It's fitting that director Martin Scorsese appears on the extras for Samuel Fuller's nightmarish thriller 'Shock Corridor.' The 'Goodfellas' filmmaker is on hand to extol the virtues of Fuller's vision, and to reference a sequence from 'Raging Bull' that borrowed heavily from 'Corridor' (it involves the way it was shot – with a tiny flame bar hidden just beyond camera's reach). The documentary on which Scorsese appears was filmed a number of years ago, but it makes even more sense now, especially considering that his own 'Shutter Island,' released this past spring, is more or less an unofficial remake of the Fuller classic.
In 'Shock Corridor,' Peter Breck plays a journalist named Johnny Barrett, who, on the quest for journalistic fame and glory, decides to undergo a risky (suicidal?) story idea – in order to solve a murder, he decides to check himself into the mental hospital where the murder occurred. Because that's a humdinger of a great idea. (Still: Pulitzer Prize, hello!) He stages his entrance into the asylum as a vast conspiracy, with both his girlfriend (a showgirl played by Constance Towers), his editor, and a doctor, going along with it.
Watching 'Shock Corridor' again I was amazed at how Fuller, a rough-and-tumble war veteran and master of a every specific kind of greasy film noir (he also did 'Naked Kiss,' another Criterion Blu-ray remaster), totally puts you in the space, both physically and mentally, of being in that insane asylum. It's remarkable. He makes the place feel real on a tactile level (you can practically smell the industrial disinfectant wafting up from the linoleum tiles) and populates it with the kind of crazies you'd expect: inmates repeat things over and over and over again, a general cacophony and claustrophobia fills the air. You think to yourself – 'How can this guy voluntarily stand to be here, much less try to figure out a murder?'
And it's all very purposeful and deliberate, not to mention brilliant. So when, after a riot breaks out, Breck's Barrett is subject to the titular electro-shock therapy, and his reality begins to really unravel, it's not so much a narrative stretch as much as it is a foregone conclusion. And that's when things get really weird.
With his unsteady grasp on reality finally shaken completely loose, Barrett begins to have a full-on mental breakdown, and start having visions of his girlfriend, who appears as a tiny gnomish figure, imagining her as his sister. (Messed up, I know.) By the time the movie reaches its splashy (literally) climax, all bets are off as to whether or not he can even break free of this prison he's created – not the walls of the asylum, mind you, but what he's put up inside his own brain.
Breck, a workmanlike character actor (he was in the television series 'Maverick'), brings a surprising amount of depth to the character. In a lot of ways, I guess, Barrett's journey is a lot like the one that really method-y actors go through – they become so enmeshed in another person's life (and the scenario surrounding that life), that it can become hard to pull themselves back out of it.
But, really, this is Fuller's show. And it's a confrontational dazzler. Not even Marty could top it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Shock Corridor' comes to high definition courtesy of the good folks at the Criterion Collection (spine #19), so it has a chunkier box (with jaw dropping Daniel Clowes artwork). The disc is a Region A-locked 50GB joint.
According to the accompanying booklet: "This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manual removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean System, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
In short: a whole lot of work went into making this transfer look real pretty. And pretty it does look: the velveteen luxuriousness of high definition black-and-white is here and accounted for (during the brief color sequences, they really pop with a sensational vitality). Black levels are nicely deep and inky.
There is a fine layer of grain that never becomes overwhelming, and the image does sometimes veer dangerously close to cloudiness, but that's because this was a fairly cheap-looking movie in the first place. This is a remarkably clean, crisp transfer that anyone who has seen the film before will likely do backflips over.
The disc's lone audio option, an English LPCM Mono track, is also sturdily up to the task.
Again: back to the booklet! "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm monaural magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually reoved using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
While not as revelatory as the video transfer, the audio transfer does a fine job on its own right, even for a mono track. Paul Dunlap's score sounds terrific, dialogue is crisp, clear, and always understandable. The mix gives a surprising amount of atmospheric dimensionality, too, with the cacophony of the nut house really blooming majestically.
Overall, a really solid track, with nary a trace of the muddiness that normally clouds audio mixes of films from this era (especially cheap films like 'Shock Corridor!')
Optional English SDH subtitles have also been handily included.
All of the extras on this Blu-ray also appear on Criterion's standard DVD reissue. Aw yeah.
Samuel Fuller's 'Shock Corridor' is a psychological thriller classic, no matter how you slice it. Influential to this day, it's a gripping, heartbreaking ordeal that you won't soon forget. Criterion has reissued the classic (for the first time on high-definition) with very strong audio and video and a slim but worthwhile collection of extras. Highly recommended.