Monday, December 18, 2006

Schlock Corridor

Spawned in 1963, Shock Corridor is described on the back cover of the video box as both “camp” and “a brave new art form.” Sorry, there ain’t much art in this stupid movie.

Imagine if Ed Wood had a bigger budget and some actors who could act. Basically, Samuel Fuller, the writer/producer/director behind Shock Corridor, has created a more sophisticated edwoodian disaster.

Good actors can only do so much with an overblown, over-the-top script. There’s nothing wrong with the basic plot: a reporter, Johnny Barratt, goes undercover as a mental patient to solve a murder at an insane asylum. But that germ of an idea is mutated into an insane virus of a screenplay.

While undercover, the reporter has to ferret out from three different witnesses, all patients, the identity of the murderer. The patients are introduced one at a time. This set-up makes it obvious that Fuller was trying to make Important Social Observations relevant to the early 1960s by using each patient as devices to “delve into the American psyche,” to use a line from the video box.

Patient #1 is a good ol’ boy from the South. He thinks he’s fighting the Civil War. During a rational moment, he reveals that he was an American soldier captured by the enemy during the Korean conflict and was brainwashed for a while by the commies. It was easy to go over to the commie side because, as the good ol’ boy explains, he was ashamed that his folks fed him bigotry for breakfast and ignorance for supper.

Patient #2 is a black man who hates “niggers.” (Hey, I didn’t write the screenplay; take it up with Fuller.) When he has a rational moment we learn that he was a student integrated into a white college down south and that he couldn’t handle the stress. Patient #2 likes to steal pillowcases, transforming them into KKK hoods. At one point he dons his homemade Klan hood and incites a race riot on the ward.

And to wrap it up, there’s Patient #3, a government scientist who flipped out because he was working on the atomic bomb and other terrible weapons, as we discover during his rational moment.

Have you noticed the pattern? At some point a patient is sane enough to accomplish two goals: give some back story to show Fuller’s liberal concerns and also provide another clue for the reporter in regards to the murder. This ham-fisted plot contrivance causes the reporter to hang around each patient, waiting for that window of rationality. I know mental health professionals will tell you that such things do occur, especially three times in a row in the same ward. In fact, sane moments can be predicted like lunar and solar eclipses.

Ed Wood was noted for padding – I mean enhancing – his movies with stock footage that was a lot cheaper than filming original scenes. Shock Corridor uses the same cost-saving device, but in the most jarring manner.

The film is in black and white, except for the stock footage inserts. For example, just before the black man who hates blacks snaps out of it for a few minutes, he has a dream about being a young boy in a tribe in the Amazon jungle, going through a rite of passage. Suddenly some documentary scenes in blazing color are thrown in. Then the POV cuts back to the black patient in black and white (Artsy, huh?) who says that it’s strange that he always has that dream in color, how it brings him back to sanity.

So maybe that’s the answer to mental illness: have a patient wear special glasses that filter out all colors, only allowing a B&W view, and then have the monochromatic lenses taken off to show the patient a documentary filmed in Japan in full color, featuring a Buddha statue, an amusement park, trains, and Mount Fuji (what the good ol’ boy patient sees in his dream).

The great Ed Wood was also known for this insightful dialogue. Fuller also provides sparkling gems, such as “Johnny, you have to be crazy to want to be committed to an insane asylum to solve a murder.”

And let’s not forget:

“I’m fed up playing a Greek Chorus to your rehearsed nightmare.”

“You’re in a hopped-up, show-off stage. Get off it. Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to a Pulitzer prize.”

“Do you think I like singing in that sewer with a hot light on my navel?”

“If he doesn’t come through with that question, I’ll fall right on my typographical face.”

Yup, Shock Corridor is indeed a brave new art form: psycho-comedy.

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