After reading the James Reasoner piece on Michael Avallone (The Return Of Ed Noon, June 18, 2012), I dug out my copy of Avallone’s novel based on the screenplay of Shock Corridor, the jolting 1963 movie that Sam Fuller wrote, produced and directed.
It’s been a long while since I’ve thought about either the movie or the book, but I believe they’re both worth tracking down. Even today, the story holds up, though it’s a little creaky in places (what isn’t, from 1963?), due to the Cold War paranoia throughout.
The book was a great read, the movie itself so harsh and chilling and in-your-face that it couldn’t be ignored. There isn’t a politically correct scene in it. There’s also not a boring step. Cigar-chomping Sam Fuller was just that kind of screenwriter and director.
And, of course, it’s a cult favorite with film students. For those who care what critics say, Shock Corridor still has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, in its 15 reviews from 2002 to 2011.
I first saw Shock Corridor in the 1970’s, well before I became good friends with actor James Best, who played Stuart in the film. It was one of the first films of his we discussed, along with The Left-Handed Gun, Firecreek, Rolling Thunder and Sounder. Years later, when I showed him I had the Shock Corridor paperback, he immediately signed it, ‘The most fun in my career, James Best.’
And it was the greatest fun to make, James said.
They shot it in 10 days flat, with almost no re-takes, entirely inside. To make the small asylum set look larger (and longer), Sam Fuller hired midgets as extras to move around at the end of the relatively short hallway. Several of the hallucination scenes were borrowed from Fuller’s earlier movies. Yet it’s far more than merely a schlocky 60’s picture.
In case you’re not familiar with the storyline, it’s very much high concept:
Peter Breck (Nick Barkley in The Big Valley) is a reporter willing to do anything to earn a Pulitzer Prize, so he has himself committed to a mental institution so he can solve a murder. To do so, he has his stripper girlfriend, Constance Towers, pretend to be his sister, who he’s sexually attracted to. In addition, he’s got a thing for her braids. Shocking (again), especially for 1963. Ka-blammo. He’s put away! And through a series of jolting electro-shock treatments he can’t avoid, he slowly goes crazier than any other lunatic in the joint.
When early in the second act he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a violent thunderstorm taking place in the hallway, you realize there’s not going to be a happy ending. Or when he gets trapped and almost killed by sex-crazed female inmates in the Nympho Ward. That’s right: the Nympho Ward.
Do they still have those?
Anyway, to solve the murder, he has to interview (during rare lucid moments) three wildly vocal lunatics:
Trent (Hari Rhodes), the first black student attending an all-white Southern university. Driven insane by racism, he thinks he’s the leader of the KKK and hates black people.
Boden (Gene Evans), a Nobel prize-winning nuclear scientist driven insane by guilt due to his work on the A-bomb and H-bomb. He’s reverted to his childhood. Mental age: six.
Stuart (James Best), a POW soldier in the Korean conflict who committed treason by joining the Red Chinese, then was traded back to our country. He believes he’s General Jeb Stuart, the Confederate army hero, fighting the damn Yankees.
I won’t say more, or give away any other twists, but the gradual character arc that occurs in Peter Breck, transforming him from a ruthless crime reporter into a raving, mindless psychotic, is more unnerving than many sophisticated folks today might imagine possible.
You can get the re-mastered Shock Corridor on Amazon. I believe it will linger with you.