Shock Corridor (1963) -**
I never used to watch a lot of early-60’s movies, at least not American ones. It took me a long time to figure out how to relate to them. 50’s films are easy to understand-- people were naďve and paranoid in those days, and the movies reflect this. The late 60’s I also had no trouble with; this was the period that saw the emergence of sleaze as we know it today. I think the trouble with B-movies from the early 60’s is that filmmakers had, by that point, hit upon the concept of sleaze, but were prevented from fully carrying out their ideas by a combination of social, psychological, and legal factors that could be thought of as the hangover from the previous decade. Shock Corridor is an excellent illustration of this point. Writer/director/producer Samuel Fuller did his damnedest to make a lurid, sleazy flick, and he may well have succeeded by the standards of his day. I honestly couldn’t tell you, though, watching Shock Corridor almost four decades later. I, after all, know what the Italians came up with during the 70’s; I have personally beheld vistas of sleaze that were probably beyond even Russ Meyer’s wildest early-60’s imaginings. And try as I might, I simply can’t put myself into the far more innocent frame of mind in which audiences must have seen this film when it was new.
The basic idea has promise (imagine this story as a turn-of-the-80’s women’s prison movie-- it would have been marvelous). John Barratt (Peter Breck, from The Crawling Hand and The Commies Are Coming, the Commies Are Coming) is a reporter for the Daily Globe. As the movie opens, he is in the early stages of a risky scheme that he believes will win him the Pulitzer Prize. It seems that there was a murder in the local mental hospital; a patient named Sloane was stabbed to death by persons unknown in the cafeteria. Barratt’s bright idea is to have himself committed in order to do some close-up amateur detective work. His cover story is little short of ingenious: he has his girlfriend Cathy (who works as a stripper, by the way, but don’t get your hopes up-- they still had censorship in those days, so when we see her perform, she ends up stripping down to a costume just slightly more revealing than a bikini of the time) pretend to be his sister, and file a complaint to the effect that he sexually assaulted her. Your guess is as good as mine as to why this would land him in the hospital, and not a maximum security prison, but there you have it; in fact, the policeman to whom Cathy (Constance Towers, from The Naked Kiss and The Relic) tells the story immediately phones the hospital-- no call to the D.A., no attempt to get any kind of warrant, not even a call to one of his superiors on the force. I’m no expert, but I just bet it didn’t quite work like that, even in 1963. In any event, Barratt is arrested and sent to talk to a psychiatrist, whom he convinces that he’s had a life-long fetish for his “sister’s” hair, and whom he then physically attacks, just for good measure. Well, that settles it. It’s the psycho ward for this guy.
Now I should probably point out that Cathy is far from being a willing participant in Barratt’s little caper. Indeed, she thinks it’s an incredibly stupid idea (which it is), and that Johnny has absolutely no clue what he’s getting himself into (which he hasn’t). She cooperates only when it becomes obvious that he’ll never forgive her otherwise. Cathy spends the rest of the movie appearing every 25 minutes or so to become semi-hysterical and yell at Barrratt’s editor (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell’s Bill Zuckert) for letting him do such an asinine thing.
As for what goes on between Cathy’s appearances, most of it consists of rather loosely connected vignettes in which Barratt encounters his doctors, his attendants, and his fellow patients, while slowly gathering clues to the mystery of Sloane’s death, which, chances are, you’ve already solved about ten minutes after the reporter is admitted. And what a bunch these inmates are! There’s Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), an immensely fat man who is forever singing (badly) “The Marriage of Figaro.” There’s Stuart (James Best, from Riders to the Stars and The Killer Shrews), an ex-communist Korean war veteran who now believes he’s Jeb Stuart. There’s Trent (Hari Rhodes, of Coma and This Rebel Breed), one of the first black enrollees in a Southern white college who was so traumatized that he is now a white supremacist. There’s the nuclear physicist driven crazy by the horror he helped unleash (The Giant Behemoth’s Gene Evans), who now has the persona of a six-year-old. And, of course, there’s the room full of nymphomaniacs-- how could we possibly have a movie like this without them? Barratt’s encounter with the nymphomaniacs provides absolutely the best moment of the entire movie. He sneaks into their ward-- I guess he’s looking for clues or something-- and is confronted by a whole phalanx of attractive young women. His arrival rivets their attention, and they close in on him in a pack, singing. (All the crazies sing in this movie.) The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Barratt, and the reporter utters a single word in voice-over: “Nymphos!”
Stuart, Trent, and the scientist are important because they were the only witnesses to Sloane’s murder. For this reason, Barratt’s main concern is to find these men and extract from them anything that they can remember about the killing. Predictably, each patient can hold it together only long enough to provide a tantalizing clue to the killer’s identity, so Barratt really must interrogate them all. But Barratt has a bigger problem on his hands, as Cathy could, and in fact did, tell him. He is, after all, in a mental hospital, and even as early as 1963, that means he’s going to get some kind of treatment. Admittedly, there were not yet any psychotropic drugs in those days, but there was electroconvulsive therapy, and you’d be a fool not to see that coming. So the question becomes: can Barratt get the story and get out of the hospital before he is actually driven insane by the effects of psychiatric treatment on his perfectly healthy brain?
Another good question is: can Barratt get the story and get out of the hospital before we get tired of watching this movie? Shock Corridor suffers from a severe case of 50’s pacing, but unlike 50’s cheapies like It Conquered the World or Invasion of the Saucer Men, it does not have the mitigating virtue of extreme brevity. No, Shock Corridor clocks in at a full 101 minutes, which is not necessarily an excessive running time in and of itself, but which is about 20 minutes longer than the pacing of the film can support. It has its moments, like the aforementioned “Nymphos!” scene, the bizarre dream sequences in which a 14-inch Cathy roams about on Barratt’s bed dressed in her stripper costume, or the even stranger freak-out scenes. Three times over the course of the movie, one of the characters will have a particularly bad bout of insanity, which will cause the otherwise black-and-white movie to be interrupted by color stock footage of Japanese amusement parks and South American ceremonial dances while the character whose freak-out it is gives voice-over commentary that simply must be heard to be believed. This is actually pretty cool, in a really stupid way, and might have been enough to save a much shorter movie. As it is though, Shock Corridor could best be characterized as consisting of long stretches of tedium, punctuated by short but wonderful moments of “what the fuck was that?!”