Saturday, July 30, 2016

Shock Corridor- Exploitation in a Madhouse

            Shock Corridor is a low budget film of a journalist going undercover in a mental institution to uncover the facts surrounding a mysterious murder. He achieves this by getting himself committed by his girlfriend, who poses as his sister, claiming that he has been trying to sexual assault her.
            If you think this is a little extreme for a 1960s picture, you are correct. But controversial is a stable diet for director Samuel Fuller’s films. The director started off writing pulp novels before moving onto films. The term “narrative tabloid” was used by critic Grant Tracey to describe the director. He never shied away from topics of prostitution, child molestation, mental illness, incest, racism, police corruption, etc. All somewhat taboo topics at the time. And while his films were not highly praised at their initial release, time has given them a second life. The French New Wave claimed his work as a major influence.
Though there certainly are noir elements
            There has been a discussion for years on whether Shock Corridor should be classified as film noir or exploitation, or both. While it certainly does have that striped down film noir feel, the sexual element- very shocking for the time- is often played here for shock value. Particular a scene where the protagonist accidently stumbles into the ward dedicated to the treatment of nymphomaniacs and is nearly torn apart by a dozen in a violent sexual frenzy. Not only was it ridiculous, but also totally unnecessary to the plot.  It is touches like this, and the reason he’s committed, which tip the balance towards to exploitation.
            Apparently the director wrote the original draft of the screenplay in the 1940s, while working for Fritz Lang, under the inferior title Straitjacket. The filming itself was incredibly cheap. It was shot over ten days. There was only one set and no exterior locations. Which helps to give the film a closed in claustrophobic feel. In fact the sound stage was so small, Fuller hired midgets to walk around in the distant section of the corridor to give the illusions of depth.
            As the film progresses, the protagonist comes into contact with the three witnesses to the murder, each suffering from bizarre delusions. The first is Stuart. Who was captured in the Korean War and was brainwashed into becoming a Communist. Stuart was ordered to indoctrinate a fellow prisoner, but instead the prisoner's unwavering patriotism reformed him. Stuart's captors pronounced him insane and he was returned to the US in a prisoner exchange, after which he received a dishonorable discharge and was publicly reviled as a traitor. The character imagines himself to be Confederate States of America General J.E.B. Stuart.
            The second is Trent was one of the first black students to integrate a segregated Southern university. The constant barrage of bigotry drove him over the edge. He imagines himself a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and stirs up the patients with white nationalist dogma and attacks the other black inmates. Third is Boden, an atomic scientist scarred by the knowledge of the devastating power of intercontinental ballistic missiles. He has regressed to the mentality of a six-year-old child.
Now while the protagonist is trying to get information out of each one, they eventually lapse into sanity and begin talking about the murder. While this is happening, the film shot in black and white, is spliced with hallucinogenic color footage. This is the part that actually makes the film, which causes it to stand one. One little artistic touch. The hallucination sequences include footage shot on location in Japan for House of Bamboo (1955), and footage shot by Fuller in Mato Grosso, Brazil for the unfinished film Tigrero.
After a hospital riot, the protagonist is straitjacketed and subjected to shock treatment. He begins imagining that his girlfriend really is his sister, and experiences many other symptoms of mental breakdown. He learns the identity of the killer and violently extracts a confession from him in front of witnesses. He then sits down and writes his story. Immediately afterwards he lapses into a catatonic state from which it is believed he will not recover.
Shock Corridor is a bizarre film that rises high above its low budget. In fact, the lack of budget is what caused the director to try innovative new techniques to make the film stand out. Which he succeeds at brilliantly.
The entire film is below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.