Shock Corridor is one of those ironic cases where an older film is hurt by just how new it was when initially released. Released in 1963. Samuel Fuller produced, directed, and wrote the film which allowed him to have complete creative freedom -- he takes full advantage of that freedom. There is not a consistent plot to cling to, causing it to be a headache to follow. But what Fuller achieves that still remains fresh, and powerfully unsettling nearly 40 years later is how he portrays insanity and how it is created.
This film is often credited with introducing the plot idea of a journalist (or cop in other films) that gets put into a mental institution to find answers only become insane themselves. Do not think I just ruined it for you by revealing the, not so shocking, conclusion; the only way it could be more obvious is if it was just flat out told to us. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is our journalist/tour guide through a mental institution inhabited by representations of just about every type of insanity imaginable. He is trying to solve a murder committed in the institution that was witnessed by three patients. To get inside, Johnny brutally guilts his skeptical girlfriend Kathy into pretending to be his sister, and accusing him of trying to rape her. Constance Towers -- a Fuller personal favorite -- plays Kathy with a knowledgable naiveness, with her seductive beauty shown off through Johnny's hallucinations as his mental state deteriorates.
Once inside, the plot stops being a formulaic mystery and lets the atmosphere and personalities of the mental institution take control. I recommend that when watching this film you completely forget that there is actually suppose to be a story going on and just get lost in the exploits of the patients. There is the insomnia-suffering opera-singing, Pagilacci, who is played wonderfully by Larry Tucker. A specific scene that left a sick feeling in my stomach was when Johnny is viscously attacked by a gang of nymphomaniacs.
Like in many cases with films dealing with insanity Peter Breck's performance gets better as he drifts further into insanity. The meeting with the three witnesses are the most powerful and tragic moments of the film. First there is Stuart (Peter Best) who believes he is a general in the Confederate Army; then there is Trent (Hari Rhodes) who is a violently racists black man who credits himself as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan; and finally there is respected scientist Boden (Gene Evans) who was driven insane by his intense nuclear fission studies and now has the mind-set of a 5-year-old. Stuart and Trent's stories are incredibly tragic and have their own social commentary seeping through. Boden being the final witness that Johnny confronts proves to be the most tense due to Johnny's unstableness. Those three men being caricatures of the insanity boiling over in America during the early 60s where Cold War tensions racial prejudice were at a head.
Samuel Fuller spent his entire career tackling controversial, yet socially relevant, subjects which kept him from ever becoming widely known or commercial. He uses the claustrophobic setting and the unstable personalities in Shock Corridor to create a feeling of always mounting tension. Hardly any music is used, leaving Fuller and his camera to create the mood and suspense of the entire film. Fuller has such a powerful understanding of the insanity he wanted to create and how he would use his directional talents to exploit audiences into having conflicting emotions. At the start he presents us with a simple mystery then by using a mental institution to inform us about the flaws of the world to gain our sympathy for the patients. When Johnny begins to understand the patients and what caused their insanity he is destroyed by his conflicting views of the world. Well, that is one way it could be interpreted, this film is better to experience than analyze. Fuller struggles to keep a flowing plot, but the intense struggles he has with the flow of the film are saved by his direction.
Major struggles that films have faced when trying out this idea is relying on endless action and constant twists instead of tacking advantage of the setting. Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) suffers from a plotting flaws and fairly predictable twist, but Scorsese does a brilliant job with the dark, haunting atmosphere. Shock Corridor with Fuller's visual style and camera work does a fantastic job setting the bar for future films. Time has hit this film with some tough shots because of how many filmmakers have tried to do something special with this now cliched sub-genre. Shock Corridor is fascinating to watch mostly because of Fuller's handiwork and the rain-soaked, visually awing finale. A dark, serious tone and its honest, but disturbing, view on insanity make this film less for entertainment and more to see a filmmaker work his magic with complete freedom.