Insane asylums are undoubtedly among the eeriest places on Earth. Murderous psychopaths, cruel wardens, and dead hopes rest within their walls… It’s no wonder mental hospitals have a bad reputation.
The term “asylum” immediately brings to mind ghoulish images of Victorian prison cells, tortured patients, and repressed frustrations. What better setting for a thriller or horror movie?
Of course, none of that’s true of today’s psychiatric wards, but a bit of imagination can make for some tantalizing thrills. And apart from the horror potential, insane asylums can also spawn colorful characters whom we’d never meet in normal, everyday settings.
From cult classic films to coming-of-age movies, here are the best insane asylum movies set in mental hospitals that make the best use of their settings and characters.
Steven Soderbergh’s psychological horror movie Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini, played by Claire Foy, who’s falsely admitted to a mental hospital and kept there against her will.
Highland Creek is one of the worst behavioral centers to be held in… because, well, it’s fake. The scheme tricks patients and uses their insurance claims for profit. Without the regulations of an actual insane asylum, Sawyer can be drugged and restrained without mercy.
Soderbergh directs this grim, claustrophobic, and innovative B-movie thriller with notable skill—and it’s all shot on an iPhone.
Clearly influenced by the filmmaking techniques used by Martin Scorsese in Shutter Island, A Cure for Wellness is utterly nightmarish.
A Cure for Wellness centers on a Wall Street stockbroker who visits a “wellness spa” to retrieve a colleague, but things seem a little… off. Before long, he too is diagnosed with the curious illness that everybody at the wellness spa seems to be suffering.
The gothic aesthetics of a place totally removed from all technology gives a Victorian feel to this present-day tale. Sweeping views of the Swiss Alps take a sinister turn in Gore Verbinski’s mystery-thriller, where fluffy slippers and massages have never been so frightening.
Writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck go for heart-warming rather than terrifying in this coming-of-age comedy-drama.
After contemplating suicide, teenager Craig admits himself to a psychiatric ward. He spends the next week with a host of weird and wonderful characters, who teach Craig to appreciate the life he has.
Touching, funny, and endlessly earnest, It’s Kind of a Funny Story acts like a self-help book in movie form. The bittersweet story knows when to be serious and when to be cheeky, showcasing a wacky ensemble cast whom we can’t help but love.
Girl, Interrupted is a compelling examination into the world of mental illness. It takes place in a 1960s mental hospital where attitudes over mental illness were just beginning to change.
Following a mental breakdown, Susanna Kaysen—played by Winona Ryder—finds herself in a psychiatric ward for women. During her stay there, she befriends the charismatic rebel and sociopath Lisa Rowe, played by Angelina Jolie.
Girl, Interrupted feels so authentic because it’s based on true events. The array of psychiatric disorders explored by director James Mangold are given real and honest representation, with knockout performances that really shine though.
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A cultish indie flick that touches on pretty much every genre, The Ninth Configuration was the directorial debut of William Peter Blatty (who wrote The Exorcist in 1971 and adapted it to film in 1973).
The Ninth Configuration takes place in an abandoned castle that’s being used as a military mental hospital. Eccentric former military and astronauts make psychiatrist Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) question his own faith and push his sanity to the brink.
Also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane, this underrated classic is one of the most unique and unpredictable movies you can watch. It’s comical, spiritual, and completely bonkers. It has no fixed category.
Perhaps the most obvious movie for this list, Shutter Island may not be Martin Scorsese’s most critically acclaimed work—but it’s among his most popular movies among everyday moviegoers.
And for good reason! This neo-noir psychological thriller is riddled with tension and great performances, especially Leonardo DiCaprio.
In Shutter Island, US Marshal Teddy Daniels docks at a notorious island for the criminally insane. Suspicious characters and perpetual rain clouds evoke a chilling atmosphere as Teddy investigates a dangerous missing inmate—but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
The iconic plot twist will have you hitting rewind to watch with new, enlightened eyes. You’ll wonder how you missed it the first time!
The number one spot for best insane asylum movie has to go to the landmark adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Now considered a cinematic classic, Miloš Forman directs an intense drama worthy of an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Jack Nicholson leads the perfectly cast ensemble as Randle McMurphy, who transfers to a mental hospital to avoid prison time.
Birthing one of the most famous villains in cinema history (Nurse Ratched played by Louise Fletcher), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a sociopolitical ball of madness. Certainly a heartbreaking powerhouse if there ever was one!