Isn't it interesting how, when critics and scholars lament the long lost extinct cinematic genres, no one cries for horror? The musical, reinvented via Moulin Rouge and in flux thanks to Chicago is now seen as saved. Amazing how an Oscar can help a film type make a minor and much welcome comeback. A certain Peter Jackson rescued fantasy from the fiery pits, if only to usurp it for himself once and for all. Even the Western, long thought buried by the modern mindset and given a proper eulogy by Clint Eastwood's brilliant Unforgiven is poking its head out of the sod surrounding its gravestone and gasping for new life. But it seems like no one mourns the slow, sad terminal toxicity of the fright flick. There are no political action groups like P.E.T.A., Amnesty International or the W.W.F. looking out for the endangered species that is the standard scary film. Turned into ironic retardation by the Scream series, perverted by jagged joyless Japanese unease like Ringu and, for the most part, relegated to retreads ala 2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre redux and 2004's Dawn of the Dead do over, today's terror tales are comatose, living off a life support of goodwill that is just one more Darkness Falls away from having the plug pulled. Lacking a new voice or vision to repair its prominence and solely subsisting off of the inventiveness of independent filmmakers channeling their own creature feature madness, there still seems to be a lot of backwards glancing (i.e. the rush to remake) for inspiration. The Asylum, a British production from 2000, clamors for recognition as a return to the very roots of UK horror; a much hallowed honor held by Hammer, and to some extent, Amicus. But just like with most attempts to redefine the past for the acceptance of the present, this slow, stogy film is unsuccessful. It can't live up to its famous inspiration.
Jenny is a troubled young woman. She suffers from horrible nightmares where she witnesses (and, perhaps, even participates) in the death of her mother. Her psychiatrist father - a distant, demanding man – is desperate to cure her. After another sleepless night, Jenny has an idea. She will return to the asylum where she and her sister lived as children. Her father was on staff at the facility and it is the place where her mother was brutally slaughtered. As she and her friend William travel to the isolated and abandoned facility, a strange set of phenomenon occurs across London: a bogus psychic starts to see real visions: a priest is beset by his own horrible hallucinations; a drug addict is compelled to leave his squat and head out into the night. All end up at the decaying sanitarium as if called by some unsettled spirit inside. But there is more than painful memories waiting in the crocked corridors of this ancient edifice. A killer is on the prowl; apparently trying, after all these years, to tie up loose ends over Jenny's mother's death. As the reminiscences renew and the blood flows, the answers as to what happened are far from straight forward...and are very deadly.
When it begins, The Asylum has lots of Hammer homage promise. For the first 30 minutes, the style and substance of what is suggested through directorial tricks and incomplete images intrigues and engulfs us. We slowly begin to feel stifled and under suspicion. Suspense builds along our nerve endings. The threads of plot begin to unravel and re-weave themselves into something more sinister, more maniacal. We are actually starting to feel the same sense of unease as the characters. But once the 31st minute begins and we are locked inside the title terrain, the whole movie goes hideously wrong. What once was a promising psychological thriller with gothic horror overtones turns into a dumb, dull slasher film with a mystery killer, a bunch of bone-headed victims and a lot of incoherent plot padding. By the time we reach the B. F. Skinner on steroids ending, with its suggested brainwashing, Clockwork Orange cinema set and Haight Asbury light show, any attempt to get back on the terror track is for naught. The Asylum has already lost us and all we care about is leaving this rotting Rococo hospital and seeing the light of day again. The best way to describe this stumbling, pseudo anxiety film is that it is a mystery in which the solution is not worth knowing. It's not so much a 'who-done-it' as a 'who-didn't-do-it'.
Perhaps the reason The Asylum fails is because it is too tame for 2004 tastes. We are a society binge drinking on death and debauchery, so a polite little exercise in extended dread featuring a crazy person and her trip to an abandoned loony bin that used to be her home just doesn't resonate with sexy potential. Unless Angelina Jolie smacks her overripe lips and acts all goofy, we could care less about the now antiquated notion of a nuthouse. Only MTV and its once so-hot-it-smoldered fright factor television tease Fear could make an abandoned booby hatch seem sinister. So even with Steffanie Pitt and her aging scream queen mother Ingrid (famed for her turns in The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula) along for the electro shock sordidness, The Asylum is lumbering and dull. Like Session 9, it hopes that the tortured, uneasy spirits of those real residents once held inside the faux frightening funny farm will infuse the frame with unbridled terror. But unless you are an urban spelunker, the kind of crazy person who explores abandoned buildings and factories like an industrial Indiana Jones, the actual location used in The Asylum (with some set substitutions here and there) will prove underwhelming. Just like the rest of the movie, the idea of using the dilapidated institution was something that seemed great in theory, but is rendered routine in practice.
Then there is the whole Fortnight the 13th angle, where a mysterious murderer is lurking the shadows, knife at the ready, just itching to do a little pre-holidays carving. The Asylum never prepares you for this predatory possibility. Indeed, it keeps threatening to turn supernatural at any moment, opening up the likelihood that a pissed off poltergeist is behind all the visions and vivisection. It wouldn't be the first time that some spook showed up in the pragmatic plane and opened a can of whoop ass on those that wronged him/her/it. But again, The Asylum is not ingenious enough to make this manner of monster movie. It believes that the current crop of horror fans have been raised on enough Freddy vs. Jason vs. Absurdity abuses to buy almost any awkward consecutive massacre scenario. Just keep the characters in the dark, provide an appropriately hooded figure complete with weapon of cast destruction and then turn on the cat and mouse machine. So that's what The Asylum does. It tosses its atmospheric, speculative nature into the toilet for a little victim ventilating. And it's not even good gouging. Most horror happenings know that you have to show the claret to keep the kids creeped out. But most of the killings occur in cutaways (or even – God forbid – OFFSCREEN!) and the resulting carnage veiled in oblique angles and artistic temperament. Someone should have told the filmmakers that, if they're going to slice and dice, we ought to see the craven condiments pouring out of the victims. But, again, it's all part of The Asylum's docile dominion of darkness.
But perhaps the real grounds for The Asylum's collapse is that it doesn't really know what story it wants to focus on. There are three separate narrative threads unscrambling in this strange story line and each could have been effective had they been explored properly. For 30 minutes we have Jenny's mental freak-out, an 'is she crazy or is she sane' set up for some manner of major revelation. Then we get to the asylum and the movie goes Voorhees for 50 minutes. In the final 20 minutes, we are introduced to the whole brain-bending Pavlov's Cineplex. This is the most messed up portion of the film, a place where all the ancillary characters that seemed to merely be murderous fiend fodder are gathered together, tenuously linked and then forced to labor like lap dogs for a very unsatisfying (and telegraphed almost two hours ago) ending. Obviously, the filmmakers hoped that the fractious finale on the rooftop would act as punctuation (namely a question mark) on the end of its fright farewell, leaving us wondering just what had happened. But this is not The Sixth Sense we are talking about, or some carefully crafted configuration in which, if you pay close attention, all the clues would collide into each other and make some manner of fulfilling finish. The Asylum may have such lofty goals, but it can't achieve them. Just like the rest of the narrative, the Alex DeLarge droogy drug/cinema experiments that set this whole hopeless plot into motion are ill defined and half-baked.
Stylistically, The Asylum has its interesting attributes. Director John Stewart (no, not the Comedy Central icon) uses his training as a cinematographer to make the movie at least look good. His visual style seems trapped in a universe dominated by references to Dario Argento, EC comics and old Amicus productions. He uses bright lights, splashes of primary colors and a healthy dose of moodiness thinking it will payoff in big boo potential. Sometimes, the steals are too obvious (the little girl killer at the beginning is far too reminiscent of Deep Red's classic opening) and Argento's Inferno seems to be the reference blueprint for many of the ideas here. And since Stewart is no Mediterranean maestro of the macabre, all his Technicolor terror is just distracting. As for the performers, the Pitts do a nice job of instilling a little emotion into this rather tepid production, but Steffanie throws perhaps one too many hissy fits here. We know she is disturbed by her memories and nightmares, but do we have to have this idea repeated several times? Fans of Dr. Who should look for a far more portly Colin Baker (he of the amazing rainbow coat version of the doctor) as a sleazy real estate mogul and Robin Askwith (Horror Hospital) does a nice job as the jittery junkie Neville. It's a far cry from the saucy slapstick his Timothy Lea character experienced in all those Confessions films. But there are some individuals that are not clearly defined. Terry Taplin's deformed priest, Fr. Matthew, is just insane for the sake of craziness and Patrick Mower's Dr. Adams is a schizophrenic plot device, acting whatever way the narrative requires him to.
Added together, we get a better picture of why The Asylum slips. It's a paranormal thriller without the ghost or the jolts. It's a 80s style slasher flick that has to import characters into its setting so that there are more potential victims. It has a premise built partly on memories and mostly on the standard mystery but can't get the two to coagulate together into a decent story. And when it lays on the grue, it's in teaspoons, not blood buckets. You can give this mediocre mess points for trying, but the end result is unsatisfying; perhaps more so because it began with promise and presence. For 30 minutes it worked quite well. But somewhere within the first half hour of action, The Asylum got scared that it couldn't deliver for its entire running time and it balked, taking with it much of the macabre magic it had built up.
Pathfinder presents The Asylum in a 1.33:1 full frame transfer that is heavy on the blacks and shadows. The film itself is occasionally too dark, lingering in dim night scenes and lightless corridors. But there are still the occasional bright colors and hot hues (and even some post-production manipulation of saturation) to broaden the picture pallet. Even with all these potential problem areas, the image never flares or flounders. While it is not reference quality, it is still a nice cinematic image.
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 usually translates into uninteresting audio and this is the case for The Asylum. No attempt has been made to enhance the mood with channel action or immersive atmosphere. All you get is music and dialogue and that's it.
A similar slim pickings ideal permeates the DVD bonus content. The Extras include onscreen essays and an interview with director Stewart. His love of old horror is honorable, but he does little to sell us on his movie or his vision of classic terror. The trailer trades on the moody menace of the abandoned Asylum, but also makes the movie seem more plausible than it really is. Along with a still gallery, this paltry presentation leaves a lot to be desired.
In the on-going bereavement for the horror film, one should perhaps look at movies like The Asylum as being guilty, or at least complicit, in the struggling mortality of the genre. Instead of being infused with the great ambiance of its location and smart in its focus on unknown evil, it is confused as to what story to focus on and farts most of its fear into the ether. You know a film is in trouble when, having killed off two of the three people in its single setting, it has to find a completely convoluted reason to import more characters to the location, simply to murder them off. Had it stayed on the crazy child scenario, allowing the terror to stem from the secrets buried in Jenny's brain, or maybe if it explored the hospital as a realm of unreality, then perhaps The Asylum would be a worthwhile entry in the rebirth of horror. But as it stands, what we get is a sloppy and stupid attempt at recapturing the old ways of reserved English eeriness and the results are lamentable. Nothing is more disappointing to a fright fan than a potentially decent diversion going horrible wrong... and boring. Purposeful ambiguousness is perfectly acceptable in a scare show. But to simply allow your film to meander out of control on the mistaken belief that you are mimicking the classics of the past is just pathetic. While not totally unwatchable, The Asylum blithers like the idiots it's empty room once held. Not even a lobotomy could make this movie meaningful.
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