Taking Over the Asylum

Against my better judgement, in the aftermath of Christmas I had a weekend of horror movies set in asylums.

Asylum Erotica (1971)

It stars Klaus Kinski and was made the year before Aguirre, Wrath of God, so how bad could it be? Answer – it’s bloody dreadful. Kinski is a doctor at an asylum where, despite some of the patients being borderline homicidal, there are medieval weapons arrayed on the walls in the common room where they all gather. The female patients are all obsessed with sex, though only one of them is actually diagnosed with nymphomania, and so there is endless moving from one bedroom to another, with gratuitous nudity and the obligatory lesbian scene. Into this volatile mix insert one sociopath, who has absolutely no trouble getting inside the building, wanders around freely, and commits his murders with the weapons conveniently displayed on the wall. At the risk of giving a spoiler, the killer is actually the husband of one patient who is looking to cover his tracks by indiscriminate slaughter, though in a final, rather nasty scene, he goes completely insane and lashes about him with a mace. To make matters worse, it appears to have been filmed by an idiot cameraman, one who has no idea of how a scene will be rendered on the screen, so that two people are talking and the camera is focused on their kneecaps or the sides of their faces (curiously, or perhaps not, this problem isn’t evident when nudity is involved). Poor Kinski looks like he’s thinking about the fee, and for that I can’t blame him, as he can’t have had any other reason to get involved with this nonsense.

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Remake of the Vincent Price ‘classic’ from 1959, with the action transferred from an actual ‘haunted’ house to an abandoned asylum, where the inmates slaughtered the staff (who were begging for it anyway). Geoffrey Rush is amusement park owner Stephen Price (and he appears to be channelling Vincent) who invites a bunch of strangers to an all night party, with the survivors collecting $1m apiece, only somebody or something has meddled with his guest list. Price suspects his wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen), but we’ve seen the trailer and we know there’s more to it than that. All that remains to be seen is who will make it through to dawn, why these people are here and how badly they’ll die. The original movie, complete with such ludicrous ploys as a skeleton on strings, had a certain naïve charm to it, not to mention Price’s polished, urbane performance. This one goes all out on the splatter effects, the opening flashback setting the tone with scenes of inmates killing the asylum staff, taking the time to strip the young and attractive nurses (a sure sign of madness, or simple exploitation by the film’s makers). There’s a good idea here, but it gets smothered by the ethos of violent death and blood money shots, so that the end result feels like somebody took a plate of nouveau cuisine and threw a bucket of rat’s intestines over it on the grounds that more is better. Geoffrey Rush’s next film was also set in an asylum, the wonderful if somewhat inaccurate Sade biopic Quills, so maybe he thought of this as a dummy run.

Session 9 (2001)

And after those two damp squibs, we have Brad Anderson’s truly creepy story of a hazmat firm working in the abandoned Danvers mental hospital (since demolished, I believe). There’s tension between the various team members. Boss Gordon (Peter Mullan) is cracking under the combined strain of business pressures and sleeplessness brought on by a new baby. Phil (David Caruso) is out of sorts with colleague Hank, who is now shacked up with his former girlfriend and takes every opportunity to rub his nose in this, and he may also be dealing drugs. Mike is fascinated by some old tapes he discovers, the discourse of a violent inmate with a split personality, and cops off to play them whenever he can. And then there’s the hospital itself, a brooding presence that acts as another cast member, its deserted corridors and rooms pregnant with the memories of what took place there, and waiting to give birth to something monstrous. And something monstrous is what we get, though also something obviously fallible and human. This is a story of broken lives, personalities breaking under pressure, with each scene adding cumulatively to the sense of something outside of these people, something that preys on ‘the weak and the wounded’, even if it is only an aspect of ourselves. I loved it.

Of course my favourite film set in a mental hospital is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

What’s yours?

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