Mental Health Awareness Month: Disturbed (1990)

As the month comes to a close, that means that we must bid adieu to Mental Health Awareness Month. We’ve seen our share of loonies and maniacs, movies where people are being driven mad, those that are far beyond help, and even films calculated to drive the audience nuts. Yet how could I possibly bring this month to a just conclusion without an appearance from one of my favorite actors? When you have a character who needs to be a crazy bastard there’s one name that stands above all the rest, Malcolm McDowell. So, I’m happy to wrap up this month with an obscure pick with a picture that is bound to leave you feeling….
Disturbed (1990) starring Malcolm McDowell, Geoffrey Lewis, Pricilla Pointer, Pamela Gidley, Clint Howard, and Irwin Keyes. Directed by Charles Winkler. 

A woman was raped at Bergen Field Mental Heath Facility, and being unable to deal with the strain, she committed suicide by leaping from the building. Ten years later, pretty Sandy Ramirez (Gidley) is being committed to the same institution, and she is put under the care of Dr. Derrick Russell (McDowell). One night, Dr. Russell takes her from her room, straps her to a table, and injects her with what he believes to be valium. It turns out the injection was filled with penicillin which Sandy is fatally allergic to. With the help of Michael (Lewis), another patient, Dr. Russell tries to cover up the murder by making it look like a suicide. However, the next morning, the body is missing. Things start going bad for the Doctor. Russell begins to have nightmares and suffer from hallucinations, and soon the Doctor becomes crazier than his patients.

Disturbed is a completely underrated and forgotten gem, and if I can bring this film to one person’s attention, then I’m going to be a happy man. While it is no means as good as the high water marks of McDowell’s long and storied career, it does come up an interesting and different twist on a classic theme. In some ways, this psychological tale reminded me of a giallo, and all it really lacked was a few bodies piling up as the Doctor goes round the bend. While Disturbed does not tally a body count, it more than makes up for it with solid performances and some incredible interesting camera work.

Now, for my money, no one can come off as completely bonkers quite as well as Mr. McDowell. Even when he’s not doing anything, he has a natural look that just says crazy. To prove my point all I think I have to do is point to Clockwork Orange, but this is some nineteen years later and gone is the youthful maniacal grin. Instead, we get the middle-aged man coming apart at the seams. As the film progresses and the nefarious Doctor becomes more and more unraveled, McDowell brilliantly amps up his performance. In nearly every consecutive frame, he looks more manic than the last. By the time he’s in the fill throws of some glorious overacting, you’ve been lulled into accepting it.

Plus, McDowell’s larger than life performance fits in perfectly with what amounts to one of the strangest black comedies I’ve ever seen. In the opening scene we see the original rape and the suicide it caused, but as soon as Girdley’s character arrives at the hospital, we are greeted with a cast of patients that is much more Crazy People than Cuckoo’s Nest. While the tone takes a while to get used to, but if you get accustomed to its wind swings between screwball comedy, heavy drama, and tense thrills, you’ll be rewarded. How rewarded you may ask? Try this on for size, a Point of View shot from the perspective of Clint Howard’s penis. Ever seen that in any other film? No, I didn’t think so. If nothing else in this flick puts a smile on your face, then that moment, as quick as it might be, definitely will. 

Seeing from the perspective of Opie’s brother’s junk is not the only time the camera work pays off in this film. As we experience Dr. Russell’s decent into madness, the film is shot in an increasingly bizarre series of shots that reflect Russell’s increasingly paranoid world.  This device works brilliantly, and as the film draws to a close, the viewer is left feeling equally unsettled. Bernd Heinl was the cinematographer, and it’s somewhat disappointing to see his biggest credit is arguably 1991’s Hulk Hogan schlock Suburban Commando. He and director Charles Winkler did a great job getting across the feeling of loosing one’s mind. 

This was only Winkler’s second film, and while his catalog since hasn’t included many notable titles, he did serve as second unit director on the 1981 John Huston soccer/hostage film Victory and 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Winkler also wrote the script to Disturbed, and it is quite something that he penned such a puzzling mystery with such a great part for McDowell. Disturbed is not a one-man show though, and the story is dotted with great character performances. Irwin Keys and Clint Howard both give very entertaining turns as inmates of the asylum, but its Geoffrey Lewis as McDowell’s co-conspirator/patient who almost steals the show. Lewis’ character seems like he just got off the couch in Bob Newhart’s office and showed up in McDowell’s hospital, and he has the ascots to prove it. Something about his performance reminded me of Douglas Fairbanks, and every scene he was in became more enjoyable.

It’s too bad that more people haven’t seen Disturbed. It’s such a strange little piece of work. I really can’t think of another film that I’d even classify as black comedy that includes one rape and one attempted rape, but somehow, and I don’t understand how, Disturbed manages to do it. So seek this one out especially if you’re a fan of McDowell’s. I think it’ll end up being a film that you want to come back to again and show your friends. One last thing, there’s a bit of extra goodness after the credits, and I won’t even hint at the surprise, its well worth staying until the end.

Bugg Rating 
Here's the trailer, but unfortunately I could only find one in spanish.

And One last song to close out the month. I just couldn't resist this Betty Boop version of "Crazy in Love"

1 comment:

  1. Great review.I've always liked Mr.McDowell myself. And I like this film, as you know since I stole it from your Moon Lair!


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