The "committed" auteur: Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor

I'm toying with a horror novel set in an abandoned insane asylum. Nothing unusual here, certainly, but I think it might be fun.

Part of the backstory is someone who had himself voluntarily committed to investigate something of what was going on at the asylum while it was functioning, events that play a role in the present.

In the spirit of research, I rented Samuel Fuller's movie Shock Corridor (1963), about a reporter who commits himself to a mental hospital to find out who committed a murder there.

What a terrible movie! Fuller wrote, produced, and directed. Whatever the merits of his direction (hint: minimal), the writing, at least, is wretched: overblown, repetitive, and rambling. It really plays as if he just wrote it once, a few days before filming, and then never read it again, and just handed out the shooting scripts to the bemused and long-suffering actors.

The story is about a man, Johnny Barrett, who goes into an asylum and there becomes mad. Fine. But the first ten minutes or so involve his girlfriend, stripper named Cathy, with the austere face and demeanor of a nun in a particularly restrictive order, who tells him that this is dangerous, and that if he goes in there, he will lose his mind. Then we see her sing and do a woodenly choreographed striptease. The rest of her scenes involve her telling Johnny's editor that Johnny will lose his mind, or telling Johnny on visiting day that he will lose his mind...her scenes take up about a third of the movie, have no connection to anything, and never pay off in any way. Except that he actually does lose his mind. She was right!

About a third of the way into the movie, we finally figure out that Johnny is there to investigate the stabbing of a man named Sloane. Who Sloane was, why he was killed, what the consequences were, who might have wanted to kill Fuller these are tedious irrelevancies.  What he really wants to do is let a few actors rant about modern societal issues, have a moment of clarity where they remember something about the stabbing of Sloane, and then have big breakdown.  This is definitely one of the times where the term "cult" actually means "lame".

In addition to wasting time with Cathy, Fuller sticks in some color sections from failed movie projects, trying to amortize their cost by labeling them as memories or dream sequences. At one point, a character actually remarks how odd it is that his memories are in color, presumably because he knows he's actually B&W. The silliest of these is where a black character remembers being a Brazilian Indian, presumably because those were the darkest-skinned people Fuller had footage of.

As usual, I thought about many different ways this story could go. Obviously figuring out the stabbing would be just the start--why the stabbing happened is the interesting thing. Cathy only makes sense if she has her own game to play, either encouraging madness on the part of her fiance, or facing a threat while Johnny is incarcerated, or finding clues at the strip joint that connect up with Johnny's investigation--clues Johnny rejects. What seems to be irrelevant "thematic" rambling by the various madmen would actually conceal useful information, information Johnny doesn't see because he is obsessed with only one question, that about the stabbing.

So it was useful for me to see, because it gave me a lot of ideas, as failed movies often do. You might want to see it as a sociological document, or as a desperately ridiculous failure, or as an example of what a total farce auteur theory turned out to be. Just don't see it because you think it will be fun to watch.