When it comes to making a spooky, atmospheric movie, it's all about location, location, location. Sure, sometimes it helps to set the action in familiar surroundings, to juxtapose them against whatever menace may be stalking our protagonists (i.e. Halloween). But for conjuring atmosphere, nothing beats a location that's already eerie - and few locations can out-creep a mysterious institution where more goes on than meets the eye.
Not only does such a setting bring a wealth of great, atmospheric locations to the film right away, but it also introduces twisty psychological elements like unreliable narrators and the inevitable last act reveals. Maybe the inmates were running the asylum the whole time, or maybe the person who we thought was investigating the institution from the outside was actually a patient - or maybe we're supposed to think they are, when really they're being held under false pretenses. There are lots of possibilities - and lots of movies that have explored them. Here are a few that you might have missed.
- 138 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
Set - and actually filmed - in and around the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, Session 9 merges the hospital's decaying hallways and actual reputation for spooky goings-on with a fictional account of an asbestos abatement crew who stumble upon dark secrets hidden away within the walls, while also succumbing to fractures in their own psyches due to the pressures of their blue-collar lives.
The result is a masterpiece of suggestion and creeping anxiety, as the walls of the abandoned institution begin to (maybe only figuratively) close in around them. Director Brad Anderson made a splash on the indie horror scene with this cinéma vérité-style minimalist horror picture, which makes ample use of its extremely creepy setting.
- 222 VOTESPhoto: Millennium Films
Director Brad Anderson made a name for himself with a series of twisty psychological thrillers like Session 9 and The Machinist. While a later and less well-known entry into his canon, Stonehearst Asylum is no less twisty or psychological, and it boasts a star-studded cast in the form of Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Kingsley, among others.
Though it plays things close to the vest, the plot, which takes place in a turn-of-the-century mental institution, is actually an adaptation of one of Edgar Allan Poe's more humorous and satirical short stories, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," which has been adapted to film several times over the years. As such, its big twist (that the patients are actually running the asylum) may be transparent to anyone familiar with the story or its many other adaptations, but the movie isn't done twisting there...
- 352 VOTESPhoto: Warner Bros.
The doctor-turned-patient is a classic twist in dozens of psychological thrillers, relying on an unreliable narrator to keep the audience guessing about what's really happening and what's all in their head. Add in a potential ghost story, and you've got this flick from Dark Castle Entertainment. For those who don't remember Dark Castle, they made a spate of stylized horror pictures in the early 2000s, including remakes of House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts.
Gothika was the company's first entirely original production, and features Halle Berry as a psychiatrist in a prison where she becomes incarcerated after being accused of the slaying of her husband. As she tries to sort out what really happened, she learns that people in the place have been keeping secrets, and has to figure out whom she can trust among the cast of characters, including a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.
- 416 VOTESPhoto: Allied Artists
Legendary writer/director Samuel Fuller helms this tale of a journalist bent on winning a Pulitzer Prize, to the point of going undercover as a patient in a psychiatric hospital to try to solve a crime committed there - a tactic that was really used as early as 1887. The resulting film has been chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress and released on disc by Criterion. Not bad for a lurid psychological thriller with a poster that raves about a "strip-teaser" and "sex-maddened women."
Besides addressing the abuses of the staff at such an institution, the film also tackles subjects as diverse as bigotry and the atomic bomb.