Back in 1964, critics didn't really know what to make of Denis Sanders's Shock Treatment. Most dismissed it as a strange, unsuccessful melodrama, and co-star Lauren Bacall (who only signed on to work with her pal Roddy McDowall) reportedly felt embarrassed to have it on her resume. In the decades that followed, the film faded into obscurity.
The movie's date of production, though, is significant. Not a year earlier, Samuel Fuller had helmed the hit Shock Corridor for Allied Artists, with a similar title and premise. Some may have been quick to misinterpret the Sanders picture as 20th Century Fox's thinly-veiled big studio ripoff of the Fuller, but if one goes back and revisits Treatment with fresh eyes, it more closely resembles a nutty parody of Shock Corridor, Bedlam, and other earnest thrillers about institutionalization. Were Sanders, producer Aaron Rosenberg, and screenwriter Sydney Boehm intentionally going for humor? Who knows. But this movie has more big laughs in it - macabre, jet-black ones - than most pictures that come openly billed as comedies. From the opening sequence - where McDowall's cracked gardener beheads an old woman with a pair of hedgeclippers and later informs officers that he spent the next two hours doing her makeup - the film declares its willingness to be outrageous, and repeatedly goes over the top so often that it begins to play as a devilishly clever genre satire in the vein of Beat the Devil and The Long Goodbye. Alongside the humor, though, Treatment also works with surprising effectiveness as a legitimate thriller; we get drawn into the premise of a sane man (Stuart Whitman) trapped into a mental institution, and find ourselves hooked on the outcome of the character's attempted escape. Sanders plays his hand well, building the suspense to a taut level as he only gradually reveals to us just how encaged Whitman's character has become by the administrator of the local insane asylum (Bacall).
What emerges from the union of elements in this movie is a rarity: a slightly tongue-in-cheek shocker that goes a long way toward redeeming the idea of watching what is basically trashy exploitation. Sanders may build the picture from sleazy tabloid material, but he keeps the material buoyant and entertaining, enabling us to watch it without feeling depressed or debauched. Also to the movie's credit, the lead actors deliver A1 performances across the board. This is particularly true of Bacall - a bit past her prime in 1964 -- who should be lauded for playing B-grade material so effectively. Equally impressive are Ossie Davis, as a kindly mental patient, and Carol Lynley, who shines in a sweet and sympathetic role as a troubled young girl who becomes romantically involved with Whitman's character. Lynley's fans might take note of this little picture; it isn't nearly as well known or as critically championed as her 1965 picture Bunny Lake Is Missing, but on a cruder, coarser level, this is a much more enjoyable outing.