Not everyone sees One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a horror movie.
Oddly enough, I don’t see the book that way. I remember when I read it. When I finished it, I threw it across the room and refused to pick it up for a few days. I never read it again. That’s how angry it made me. I had the same problem with The World According To Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meanie, Creator, a few others.Anyway, the movie. The fine folks at Naro Video have this film series called Naro-Minded. Every month, they show a film at the theater next door, Naro Expanded Cinema as part of the theater’s FlickIt! Fridays.
Well, Friday, April 29, was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. How could I pass that up?
Seriously. Classic Jack.
Louise Fletcher as one of the most (if not arguably the most) coldly, unfeelingly evil characters in the history of ever.
I love One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for so many, many reasons. All the performance are phenomenal, and it’s already well worth seeing solely for the appearances of Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Brad Dourif’s tragic Billy Bibbit. Hell you can even find horror icon Michael Berryman.
But there are three main reasons I love this movie so much, two of which can be viewed through the lens of terror.
First is its portrayal of mental illness. The patients are neither exploited for cheap laughs not portrayed as evil or threatening. They are certainly victimized by Nurse Ratched’s rigid system. As Nicholson’s McMurphy says, “she likes a rigged game.” They aren’t, however, shown as weak, helpless victims of their illnesses. There isn’t one second that you aren’t on these guys’ side.
Second is the age-old problem of having to prove one’s sanity, especially to someone with the power to deny your freedom. Sounds horrifying to me. Think about it. If someone labels you as insane, then the more forcefully you argue that you’re sane, the less sane you sound. Once the doctors determine Mac is dangerous, and Nurse Ratched feels he can benefit from the institution’s “help,” he’s doomed.
And what help it is: medication (what kind and what for are never explained), electroconvulsive therapy (as disturbing as Ellen Burstyn’s in Requiem For A Dream), and ultimately a lobotomy.
Finally, there is the issue of control as embodied by Nurse Ratched. Iron control at any cost. The second she appears in the film, it’s like the temperature in the theater drops. Dementors have nothing on this woman. The tough, burly orderlies are deferential and obedient to her, and she shows no affect throughout the overwhelming majority of the movie. And yet, I can’t stop watching her. That lack of affect is absolutely chilling.
It’s like being fascinated by snake, specifically a massive constrictor, something with no venom that will nonetheless slowly squeeze the life out of you (as she figuratively does to the men on her ward). It’s important to make a distinction here between horror and terror. Horror is what you see. Terror is all in the anticipation. Terror is waiting for the snake to strike. Horror is what happens when it does.
A perfect example of this is Billy Bibbit. After his night with Candy, he, like Mac, stands up to Nurse Ratched. He’s even lost his stutter. This is where we see how far she will go in the name of control, saying, “You know, Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.” Billy’s reaction, and ours, is terror, the knowing yet not knowing. Like Mac, he tries to assert his independence. Like Cheswick earlier, he fails.
Billy’s reaction to this (which we see the results of) is horror.
It’s the unfeeling, black-and-white simplicity with which Nurse Ratched exerts her control that makes it so unnerving. Take the baseball game. Mac needs ten votes. He gets them when he persuades Chief Bromden to raise his hand, but since that happens after their session is adjourned, Nurse Ratched nullifies the results.
The argument could also be made that, metaphorically, there are two forces at work. Nurse Ratched is the power of whomever you want to give power to: the state, society, culture, the status quo, etc. McMurphy is whatever questions that. It’s Matthew Arnold’s pebbles hurled against the cliffs in “Dover Beach.” It’s George Orwell’s Winston Smith broken by the state via its agent, O’Brien. It’s Alex’s “cure” in A Clockwork Orange.
Now that I think about it, maybe I’ll just go hide under my bed for a while.