From the opening credits with loud daunting music, you realize this is going to be a heavy film. Those set within a mental institution aren’t usually light or breezy.
We meet Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) not long after she has been checked into the institute. She’s usually confused about where she is, what month it is and has difficulty recalling the past. Sometimes there’s an inner voice (the conversations seem like a less haunting Gollum) and we realize that she is rightfully there. The film follows her journey through her time at the institute. Doctors try to help her through terrifying remedies like shock therapy and more sedate humanizing techniques like psychotherapy. We bare witness to her ups and downs (which correspond to what ward number she’s in) discover the mysterious past she’s hidden from herself.
The terrors and cruel treatment portrayed within the institution seem more important to Virginia’s personal growth. The nurses order the women around and herd them up like crazy sheep in skirts. Frail women look down through the bars with pity and no hope. Due to overcrowding, beds are lined wall to wall with hardly room to walk between.
The best scenes come later in the film, when Virginia is in more “social” wards. It seems that the main activity many of these woman have, is to simply wander around a room together, and hopefully stand by the window a while. In one instance, they’re lucky enough to have a rug in their room, but no one is allowed to walk on it. Just after a nurse reprimands Virginia for this, an elderly lady starts to sing and dance on it, just crazy enough to be creepy and funny at the same time. Maybe that’s the only way to rebel in this place, just make sure you act crazy while you do it.
One activity within the institution seemed too odd: a co-ed dance. Yes, that’s getting some crazy men to come down and dance with these crazy women. Isn’t that just asking for trouble? I didn’t want to believe that really happened.
It’s hard to compare The Snake Pit to one of my favorites, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Poor Virginia really is genuinely messed up, there’s not much comradery and there’s no focus on one Ratchety nurse. They’re different sides of the same coin over twenty-five years apart.
That being said, Cuckoo’s Nest is more heartfelt and soul-stirring. The Snake Pit is more of a focus on women in an institute and the psychotherapy process Virginia goes through. If you’re looking for something with a more mystery/horror feel, pick The Snake Pit, otherwise, Cuckoo’s Nest can be a fine substitute.
I remember questioning the probability of a co-ed dance, too, when I watched this. But I looked into it and remember reading somewhere (though I can’t remember the source) that critics of the time questioned this, with de Havilland responding that she had been to an actual event like the one in the film during her extensive research for the role.