Note: I have opted not to include images in this review because of their potentially exploitative nature. Upon the film’s release, there was considerable debate as to the ethics of filming individuals incapable of giving their consent. It is a question worth considering and, as such, I will only be using the official film poster.
Unrated | 1967 | 84 min | (USA) | Frederick Wiseman
Given my penchant for slasher horror, it isn’t often that I find myself cinematically provoked to squeamishness. But a recent viewing of Frederick Wiseman’s unflinching 1967 documentary Titicut Follies left me feeling downright nauseous. Much of that reaction is owed to the human indignities suffered by those shown in the film. Not for the faint of heart, this documentary examines life inside an American mental institution and lays bare the harsh realities that face mentally ill inhabitants of state funded facilities. With so many horror films being inspired by real life horror, I think an exploration of this documentary is useful in understanding why horror films can be so triggering.
Filmed at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Titicut Follies is a stark documentary that reflects beautifully the observational approach to documentary filmmaking. By using the “fly on the wall” technique of the cinema vérité tradition, Wiseman is able to construct a story in which it is the actions of his participants which propels the film’s narrative. There is no need for additional commentary as the viewer is supposed to feel as though he/she is watching events unfold unmediated.
This approach is especially useful in this instance given the topic explored. The lack of commentary and the way the film stays directed on the events as they unfold, even when those events are extremely difficult to witness, engages the audience by allowing them to draw their own conclusions based upon the body language and facial expressions of the participants. The inhumanity that is put on full display is unflinching and also seems to have inspired later fictional tales.
In A Clockwork Orange (1971), we see Alex subjected to the Ludovico technique and the scene reads as a bit too close for comfort to a resident being “cured” in Titicut Follies. Similarly, the depictions of the criminally insane in Grave Encounters (2011) are startlingly close to what we see in Titicut Follies. The cruelties illustrated in all of these instances are designed to repulse audiences and evoke a sense of disgust. The emotional reaction is the same but should it be?
Complicating this comparison is who we are being asked to identify with in each of films. While it is clear audiences are meant to sympathize with the severely mentally ill residents of Titicut Follies, both A Clockwork Orange and Grave Encounters ask us to have sympathy for those we have seen perpetrate unthinkable acts against others. Certainly, one could argue that these two characters are mentally ill and that our being moved to sympathy for them poses the question of where the line between madness and culpability lies. But again, shouldn’t real, innocent victims of abuse trigger a stronger empathetic reaction than guilty fictional characters?
It’s worth noting that the idea an observational film isn’t also contrived is a false one. Certainly, in Titicut Follies some of the medical staff seem aware of the cameras. At times, these participants seem to be putting on a bit of a show for the camera with exaggerated movements. For example, the guard who taunts a naked resident during the resident’s “treatment” reads as though the guard is playing to the camera. Yet, as these behaviors fall entirely within the scope of their normal behaviors, they nevertheless reflect the reality sought by observational films. They also reflect what we expect to see in horror narratives depicting asylum life. Consider the cruelties perpetuated against Michael in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers or forced confinement of Lana Winters in AHS: Asylum.
The film follows closely the traditional three-act structure of film and in doing so uses the audience’s expectation for resolution against them. There is no happy ending for the inhabitants of this facility. In this respect, the film is quite evocative of the horror genre. In the first act, the viewer is introduced to the facility, its patients, and the people charged with their care. The second act sees an escalation of the indifference and cruelty of the staff toward the inmates only hinted at in act one. Finally, in the third act, there is the culmination of the yearly talent show, from which the film’s title is derived, that upends everything we have come to expect from the residents and their abilities.
It’s difficult to know how to rate a film like Titicut Follies since reaction to it is likely to be extreme. Some will find it exploitative, while others will appreciate its candor. But from my standpoint the film achieves its goal of bringing the horrors of institutional life to a largely unaware American public and is essential viewing for anyone interested in the documentary format or in how the asylum horror tropes finds real life grounding.