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 thriller and horror movies?
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.
11. Unsane (2018)
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!
10. Glass (2019)
James McAvoy showed just how far his acting talents could stretch in M. Night Shyamalan's psychological horror Split. He portrayed 24 different people inside one body (suffering with Dissociative Identity Disorder), seamlessly switching from one persona to the next.
Three years later, McAvoy returned for the sequel to Split and Shyamalan's previous superhero thriller Unbreakable (where Bruce Willis starred as a more realistic superhuman than those found in the MCU).
In Glass, Kevin (McAvoy) and David (Willis) aren't locked up in your usual prison—instead, Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) believes both men are mentally ill. Despite the pink and padded walls, the facility is no place for healing. It's for experimentation.
9. K-PAX (1995)
Despite its alien context, K-PAX is your standard mental hospital movie where characters are forced to confront their illnesses and perhaps teach their doctors something along the way.
But the alien part does make it more fun. It's like a sci-fi-infused One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which also shows up on this list).
Kevin Spacey stars in K-PAX as Prot, the apparent alien-in-a-human-body who's committed to the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan for his "delusions." Director Iain Softley never makes it clear if he's really an alien or not, but that's beside the point.
While Prot does demonstrate some anomalous medical results that make his alien/human status inconclusive, there are two conclusions we know for sure: first, kindness and optimism can help to heal others, and second, the Universe is cyclical so make the right choices!
8. A Cure for Wellness (2016)
Clearly influenced by the filmmaking techniques used by Martin Scorsese in Shutter Island (which also shows up later in this list), 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.
7. It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
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.
6. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Not all of 12 Monkeys takes place in a psychiatric hospital, but a big chunk of it does! And that's where we get the iconic part of Brad Pitt as boss-eyed, anti-corporate radical inmate Jeffrey Goines.
Set in a dystopian 2035 that looks eerily more similar to our 2023 than Terry Gilliam likely intended, 12 Monkeys revolves around a virus that has wiped out most of humanity and forced us underground.
Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a prisoner in the future who's sent back in time to the year 1996 so he can stop the original virus. Unfortunately, he ends up arriving in the year 1990 instead.
Saying you're a time traveler who's returned to stop the apocalypse sounds a bit crazy, and it's bound to land you in a barred-window room with someone like Jeffrey—regardless of whether it's true.
5. Awakenings (1990)
The mental hospital in Awakenings isn't as gloomy and grotty as the one in 12 Monkeys or as creepy as the one in A Cure For Wellness. In fact, it's a place of progress, optimism, and healing (and not just because it's graced by the presence of Robin Williams).
Penny Marshall's profound drama will make your heart sing before shattering it to pieces. The fact it's based on real-life case studies is at once fascinating, inspiring, and saddening, as it looks at the victims of the encephalitis lethargica outbreak from 1917 to 1928.
The "sleeping sickness" attacks the brain and leaves people in an outwardly catatonic, statue-like state but very much aware inside. Williams stars as a doctor determined to revive patients with the drug L-DOPA, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro).
4. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
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.
3. The Ninth Configuration (1980)
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.
2. Shutter Island (2010)
Perhaps the most obvious movie for this list, Shutter Island is not Martin Scorsese's most critically acclaimed work, but it may well be his most popular.
And for good reason! This neo-noir psychological thriller is riddled with tension and great performances, especially from 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!
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
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!