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Legal download: Mental hospitals on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week we get nuts with movies set in mental hospitals.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Mental Hospitals

For most of us, mental hospitals, psychiatric wards, and insane asylums, are places we only know from movies. Lucky us. If real mental hospitals are anything like the ones in movie then a) our health care system is in worse trouble than I already thought and b) they’re places not just for the insane, they’re places that make you insane. You may go in accidentally, or for a job, or undercover, but those kinds of plans always end up backfiring on the characters who hatch them. On a side note, there’s a lot of memorable movies set in mental hospitals you won’t find in this week’s Legal Download — classic potboilers like Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, empathetic John Hughesian teen dramedies like IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY and more — simply because they’re not yet available on VOD or streaming. Don’t worry, though; there’s enough memorable ones here to keep you from going psycho.

On SundanceNow
ASYLUM BLACKOUT (2012)
Directed by Alexandre Courtes
$6.99 to rent or stream

Three struggling musicians pay the bills by working in the kitchen of a maximum security mental facility. They’re waiting for their big break — but a big breakout comes first. A power outage at the prison releases the inmates, who decide to lodge a civilized, respectful protest against their imprisonment by killing everyone inside. How many times do I have to tell you people? Invest in a backup generator! You never know when it’s going to come in handy. This whole scenario raises an interesting question: who’s crazier? The people deemed mentally unwell by society and sent to live their against their will or the allegedly sane workers who choose to be there? ASYLUM BLACKOUT, from music video director Alexandre Courtes, premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where, incidentally, it was originally titled THE INCIDENT.

On Netflix
THE WARD (2011)
Directed by John Carpenter
Free for streaming plan members

This 2011 release, horrormeister John Carpenter’s first feature film in nearly a decade, stars Amber Heard as Kristen, the newest resident of North Bend Hospital’s psychiatric ward. The place seem okay (if a little depressing) while the sun is up, but at night things start to unravel. That’s when Kristen sees the ghost of a young girl, wandering the halls, stealing her blankets, even trying to kill her (way worse than just stealing her blankets). THE WARD is certainly not one of Carpenter’s great works — this is the guy who made classics like HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and THEY LIVE, after all. A master like Carpenter could direct a slasher like this in his sleep. He could, but didn’t, and if THE WARD isn’t particularly inspired (at least until the finale, which puts the insane in insane asylum) it is technically skilled. Mad Men fans will also get a kick out of seeing Jared Harris as a skeptical North Bend doctor; it’s like watching Lane after a really bad demotion.

On Amazon Instant Video
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

Psychiatric hospitals — and their mentally unwell residents — make ideal subjects for movies where all is not what it appears to be. Mental patients can’t trust their eyes, which means we can’t trust what we see. Without giving too much away, SHUTTER ISLAND is, like THE WARD, about a mystery in a mental hospital with a most unlikely solution. Director Martin Scorsese’s late career muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal sent to Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a missing patient. He and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on the island and are greeted by Dr. John Cawley, who proves less than forthcoming with the information the Marshals seek. Daniels begins to suspect a conspiracy — but he also begins to experience headaches and strange visions of his wife (Michelle Williams). Is Daniels beginning to crack under the pressure? Or is there something else going on at Ashecliffe? You think I’m going to spoil it here? What are you, crazy? All I’ll say is this: Scorsese understands what the setting of a mental hospital gives him license to do, and he does it will impeccable skill.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

THE SILENCE OF A LAMBS is not a film that is set entirely, or even predominantly, in an insane asylum, but it does possess maybe the quintessential psych ward in movie history. It is used to brilliant perfection by director Jonathan Demme in his introduction of noted cannibal, nutjob, serial killer, and fava bean enthusiast Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). At the start of the film, Lecter is incarcerated at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminal Insane; a young FBI Agent named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is sent to interrogate Lecter to see if he might be able to yield some clues as to the whereabouts of another serial killer who’s still on the loose. Starling’s trip through Baltimore State is depicted as nothing less than a descent into hell: to get to Lecter’s solitary confinement cell, she travels down a series of hallways and flights of stairs, until she arrives in the basement, where Lecter and other mental cases sit in isolation in a bank of dank, stone-lined cubes. As Starling slowly sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss, the suspense builds for Lecter’s introduction. Finally makes her way to the very last cell at the end of the last hall. And there he is.

On iTunes
12 MONKEYS (1998)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

Brad Pitt made 12 MONKEYS right on the cusp of stardom; after LEGENDS OF THE FALL and before SE7EN would open in theaters and cement his status as an international celebrity. After 12 MONKEYS, Pitt’s career went off in another direction, one dominated by solid but unsurprising leading man roles. 12 MONKEYS is like the last vestige of a different career that might have been, one where Pitt was more recognized for quirky character roles than chiseled good looks (and, oh, how chiseled they are). Pitt plays Jeffrey Goines, the most deranged inmate of a mental institution where Bruce Willis’ James Cole winds up after he’s sent back in time to prevent the spread of a cataclysmic virus. Like most of the other films on this list, 12 MONKEYS is about the subjectivity of insanity, but Pitt’s weird, scary, ugly (at least by his standards) performance is objectively great and totally unlike the roles that would make him famous — which is precisely what makes him fantastic. Pitt apparently spent weeks in a real mental hospital to prepare for the role. Hopefully he didn’t spend time with anyone as crazy as Goines.