Technically, the 1975 film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is not a horror film.
Though it may take place in a creepy mental hospital, there are no ghosts or zombies. There’s no masked killer wandering the halls. The shadows do not leap off the walls and there are no ghostly voice in the night, unless you count the rarely heard voice of Will Sampson’s Chief Bromden.
Admittedly, the cast is full of horror and paranormal veterans. Michael Berryman, of the original Hills Have Eyes, plays a patient. Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for playing the role of Nurse Ratched, went on to play intimidating matriarchs in any number of low-budget horror movies. Vincent Schiavelli, a patient in this film, played the angry subway ghost in Ghost. Another patient, Sidney Lassick, played Carrie’s condescending English teacher in Carrie. Brad Dourif, who received an Oscar nomination for playing the meek Billy Bibbit, has become a horror mainstay. Will Sampson appeared in the Poltergeist sequel. Both Scatman Crothers and Jack Nicholson would go on to appear in The Shining.
Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a career criminal who, hoping to get out of prison early, pretends to be mentally ill. He ends up getting sent to an Oregon mental institution, where his rebellious ways upset the administrators while, at the same time, inspiring the patients to actually try to take some control over their lives. The film is, in many ways, a celebration of personal freedom and rebellion. The only catch here is that, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, being a little bit too rebellious can lead to not only electroshock treatment but also a lobotomy. Those in charge have a way of making you permanently compliant.
And really, to me, that’s what makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest a horror film. It’s about the horror of conformity and bureaucracy. The film may start out as something of a comedy and Nicholson brings a devil-may-care attitude to the role of McMurphy but then, eventually, you reach the scene where McMurphy is tied down and given electrical shocks to make him compliant. You reach the scene where Ratched coldly informs Billy Bibbit that she will be telling his mother that Billy lost his virginity to a prostitute and Billy reacts by slicing open his wrists. Finally, you reach the scene where McMurphy returns to the ward having had a bit of his brain removed. In those scenes, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest becomes a horror movie. The monster is not a ghost or a demon or a serial killer. Instead, it’s a system that is determined to squash out any bit of rebellion or free thought.
What makes Nurse Ratched such a great villain is the fact that, as opposed to being some sort of a maniacal force of evil, she’s really just someone doing her job and refusing to question her methods. She’s the ultimate symbol of bland authoritarianism. Her job is to keep the patients from getting out of control and, if that means lobotomizing them and driving one of them to suicide …. well, that’s what she’s going to do. For all the time that Ratched spends talking about therapy, her concern is not “curing” the patients or even helping them reach a point where they can leave the hospital and go one with their lives. Ratched’s concern is keeping everyone in their place. As played by Fletcher, Ratched epitomizes the banality of evil. (That’s one reason why it was so silly for Ryan Murphy to devote his most recent Netflix series to giving her an over-the-top origin story. Ratched is a great villain because she doesn’t have any complex motivations. She’s just doing whatever she has to do to keep control of the people are on her ward. Part of keeping control is not to allow anyone to question her methods. Everyone has had to deal with a Nurse Ratched at some point in the life. With the elections coming up, we’re about to be introduced to whole new collection of Nurse Ratcheds.)
I like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, even though it’s an undeniably dated film. That said, it’s not as dated as the novel on which it’s based, nor is it as appallingly misogynistic. Jack Nicholson’s rough but charismatic performance holds up wonderfully well. (I don’t know if an actor has ever matched a character as perfectly as Nicholson does with McMurphy.) Louise Fletcher brings a steely resolve to the role of Nurse Ratched. Fans of spotting character actors in early roles will probably get a kick out of spotting both Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as patients. The movie skillfully combines drama with comedy and the ending manages to be both melancholy and hopeful.
When it comes to the 1975 Oscar race …. well, I don’t know if I would argue that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win Best Picture over Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, or Barry Lyndon or Jaws. Dog Day Afternoon and Nashville feel as if they were ahead of their time, with their examination of the media and politics. Jaws set the template for almost every blockbuster that would follow and it’s certainly one of the most influential horror films ever made. Barry Lyndon is a stunning technical achievement. Compared to those films, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest seems rather simplistic. Watching it today, you’re very much aware of how much of the film’s power is due to Jack Nicholson’s magnetic screen presence. Nicholson definitely deserved his Oscar but it’s debatable whether or not the same can be said of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a whole.
So no, I wouldn’t necessary say that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the best of the films nominated that year. Still, it’s an entertaining film and a helluva ride. It’s a great film to watch whenever you’re sick of faceless bureaucrats trying to tell you what to do. And, in its own odd way, it’s a great film for Halloween season.