When I first saw the cover for Bedlam, I thought to myself, "Oh, great. Another horror movie set in a mental institution." And that certainly appears to be how the film is being marketed, but it's not really a standard entry in the genre. It's much more.
Set in an Australian mental institution in the Sixties, we are introduced to George Kilner (Guy Edmonds), who suffers from mental illness, possibly due to horrible abuse he suffered as a child and the trauma of his mother's suicide. He voluntarily commits himself to Bedlam Hospital, run by haughty German Dr. Black (Peter McAllum). He soon runs into the other inmates, most of whom are not ‘voluntary commits'. Cutter (Gary Boulter), so called because of his tendency for self-harm, has the cell next to George's. Both George and Cutter are charmed by famous actress Sofia (Cassandra Swaby), who was referred for commitment by her perfidious agent.
Dr. Black's treatments are certainly… interesting, and involve submersion in ice water, electric shocks, etc. Many of the treatments we'd consider to be barbarous today, and some would have been at the time as well if they had been widely known. But the most dehumanizing aspects are probably brought about by the orderlies Keeper (John Boxer) and Sam (Greg Hatton), who delight in brutalizing the inmates, with the tacit approval of Dr. Black.
After his commitment, but despite Dr. Black's treatments not because of them, George has a sort of awakening. In some ways, he comes to terms with his awful past and decides to take responsibility for himself. He'd very much like to leave Bedlam, but soon discovers that it's much easier to check in than to check out.
Bedlam is in many ways an experiential film. It's got plenty of disturbing imagery and situations, and doesn't shy away from the more sordid aspects of the story, but it's also whimsical at times, as with the fake commercials for psychiatric medications that pepper the film. The plot is no great shakes. It's straightforward and almost dull. But the film itself isn't dull. It transcends the mediocre story, mainly, by a very engaging visual style and outstanding performances. Edmonds is great as the tortured man who is afraid of being crazy. Swaby is deliciously manipulative and yet vulnerable. Boulter is wonderfully crazy. And Boxer is possibly the most menacing orderly I've ever seen on film.
Bedlam is incredibly engaging. It's strange, at times arbitrary, beautiful and well made. It is also probably not a horror movie, but will nonetheless appeal to horror fans. Highly recommended.