films. The final therapy session beginning each version presents an ineffectual therapist-patient relationship that can be seen as anticipating the father-daughter relationship at home.
32. Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell, 2012)
Eight months of treatment for bipolar disorder is enough for Pat (Bradley Cooper), or so insists his mother who signs him out against his doctor’s judgment. Pat is still fixating on what caused him to snap: finding his wife with another man in the shower and beating the man severely. This single triggering event, however, is not the source of Pat’s delusions and outbursts, his unfiltered verbalizing, his general “craziness”, all of which go back much further in Pat’s life. David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated screenplay implicates genetics as at least one source, specifically Pat’s obsessive-compulsive father.
Pat is teetering on the edge of recommitment to the hospital when he meets a widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). He worries she is crazier than he is and, with that bit of turbulence, the romantic part of this comedy takes off. It grossed over $230 million worldwide and rivals Ordinary People and Rain Man for film honors.
These 32 films tell the same story up and down the scales, cohering as a subgenre even as they overlap with other subgenres like psychodrama, slasher films, and romantic comedy.
In conclusion, I find myself thinking of an oddly pleasant poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay titled “A Visit to the Asylum”. The speaker in the poem reminisces about visiting an asylum as a child, presumably with her parents, and how the patients doted on her. It ends with this humorous exchange:
“Come again, little girl!” they called and I called back, “You come see me!”
Imagine that one of those patients, upon being released someday, or escaping, did come to see her. I wonder what might have happened?
A. Loudermilk’s essays have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, River Teeth, and the Journal of International Women’s Studies. His website Quirky Cinema: A Guide to Movies With Personality explores over 500 mostly obscure films.
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This article originally published on 17 March 2016.