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.