Snakepit Movies (genre)

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Summary

Bedlam Hospital, as portrayed by William Hogarth in his "The Rake's Progress" series of woodcuts....

A snake pit is, in a literal sense, a hole filled with snakes. In idiomatic speech, "snake pits" are places of horror, torture and even death in European legends and fairy tales; the term in this sense is extended to a mental hospital in the 1948 movie The Snake Pit based on a semi-autobiographical 1946 book of the same name, written by a woman who woke up in such an institution and could not remember how she got there.

Strictly speaking, this Drama film subgenre refers to movies about the sensationalist, exploitation horrors that (often sane) protagonists are subjected to in abusive mental hospitals, typically in the form of bizarre, barbaric, and extreme treatments that would be virtually indistinguishable from medieval torture if not for the dubious stamp of approval from misguided science and medicine.

For the sake of this wiki page, the genre has been extended to cover other senational non-supernatural exploitation dramas involving mental illness told from a dubious, dated, pseudo-scientific perspective, as well as a couple subgenres of psychological horror/drama that involve characters tricked by trusted authority figures into believing or acting as if they might be losing their minds (a form of manipulation that has since come to be known as "gaslighting", thanks to the now famous film Gaslight and the play it was based on).


Details

Film List

Movies about abusive mental hospitals, or sensationalized treatment or mistreatment of the mentally ill or, frequently, completely sane protagonists who have for any of a variety of reasons somehow found themselves locked in an abusive institution and subjected to or threatened with nightmarish "treatments":

  • A Page of Madness AKA Kurutta Ippeji (1926 film, Japanese, silent), (watch) (IMDb) (TVTropes) - A man takes a job as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to be near his wife, who - though suffers genuine mental anguish - the man believes he can rescue; his attempt to break her out one night backfires when she panics, and the attempt is interrupted by a doctor and several attendants, whom he attacks and believes he has killed.
  • Murder, My Sweet (1944 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe is drawn into a deeply complex web of mystery and deceit, including being locked up in a dodgy mental hospital by thugs, after being hired to find an ex-con's former girlfriend....
  • Stairway to Light (1945 short), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - The story of 18th Century French physician Dr. Phillipe Pinel, whose initiated enlightened, humane treatment of the mentally ill.
  • Bedlam (1946 film) (Wikipedia) (IMDb) (TVTropes) - After getting a glimpse of the conditions at the St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known as "Bedlam," Nell Bowen is concerned that the patients are being mistreated. When she seeks to better the situation, the head of St. Mary's, George Sims (Boris Karloff), uses his political savvy to have Nell committed. Being within St. Mary's does not deter Nell, however, and she starts to turn the patients against Sims in a bid to violently oust him from power.
  • The Snake Pit (1948 film) (Wikipedia) (IMDb) (TVTropes) - In this psychological drama, Virginia Cunningham is confused upon finding herself in a mental hospital, with no memory of her arrival at the institution. Tormented by delusions and unable to even recognize her husband, she is treated by Dr. Mark Kik, who is determined to get to the root of her mental illness. As her treatment progresses, flashbacks depict events in Virginia's life that may have contributed to her instability.
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959 film), (Wikipedia) (IMDb) (TVTropes) - In this adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play, a young socialite is traumatized and committed after witnessing her cousin's violent death on a trip to Europe. Her aunt wants to hide the events of her son's death and attempts to bribe a young surgeon with funding for his struggling humane mental hospital to perform a lobotomy on Catherine, but the surgeon vows to find out the truth about Catherine's state before taking any action.
  • Shock Corridor (1963 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - Bent on winning a Pulitzer Prize, a journalist commits himself to a mental institution to solve a strange and unclear murder.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - A criminal pleads insanity after getting into trouble again and once in the mental institution rebels against the oppressive nurse and rallies up the scared patients.

Films in which a protagonist is "gaslighted" - tricked into believing she is mad - typically by sadistic or unscrupulous authority figures:

  • Midnight Warning (1932 film) (watch) (IMDb) (Wikipedia) - A mysterious bone found in the fire, a sniper taking pot shots at a hotel window and a girl with a missing brother form the basis of this mystery. Based on the "vanishing lady" Victorian Era urban legend.
  • The Lady Vanishes (1938 film) (Wikipedia) (TVTropes) (IMDb) - An Alfred Hitchcock film; while traveling through the fictitious country of Bandrika in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train. Based on the "vanishing lady" Victorian Era urban legend.
  • Gaslight (1940 film) (IMDb) - Twenty years after the murder of Alice Barlow, her house is finally occupied again. However, the husband of the couple who have moved in has a secret which he will do anything to keep hidden. (A less-known adaptation of the stage play.)
  • Gaslight (1944 film), (TVTropes) (IMDb) - Years after her aunt was murdered in her home, a young woman moves back into the house with her new husband. However, he has a secret that he will do anything to protect, even if it means driving his wife insane. (The best-known, award-winning adaptation of the stage play.)
  • So Long at the Fair AKA The Black Curse (1950 film), (IMDb) (Wikipedia) - A young woman visits Paris with her brother only to discover the following morning he has gone missing and the hotel staff have no recollection of his presence. Based on the "vanishing lady" Victorian Era urban legend.
  • "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Into Thin Air" (1955 Anthology TV) - A young woman visits Paris with her mother only to discover the following morning the mother has gone missing and the hotel staff have no recollection of her presence. Based on the "vanishing lady" Victorian Era urban legend.
  • The Screaming Skull (1958 film) - A newly married couple arrives at the home of the husband's late wife, where the gardens have been maintained by a gardener faithful to the dead woman's memory. Soon, eerie events lead the new wife to think she's losing her mind.
  • Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - A former child star torments her paraplegic sister in their decaying Hollywood mansion.
  • Dementia 13 (1963 film) - A scheming widow hatches a daring plan to get her hands on her late husband's inheritance, unbeknownst to her that she is targeted by an axe-wielding murderer who lurks within the family's estate.
  • Strait-Jacket (1964) - After a twenty-year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behavior.
  • The Lady Vanishes (1979 film), (IMDb) - Whilst traveling in pre-war Nazi Germany, a young couple realize a passenger seems to have been kidnapped off their train, but, no other passenger aside from themselves, recalls her.
  • Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1991 film) (IMDB) - Remake of the 1962 film in which an elderly, bedridden former movie star is "cared for" by her sister, who hates her and keeps her a virtual prisoner in the family mansion.
  • Changeling (2008 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - A grief-stricken mother takes on the LAPD to her own detriment when it tries to pass off an obvious impostor as her missing child.
  • The Lady Vanishes (2013 film) (IMDb) - While traveling by train, a young socialite is befriended by a charming yet enigmatic older woman. However, when the woman disappears, the other passengers deny she ever existed.

Films about sensationalized mental illness:

  • Maniac (1934 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - To get around the newly-implemented Hayes Code, this film (which contains violence, nudity, and sexual content that could still shock some audiences today), about a former vaudevillian gifted at impersonation assists a mad scientist in reanimating corpses and soon goes mad himself, purports to be an "educational" film about mental illness and its symptoms. Can be considered a graphic, uncredited adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat (fiction)".
  • Dementia (1955 film) - This film, with no dialogue at all, follows a psychotic young woman's nightmarish experiences through one skid-row night.
  • Spider Baby (1967 film) - A caretaker devotes himself to three demented siblings after their father's death.
  • Psycho (1960 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - An Alfred Hitchcock film based on the novel by Robert Bloch; a Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer's client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the bizarre domination of his mother.
    • Psycho II (1983 film), (IMDb) - After twenty-two years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates attempts to return to a life of solitude, but the specters of his crimes - and his mother - continue to haunt him.
    • Psycho III (1986 film), (IMDb) - Norman Bates falls in love with a fallen nun who stays at the Bates Motel alongside a drifter and a curious reporter. Meanwhile, "mother" is still watching.
    • Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990 film), (IMDb) - Norman Bates recalls his childhood with his abusive mother while fearing his unborn child will inherit his split personality disorder.
  • Bates Motel (1987 film), (IMDb), A mentally disturbed man, who roomed with the late Norman Bates at the state lunatic asylum, inherits the legendary Bates Motel after the death of Norman and tries to fix it up to make it a respectable business.
  • Psycho (1998 film), (IMDb) - A scene-by-scene remake of the famous 1960 Hitchcock film, in which a young female embezzler arrives at the Bates Motel, which has terrible secrets of its own.
  • Bates Motel (2013 series), (IMDb) - A TV series re-adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel and film series.

The following are miscellaneous movies that might not fit any of the above descriptions; these might include some supernatural elements:

  • Gothika (2003 film), (IMDb) (TVTropes) - A repressed female psychiatrist wakes up as a patient in the asylum where she worked, with no memory of why she is there or what she has done.
  • Unsane (2018 film), (IMDb) - A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear - but is it real or a product of her delusion?

"Lovecraftian" Analysis

The primary cross-over with Lovecraftian fiction in these sorts of dramas will come from the presumed mental breakdown of Lovecraftian characters in the face of the ultimate Truth of the "Cthulhu Mythos" and its relationship to human "reality", and the bizarre, hallucinatory, helpless, hopeless horror of institutionalization - perhaps in the hands of cultists and worse - in the wake of that mental breakdown. That the exploitation elements of these films are more than slightly "pulpy" in tone also suggests that these sorts of institutions might exist within the same pulp horror universe as the Cthulhu Mythos.


Mythos Elements


Keeper Notes

  • (Seemingly?) sane investigators find themselves in a mental hospital - perhaps to rescue a fellow investigator, to interview an NPC witness, or through their own misadventures - and are then subjected to outrageous "treatments", ranging from the usual electro-shock, lobotomy, hydrotherapy, aversion therapy, etc., to more exotic treatments involving Mythos horrors.... (general "Snake Pit" tropes)
  • The investigators are enlisted to help a neighbor at a hotel by retrieving a doctor for a mysterious illness, only to return to the hotel to find the hotel staff denying that any such person as the ill NPC ever existed. (The Lady Vanishes and other variations on the "vanishing lady" urban legend)
  • A woman committed to an asylum enlists the investigators for assistance, insisting that the missing child returned to her by police is an imposter; the child might be an ordinary imposter, an unnatural doppelganger, or a matter of mistaken identity or police misconduct, depending on what amuses the keeper the most (The Changeling)
  • An NPC enlists the investigators for help, fearing he/she is going mad, describing various strange things seen at home which trusted authorities - family, servants, loved ones, etc. - deny being real. The NPC's experiences may be real and supernatural/Mythos in origin, or they might be symptoms of real madness, or they might be a conspiracy by those the NPC trusts the most to drive the NPC mad for their own malevolent purposes (gain control of a fortune, torment the victim for laughs, as part of their strange cult activity, etc.) (Gaslight)


General Notes

Comments, Trivia, Dedication

Reviews

  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959 film) Review by Sanderson Beck at Movie Mirrors (link) Review by Graeme Clark at The Spinning Image (7/10 Stars) (link) Review by Bosley Crowther at The New York Times (link) Review by Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings (link)
  • Unsane (2018) Review by David Dent at Dark Eyes of London (link), Review by Matt Donato at We Got This Covered (2/5 Stars) (link), Review by Richard Scheib at The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (3/5 Stars) (link), Review by Thomas Humphrey at Screen Anarchy (link)
  • So Long at the Fair (1950) Review by Richard Cross (link), Review by Kimberley Lindbergs (link), Review by Colin McGuigan (link), Review by David L. Vinyard, (link)
  • Midnight Warning (1932) Review by John Grant (link), Review by Mitch Lovell (link), Review by Dave Sindelar (link), Review by Hans J. Wollstein (link) Review by Lydia and Christopher at Orphaned Entertainment (link).