Asylum (1997)



Only at Horror Movie A Day can a man have to suffer through two dull “sane person solves a murder from inside an institution” movies in one week. Just days after Gothika - the bulk of which has already evaporated from my brain - we have Asylum, one of the 596 movies with that title – in fact it was so confusing that Netflix doesn’t even have it under the right cast/year information. According to them, I’d be watching the Amicus anthology from 1972 starring Peter Cushing, but instead I got this, a poorly structured and ill-advised blend of a typical horror thriller and some sort of K-Pax/Cuckoo’s Nest style drama.

Now, maybe someone can make this concept work. There’s nothing wrong with actually having some character drama in a horror film in theory, but the problem is you need to have an extremely great script to pull it off. The script for Asylum, on the other hand, is barely competent at times. For example, at one point hero Robert Patrick is put in a straitjacket and tossed into a “white room”, the type of thing one would have no means of escaping from. Except there’s a giant vent flap on the wall that barely seems to be attached at all, let alone secured, which allows Malcolm McDowell (a guy who lives in the walls and pops up with some frequency, yet no one besides Patrick seems to notice him) to just mosey on through and lead him to freedom.

Speaking of McDowell, throughout the film he talks to Patrick while wearing what is obviously a wig, with the lower half of his face covered with a surgical mask. And also, throughout the film Patrick finds WANTED ads of a regular looking McDowell, who is believed to be a killer. Yet it’s not until McDowell removes the wig and mask that Patrick is able to comprehend that it’s the same guy. Now, I am unsure if we are supposed to be surprised along with Patrick, or if it’s supposed to be obvious to us all along, but either way this is a massive failure. Either you think the audience is really stupid or you’re depicting your hero (a private investigator, mind you – someone who should be able to see through even well thought out bullshit, never mind a two dollar wig) as a fucking idiot. Maybe this would work on paper, but when you have the visual of a very distinguished looking actor, it wouldn't even pass in a Scooby-Doo movie.

We also have to buy that Patrick is able to enter the hospital on three separate occasions with three different “disguises” (i.e. a mustache) without anyone besides two of the mental patients able to recognize him. Basically, with plot points this ridiculous, it is impossible to take the movie seriously, which is a problem when a good chunk of it is devoted to heartwarming” scenes of Patrick helping his fellow patients deal with their issues, because he CARES, dammit, unlike the bureaucratic hospital staff. So when one guy begins freaking out and throwing furniture around because he refuses to take his pills, the staff all panics or stands around doing nothing, but Patrick knows to simply grab the microphone for the PA and speak in the voice of God (said patient is a religious type), commanding him to take his pills. Problem solved, and they even toss in some wannabe Shawshank Redemption score for added effect. So the only guy who knows how to handle a patient is someone who’s been there for three days and can’t even recognize a Walmart brand wig when he sees it?

The movie also falls victim to that old problem of casting a well known actor in a seemingly pointless role, making it obvious that he’s the killer after an hour goes by and he still hasn’t been given anything to do. I guess we’re supposed to think it’s McDowell, but in fact it’s Henry Gibson, sporting a silly German accent and appearing in two scenes (one wordless) prior to the big shocking reveal that he’s the guy that’s been kidnapping patients and trying out his experimental drug on them, which leaves them susceptible to suggestion (i.e. “put that gun in your mouth and pull the trigger”). Apparently he wants to use it to help people quit smoking and such (he also mentions birth control – how the fuck would that work? “Don’t get pregnant!”), which isn’t exactly the most evil plan in the world. If you’re going to have a “noble villain”, he needs to be in the movie more often, and reach a point where his methods become too insane for anyone to go along with him. Instead, he just tells us what he’s up to (a good idea, technically) and then Patrick kills him. Uh... OK?

It doesn’t help that he doesn’t take out anyone we give a shit about. Patrick goes to the institute because his doctor was killed and made to look like a suicide, but we only saw the guy once before that and he’s not a beloved actor that we can project our sympathy onto and thus care that he’s dead (it’s similar to Color Of Night in that regard, but it worked because we love Scott Bakula). Then the killer takes two random patients we have no affinity toward, giving Patrick very little drive to get to the bottom of it. He starts to care about a female patient, and saves her from the killer, but then she tries to kill herself due to other issues, so that’s a dead end too. Patrick also defends an obnoxious goon who thinks he’s a superhero, but that guy never comes into any danger whatsoever. Having the killer take out one or both of these folks would have elevated the suspense and helped us invest more into Patrick’s attempt to stop him, but we never get that sort of “shit got real” moment.

I’ve also never seen a horror/thriller type movie with as awkward a first reel as this one. In the first scene Patrick is in some acting class, pretending to be suicidal, only for his coach/us to discover he’s not really acting – the gun was real and loaded. Patrick then stumbles out of the class and we go to credits, which at least inform us that we’re watching a serial killer movie with a bunch of shots of blood and newspaper clippings and such. And then all of a sudden we see Patrick as a hobo taking pictures of a guy that’s scamming his insurance company or something, at which point we discover he’s a private investigator. OK, so was he just acting in that first scene too? He seems pretty well adjusted now, so how could he be suicidal? Then we learn his feelings come and go, which just seems to be a lazy storytelling decision that allows him to function normally most of the time and then go off the deep end whenever the story was getting boring. It’s just really awkward, but it also foreshadows the movie that follows: it actually seems to suffer from multiple personality disorder with a bit of amnesia for good measure.

And seriously, can we put the “Asylum” title to rest? It’s not even a particularly interesting title.

What say you?

P.S. I couldn't find the trailer, so just watch this, as it depicts a different, better kind of insanity:

1 comment:

  1. The Netflix listing for this is WRONG?? I was really looking forward to catching the Amicus anthology again...


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget