Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller Unsane, starring Claire Foy as a woman who is involuntarily admitted to a shady off-ramp mental institution, features what The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins calls “a late twist featuring a journalist that for some viewers will recall Samuel Fuller’s classic Shock Corridor.”
I definitely thought of Shock Corridor while watching Unsane, and not only because of the narrative similarities, of which Soderbergh, always a keen student of film history, is surely aware. Mostly, it’s because I wished I was watching Fuller’s masterpiece instead. Unsane isn’t bad: It’s harsh, lurid, and occasionally effective as a scare machine. But for all the claims of its trenchance and timeliness (numerous critics have referred to it as a post-#MeToo horror movie) it largely boils down to one of those casually detached late-Soderbergh exercises in technique that say more about his stylistic restlessness than the subject matter.
Shock Corridor has style too, and enough visual panache to make Soderbergh’s tricks look tame 55 years later. It could also teach the newer movie a thing or two about yoking shocks to social commentary. The film was derided as “outright trash” in 1963 when the word, which has popped up admiringly in many reviews of Unsane, meant something very different than it does now, when it was a scarlet letter rather than something that can be a badge of honor.
Whether or not Fuller’s movie was taken seriously by critics when it came out, the filmmaker’s foray into psychological horror after a series of Westerns and combat pictures was very much of its moment. It looks now like the most resonant exploitation movie of its era. Released on the eve of the Kennedy assassination, Shock Corridor traced a link between the uncompromising quest for knowledge and the onset of madness—the truth is out there, but it’s also inside, and either way you might not be able to handle it.
Shock Corridor is one of the great journalistic satires: Fuller, who worked as a crime reporter before fighting overseas in World War II and segueing into filmmaking, had a somewhat jaundiced view of the profession. (His 1944 novel The Dark Page featured an unethical newspaper editor.) “I learned early that it is not the headline that counts but how hard you shout it,” the director told The New York Times in 1965. Johnny Barrett, the reporter at the center of Shock Corridor, is a writer without an indoor voice, and Peter Breck plays him as a figure of pure, unbridled ambition. More than anything, he wants to win a Pulitzer Prize, and he’ll do whatever it takes, even clandestinely negotiating a diagnosis of insanity to get access to a scoop.
Fuller was riffing in the script on the real-life exploits of Nellie Bly, an undercover reporter whose 1887 book Ten Days in a Mad-House was written after she got herself sent to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York’s East River. “You’ve gotta be crazy to want to be committed to an insane asylum to solve a murder,” says Johnny’s girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), simultaneously setting up the film’s plot and outlining its thesis, which is that self-delusion takes many forms. An exotic dancer who quotes Freud off the top of her head and sarcastically identifies herself as a Greek chorus, Cathy is one of Fuller’s most memorable creations (Towers starred one year later in the equally amazing neo-noir The Naked Kiss).
Johnny’s belief that he can fake his way through an extended stint in the snake pit is the definition of hubris, and the contrast between his bad-faith immersion in his “role” (a process that parodies the burgeoning popularity of Method acting in American movies of the era) and the helpless fragility of the men around him is potent and sobering stuff.
The three eyewitnesses to the murder that sets the story in motion are all symbolic figures. One is a Korean War veteran brainwashed into harboring communist sympathies (shades of The Manchurian Candidate, which came out the year before); another is a black man who has tragically come to believe that he’s the founder of the Ku Klux Klan (a joke so outrageous it was reworked by Chappelle’s Show); the third is a former atomic scientist reduced to childlike simplicity in the wake of his destructive discoveries.
In an essay on the film for the Criterion Collection’s website, Robert Polito argues that the men represent “pure products of America ... driven crazy by their own and by their country’s intractable contradictions … the Civil War, race and the bomb;” their presence turns Johnny’s ostensible quest to solve a murder into a guided tour of a fracturing national pathology.
I don’t mean to make Shock Corridor sound too clever or metaphorical for its own good. Watching it is a wild experience mostly because Fuller doesn’t skimp on the visionary luridness, and shows more bad taste than good in visualizing his themes. The film is shot primarily in black and white, but features vivid, Technicolor hallucination scenes (nodding at once to Hitchcock’s Spellbound and The Wizard of Oz) and it’s crammed with taboos, such as Cathy masquerading as Johnny’s incestuously affectionate sister; a visit to the “nympho ward” that plays sexual paranoia for slapstick comedy. And then there are the still-brutal sequences of electroshock therapy (also borrowed by Soderbergh for Unsane) which put Johnny through agony—which, of course, he’s brought upon himself.
As a depiction of life in a mental hospital, Shock Corridor is undoubtedly crass and sensationalistic (although a few years later, Frederick Wiseman’s astonishing documentary Titicut Follies, about the abuses in Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital, would suggest that Fuller wasn’t necessarily exaggerating the dehumanization of such facilities). Shock Corridor’s political incorrectness and political acuity are inseparable. Using a mental hospital as a microcosm of a country whose prosperous post-war facade is slowly cracking up is the sort of faux-lowbrow cunning that turns a nasty little B-movie into an enduring classic—not just unsane but undeniable.