A few years back I was on a kick of watching the original series of The Twilight Zone. I’ve recently picked the show back up again, but that’s another issue for another day. During that time I saw the film Vampyr (1931, dir. Carl Th. Dreyer), and I wrote a short film called On Dear Ears (2015, dir. Andrew Kyle Bacon) which I later directed. On Deaf Ears was very much inspired by the style of storytelling found on The Twilight Zone but also by movies like Vampyr and other silent films. But The Twilight Zone was certainly my biggest influence and remains a huge influence on my continued creative work.
Currently I am going through a list of 85 films mentioned by director Martin Scorsese during an interview. So far I’ve watched some Roberto Rossellini movies such as Stromboli (1950) and Journey to Italy (1954), the wonderful All That Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk), and now Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). It’s been a fun experiment going through those films recommended by one of our greatest living artists. Of course at this point in the story you’re probably wondering how this story relates back to the topic at hand.
Well, it’s very simple.
Shock Corridor seems in every way to be somehow related or descended from The Twilight Zone. Stylistically the two are very similar: incredibly detailed and meticulous stories on a shoestring budget, but also narratively similar: the story and structure of Shock Corridor would make a fine episode of The Twilight Zone. Also, a slightly unsurprising detail Shock Corridor shares with The Twilight Zone, is the tendency to deal with uncomfortable — or even taboo — subject matter. Albeit in sometimes heavy-handed and campy ways.
Journalist Johnny Barrett is desperate for a Pulitzer Prize. He is so desperate that he has himself committed to an insane asylum so he can investigate the murder of one of its patients. He is going to have this done by getting his girlfriend Cathy, a “dancer” at a bar, to say he is actually her brother and that he has made sexual advances to her since childhood. It works and he is committed. Once inside the asylum Johnny comes face-to-face with the mentally ill in every shape, shade, and size they come in. The films tramples all over issues like sexuality, racism, mental illness, war, and even nuclear holocaust. To say that this is film is all over the place and a bit crazy itself would not do it justice. In one great sequence Johnny has a medicine induced dream in which the hospital floods: its marvelous.
As Johnny spends time at the asylum he slowly integrates with its patients and comes close to losing his own mind in the process. He goes too deep into trying to find a story and suffers for it. Shock Corridor, in this regard, borders on the film-noir theme of the self-defeating antihero, meanwhile remaining grounded as a weird psychological horror film. The murder mystery theme falls by the wayside and is ultimately forgotten. The story is only superficially about the murdered man. In reality Shock Corridor is about a man’s struggle to stay in touch with reality.
Looking at posters for the film it seems as though it was originally billed as being much sleazier than it actually is. In reality the film, while most certainly risqué upon its release, is really rather tame by any sort of standards at all. It is a bit shocking how blunt it deals with some issues — particularly racism — but all in all Shock Corridor is just a fun, campy romp through a mental asylum. Today such a film would be thrown aside for trivializing or even sensationalizing mental health, but that’s where much of its shock value comes from. This makes Shock Corridor fun to watch today because the audience can feel the efforts of the filmmakers to make it as shocking as possibly, all the while not really pushing any boundaries at all. This gives the audience a weird vibe of discomfort and camp, two things which are easy to grab on to.
Is Shock Corridor a great film? Not particularly, but it’s loads of fun and has all the elements of a great episode of The Twilight Zone, which is a bonus. It is well made, and once some of the production tricks are noticed the film becomes even more interesting and fun. One trick is that the set was much shorter than it appears and thus uses a forced perspective technique (famously used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies) to make the hall appear longer. This includes having midgets stand at the far end of the hall to make it appear farther away. The movie contains lots of stuff like that and it makes it a visual treat.