The fear of losing one's senses, of slipping into madness, is one of the most universal. So it's little wonder that horror creators have been using insane people to scare us since Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" first beat. Of course the only thing more frightening than one mad person is a whole room of them, or perhaps even a building... Voila! -- the asylum film was born. After the jump, check out my picks for the top 5 creepiest mental asylums in movies.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Director Robert Wiene's highly influential touchstone of German Expressionism is not only one of the first great feature-lengfth horror films, it also offers one of cinema's first twist endings. In which -- spoiler alert -- the characters, including a somnambulist and the girl he loves, are all revealed to be patients at an insane asylum, run by the title character, a doctor trying to isolate the source of the narrator's delusion. Aside from the unique madness of its whacked-out set design, echoes of this film can he heard in movies as recent as John Carpenter's The Ward.
Think BBC America's new series about a haunted old insane asylum converted into a modern apartment building is the first screen horror tale with the name Bedlam? Think again. This film, the last of producer Val Lewton's brilliant low-budget thrillers for RKO Pictures, concerns the original Bedlam -- a.k.a. St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, the real London mental instiution from which the word comes (or at least a fictionalized version of it). It also continues Caligari's tradition of depicting the folks who run such insitutions as creepier than the people admitted into them.
Ah, now here's a disturbing asylum. In Sam Fuller's typically scrappy dramatic expose, a journalist gets himself commited to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder case. But as the film progresses, and he comes closer to cracking the case, our hero finds his sanity slipping further and further away. Can he find his man before he loses his mind? This psych ward has it all, from damaged war vets to nymphomanics, presented in a manner that's sometimes so hammy it's funny; but at other times is just plain troubling. The fact that Shock Corridor was made in clean-cut 1950s America makes it all the grittier.
The Silence of the Lambs
We don't see much of the maximum secuity asylum that FBI agent Clarice Starling visits in Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning hit, but what we do see takes us directly into the cell, and into the mind, of perhaps the most famous serial killer on film whose name isn't Bates. The almost Castle Dracula vibe of the place, so wonderfully explored in Demme's POV shots, really puts us into Starling's "cheap shoes."
Terry Gilliam's imaginative apocalyptic fable features one of the most memorable mental asylums on film, a behemoth of a building for which Philadelphia's Eastern Stare Penitentiary served as the real-life stand-in. It's the last place any sane person would want to be placed, as Bruce Willis's time traveler discovers when he meets Brad Pitt's Jeffrey Goines, a fanatical animal rights activist.