Samuel Fuller's "Shock Corridor" is a prime piece of 60s pulp with some interesting moments of social commentary, following journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) as he goes undercover into a mental hospital to investigate the murder of one of the patients. Barrett is driven by ambition and ego to get the story and win a Pulitzer Prize, even if he has to forfeit his own sanity in the process. His girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) thinks he's taking too many risks, but can't do much more than wring her hands and bear witness to his deterioration, as Barrett gets closer and closer to the truth.
"Shock Corridor" is not an exploitation film, but neither is it in any way a serious examination of life in psychiatric treatment. Fuller milks the scenario for all it's worth, presenting the full gamut of madman clichés. The hospital is initially portrayed with at least some measure of restraint. Rules and regulations are given nods, the head doctor is not especially malicious, and there are always bow-tied attendants nearby the break up any physical altercations. Nevertheless, like so many other movie madhouses, fights happen constantly, the system is rife with abuses, and the tactics used to treat poor Barrett gradually shift from therapy and medication to straitjackets and electroshock therapy.
There are also some salacious, sexually-charged elements included in the film that it would have been hard for Fuller to get away with just a few years earlier when the Hayes Code was still being enforced. Cathy works as an exotic dancer and keeps company with prostitutes, though pains are taken to emphasize that she isn't one. Barrett's ruse involves pretending that Cathy is his sister, who he harbors incestuous feelings for. Visions of her dancing, costumed figure taunt and tease him after he is committed. And in one memorably campy sequence, Barrett unwittingly stumbles into the women's ward, and nearly falls victim to a leering throng of nymphomaniacs.
In keeping with the genre conventions, the performance by Peter Breck is completely over-the-top, overselling Barrett's shift from aping made-up mental deficiencies to a full mental breakdown. He flails and he screams and he tries to hold on to the furniture when the attendants come to drag him away from a fight. It's all very enjoyable to watch. There are scenes where the audience is supposed to wonder whether Barnett is playacting of really starting to lose his mind, but the story beats are so predictable and the characterization is so simplistic, there's little ambiguity or suspense in the material. The execution, however, is another matter entirely.
Samuel Fuller does so much with the visual storytelling, which is what makes the film worth watching. The film is predominantly in stark, simple black and white, shot on limited sets. However, there are surreal touches around every corner, like Barrett's fantasy visions of Cathy and other brief dream sequences composed of documentary style footage, shot in color. As Barnett's mental state worsens, the lighting becomes more extreme and the camera work gets wilder. Some scenes turn out to be entirely a product of Barrett's imagination. The performances may be melodramatic, but Fuller keeps finding ways to summon up visuals that match them in intensity.
"Shock Corridor" also has social criticisms and counter-culture messages embedded at its core. These emerge in the three witnesses who Barrett seeks out and interrogates one by one. Stuart (James Best) is a former soldier who defected to the Soviets upon his capture, and now lives out various Civil War campaigns. Trent (Hari Rhodes) was one of the first African-Americans at an all-white college, and cracked under the pressure of trying to help the desegregation movement. Finally Boden (Gene Evans), a top nuclear scientist, reverted to the age of a six-year-old rather than work on more bombs.
The most exciting and no doubt the most controversial moments of the film involve Trent, who spouts white supremacist rhetoric while donning a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood, intent on starting race riots in the ward. The hatred and hypocrisy he faced as a student drove him to madness, just as other social evils doomed his fellow patients. The language that Trent uses and the extremity of his delusions are potent social satire and remain jarringly effective even to this day. When you remember that "Shock Corridor" was released in 1963, Fuller's willingness to present these ideas is even more admirable.
It's fascinating to see how Samuel Fuller takes familiar genre tropes and manages to make them bigger than they are, encompassing larger themes and messages to the point where they almost become parable. He'll indulge in moments of kitsch and silliness, but "Shock Corridor" manages to be a film of great substance as well as style, and a memorable one at that.