Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010), before being toppled by Alice in Wonderland, had been the number one movie at the box office for two weeks running, but when I saw it I couldn't help but be reminded of another, better horror film, The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963). The Haunting, based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House, is the story of Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a distant young woman who comes to Hill House for an experiment in psychic and spectral investigation led by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson). Shutter Island concerns two federal marshals, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, investigating the disappearance of a psychiatric patient incarcerated for murdering her three children. Of course, if you've seen the film by now you know that's not what Scorsese's film is really about. You probably shouldn't read this entry any further if you haven't seen either film, as I'm about to spoil them for you rather completely.
Besides the narrative similarities of the two films, something else jogged my memory about the Scorsese/Wise connection: this article from last year in which Scorsese lists his personal top 11 scariest horror films. Guess which film made number one.
Distortion of Visual Space
In addition to the exteriors of Hill House and Shutter Island/Ashecliffe, both films manipulate and distort physical space to represent the warped perception of its protagonists. In The Haunting, the distortion is brought about by the ghosts that haunt the mansion. Eleanor is not the only member of the party who experiences the spectral disruptions. In contrast, Teddy Daniels is the only person on Shutter Island who experiences the intense waking nightmares that characterize his mental illness.
Robert Wise approaches the haunting special effects with psychological and physical realism, that is he does not differentiate visually the scenes where paranormal phenomena is at work from the scenes of Eleanor's paranoia. The result in the viewer is a lack of comprehension and a confusing between what is real and what is imagined. At the conclusion of the film, Eleanor's voice over, which has guided us throughout the film, has become more frenzied and more interior; we are a party to her madness.
Scorsese achieves this result through different means. Unlike Wise, the film from the get-go is a subjective view of events from Teddy Daniels' point of view. His POV shots establish the physical space as he encounters the different housing facilities of Ashecliffe, its inmates, and the mysterious isolated lighthouse which will play a crucial part in the film's climax. Because Teddy is the protagonist and we are seeing the "real" locations of Shutter Island through his eyes, the viewer inherently trusts his nightmares, as well. Unlike Eleanor's paranoia, Scorsese clearly marks Teddy's nightmares as distinct from his experiences on the island. He achieves this affect through the use of a bright, DayGlo color scheme and the manipulation of impossible spaces. During Teddy's nightmares, spatial relations between characters are obstructed as Scorsese plays with the rules of film editing and continuity.
In one scene, for example, Teddy is walking in a "real" location (the psychiatrist's office) but the audience is signaled to its unreality because the smoke from his cigarette is reversed.
In another recurring setting, Teddy speaks with his deceased wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). Dolores is constantly backlit, creating a halo of sorts around her head. In addition, the scene is marked by falling ash, signaling the confusion of physical space between Teddy and Dolores' house pre- and post-fire.
Wise achieves a sense of madness chiefly through canted angles and distorted fish-eye lenses which bend the film frame. Scorsese is working with subtler effects because, unlike Eleanor's madness in The Haunting, Teddy's psychological disturbances are not immediately apparent to the viewer. Indeed, the central mystery in Shutter Island is whether Teddy is being manipulated by the hospital's staff through mind control or if his own mind is unbalanced.
Spiral Staircase in Context
To return to one of my original points, in order to understand why Shutter Island owes more to The Haunting than The Red Shoes comes down to context. In The Haunting, Eleanor climbs the spiral staircase to kill herself because she knows for her to find peace is to die.
To Eleanor the staircase represents a catharsis, and climbing it will offer her the first bit of clarity she has had the entire film. Wise shoots the sequence by cutting between shots of Eleanor's face and her feet, as the mobile camera follows her ascent. The other people in the house, especially Dr. Markway, try to prevent her from committing suicide, offering other ways to treat her paranoia. Just when it seems Eleanor can be cured, there is a shock which sends her past the point of return and ultimately costs her her life.
In Shutter Island, the circumstances are remarkably similar. Teddy has finally decided to investigate the lighthouse, the place where he thinks psychological and military experiences are being performed on patients. Armed, he storms the staircase. Scorsese shoots the sequence similarly to Wise, alternating between shots of Teddy's face and his feet, creating a sense of anticipation in the viewer. To heighten this tension to the breaking point, the first room Teddy bursts into is empty. The second he approaches more slowly and there he discovers the hospital psychiatric (Ben Kingsley) and his missing "partner" Chuck, who reveals himself to be Teddy's attending doctor at Ashecliffe. Teddy is really Andrew Laeddus and has been a patient on the island for two years. The events of the film have been a role play exercise which his doctors hope would jog his memory and lead to a break through. The psychiatrist explains that Teddy was a U.S. Marshall but his wife Dolores was depressed and drowned his three children. Teddy killed Dolores and has been a patient at Ashecliffe ever since. He made up Chuck, Rachel Solando and almost everything in the film to cope with his insane grief. Like Eleanor in The Haunting, Teddy finds some explanation at the top of the staircase, just not the one he wanted. Like Eleanor, Teddy yields to the doctor's care, and like Eleanor, he relapses, rejecting the voice of authority and following the voices in his head. In both films, Eleanor's death and Teddy's implied death (he is sentenced to a lobotomy), are mercy killings. Eleanor recognized correctly that she would never be free of her haunting while she was alive. Although it can be argued that the house causes her car to crash, it is equally plausible that Eleanor allowed it to happen. In a similar way, it is ambiguous whether Teddy has actually relapsed or whether he chose to enact his delusion because he knew he would be lobotomized, thus ending his torment.
Each film has a bleak ending that results in the death of their protagonists. But however dark the subject matter, there is a catharsis for the audience that comes from knowing that they are no longer suffering.