In the film “Shock Corridor” by Samuel Fuller, we follow a journalist as he intentionally commits himself to a mental hospital to solve a murder that took place in the psych ward not long ago. It sounds pulpy, and it is. The movie was released in 1963, in the days where faking your way into a mental hospital was as easy as getting your girlfriend to tell the authorities that she is in fact your sister and that you’ve been trying to sleep with her. That’s what our hero, Johnny, does to convince the staff that he needs to be let in to the psych ward, seeing as the staff can’t know that he’s undercover because it very well could’ve been one of them who committed the murder. What follows is a wild and weird story of a man losing grip on reality and getting so lost in his character that he has to fight himself to not completely become the man that he is pretending to be.
Samuel Fuller is known for pushing buttons when it comes to violence, but also when it comes to conversations about the representation of race and mental health in film. It’s problematic by today’s standards, but it’s interesting to see how “radical” film directors were tackling hot button issues like race and class in the ‘60s.
I mention race because it was of particular interest to Fuller, who made multiple films dealing with the subject. “Shock Corridor” is episodic in structure, as Johnny tries to “break,” or temporarily bring back to sanity, several witnesses to the murder. The second witness, Trent, is a black man who is so violently racist against black people that he almost starts a race riot in the ward. As Johnny is able to dig into him and briefly restore his sanity, we find out that Trent was one of the first black students to integrate into an all-white high school in the south. The attacks he faced, both physical and verbal, pushed him over the edge.
Currently, the image of black people performing race-based acts of hate onto other black people is looked at unfavorably, especially because “Shock Corridor” is the work of a white filmmaker with an otherwise all white cast. But it is interesting to see how some filmmakers, with whatever intentions they may have (Fuller’s intentions were good), interact with these forever challenging and hard-to-broach issues.
The film’s depiction of serious mental disorders is subpar. The idea that Johnny has to wrest information out of the witnesses by temporarily making them regain their sanity, an act that the staff of the hospital seems incapable of doing, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and is problematic in many ways. Even so, he doesn’t portray the patients as lacking humanity. In fact, many of them are quite likable, and little details help the viewer fill in pieces of their backstories.
All that being said, Shock Corridor is an entertaining film with a lot on its mind. While some of those thoughts don’t translate perfectly to the screen, at least in this day and age, the movie still packs a punch and gives the viewer a lot to think about. It is a fascinating piece of filmmaking from a director not afraid to challenge his audience.