It’s time for another round of Almost Horror, and this month, since its Monster Mash Month at Nightmare on Film Street, we are reaching into our grab bag of post-Halloween goodies and pulling out a monster of a film that has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts thanks to the new Netflix drama, Ratched (2020). We’re discussing the true horror that lies behind the Oscar wins, the Golden Globe awards, the BAFTAS, and the Grammys, a deep-seated horror that, while obvious in parts, remains an insidious presence in others. We’re putting Miloš Forman’s 1975 classic drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest under the Almost Horror microscope to discover the very terrifying monsters live within its padded celluloid walls. Trigger warning: SENSITIVE TOPICS AHEAD.
JUSTICE SYSTEM OF A DOWN
Since the 5th century, those fighting mental illness have been locked away inside facilities that were meant to provide care but for centuries that so-called care was nothing more than torture. Patients in many countries, in many facilities, suffered deplorable conditions in places ripe with abuse, neglect, and flat out crimes against humanity. Salem State Hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is no different and since the story takes place in 1963, a time when the treatment for mental illness was a mere step up from the torturous methods of the dark ages, the plight of the hospital inmate often went unheard.
When Randle McMurphy played by Jack Nicholson (The Shinning, 1980) enters the facility in an attempt to stay out of prison, expecting to serve out his sentence in relative serenity and comfort, he had no idea what the system that placed him there had in store for him. Like those asylums of the past, Salem State Hospital is clearly a place of evil that sits in wait for any poor soul who has no choice but to amble through its doors.
While he is painted prominently as the hero or rather the antihero of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle McMurphy isn’t the messiah he portrays himself to be. A veteran of the Korean War, where he was held as a POW, McMurphy had surely murdered countless Korean soldiers during his time on the battlefields, so we know that he has killed before. It is also worth noting that McMurphy, or Mac as he is more commonly known, wasn’t particularly liked while enlisted in the armed forces. Despite leading an escape that freed him and other POWs from Korean prison camps, he was ultimately dishonorably discharged from duty due to insubordination.
McMurphy is also a gambler, oftentimes gambling his way into fistfights that would lead to jail time. While unsavory behavior it certainly doesn’t constitute being institutionalized, but there is one crime he committed on his lengthy rap sheet that most definitely does. A fifteen-year-old girl, the victim of a rape, blames McMurphy and he actually admits to committing the act, though he victim-blames her by claiming she lied about her age and that the sex was consensual.
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HOSPITAL OF HORRORS
If the justice system that controls the hospitals is the twisted brain of the mental healthcare monster, the hospitals that house the patients are the pointed teeth that gnash these tormented souls as food for the beast. Stocked with all kinds of torturous implements, these institutions housed some of the most sadistic methods of “treatment” that humanity has ever seen.
Salem State Hospital subscribed to every archaic method of suffering imaginable and Mac, along with his other ward-mates, find out firsthand just what these treatments consist of. This included psychological experiments that toyed with the psyches of the inmates, drug treatment that viewed patients as guinea pigs as opposed to human beings, electroshock therapy that implemented the use of electric shock on a subject’s brain and, of course, frontal lobotomies that turn the worst offenders into drooling invalids, something that Mac unfortunately discovers.
ARCHETYPE OF THE BATTLEAXE
Ever hear the term battleaxe? You can thank Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher (Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977), for that. This sociopathic passive/aggressive tyrant is the “Big Nurse” at Salem State Hospital and she rules with an iron hemostat. She is the gatekeeper of medications, privileges, and necessities with the near-absolute power to revoke any of them at any given moment. She maintains this hold over the inmates by cowing them into submission using threats of violence and punishment to drive fear into their hearts, ensuring complete submission to her wicked ways.
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the manipulative Ratched. This monster uses more nefarious methods to keep her patients within her powerful grip. Antipsychotic and anticonvulsant drugs are used in her arsenal and used liberally while she also administers her own brand of psychotherapy through the humiliation of patients to do her bidding. She manipulates through fear and does so on societies most vulnerable. Despite the story taking place in the 60s, Ratched is clearly stuck somewhere earlier in time. Her 1940s hairstyle is a symbol of when life stopped for Mildred Ratched and began for Nurse Ratched. The end of the human being and the beginning of the monster that assumed her life.
FRACTURED PSYCHE OF MILDRED RATCHED
Is it possible that Mildred Ratched is the inmate at the hospital and all of her patients are her multiple personalities? You bet it is. We have the calm, cool, and collected personality that is the closest to the real Ratched and we have the other personalities that encompass the patients she is in charge of. For instance, Billy Bibbet, played by Brad Dourif (Child’s Play, 1988), the stuttering, nervous, dominated mama’s boy who closely resembles the childhood that cold and calloused Ratched longs for. Chief Bromden, played by the late Will Sampson (Poltergeist II: The Other Side, 1986) is a reflection of Ratched’s tug-of-war between strength and weakness. While she may seem ironclad on the outside, she is soft beneath it all and it’s a side that she struggles to keep at bay. Why else would Chief Broom be a self-imposed mute?
Furthermore, Dale Harding, played by the late William Redfield (Death Wish, 1974) is representative of Mildred’s sexual repression. Raised in a strict Christian home and born a woman in a time when women had little to no power, the repressive nature of her life has choked any sexual expression from her very being. What better metaphor for this repression than a closeted homosexual who lives in a time when such a lifestyle was considered offensive, immoral, and illegal? Charlie Cheswick, played by the late Sydney Lassik (Alligator, 1980) is the frustration of both that repression and her own mental state complete with childish tantrums, while Max Taber, played by Christopher Lloyd (Schiziod, 1980) is the profane-laden otherside of the Cheswick personality who makes their appearances in explosions of epileptic fits and belligerent tyraids.
Martini, played by Danny Devito (Batman Returns, 1992) mirrors Ratched’s delusional thoughts with an innocence held onto from childhood, the likely period the cracks began to appear in her subconscious. And of course, there is McMurphy, the unbridled hellion which both intrigues and repulses Mildred. This is the most dangerous of her personalities and the one she fights the hardest to subdue for if it were to fully take over the real Ratched would surely be lost forever.
There is no denying the power of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is an eye-opening look inside the walls of mental health and the monsters that dwell there, but is it an Almost Horror film? You tell us. Have we presented enough evidence to prove that McMurphy and company belong among the many other movie monsters of horrordom or is it too much of a stretch for one to even fathom? Be sure to let us know on our Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club! Until next time fellow fiends, stay creepy!