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In Theaters/On VOD: STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

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STONEHEARST ASYLUM
(US - 2014)

Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Joe Gangemi. Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Flemyng, Sinead Cusack, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Guillaume Delaunay, Edmund Kingsley. (PG-13, 112 mins)

With the release of his 1998 breakthrough NEXT STOP WONDERLAND, director Brad Anderson was the latest in a seemingly endless parade of Miramax's Next Big Thing wunderkinds in the '90s indie-film explosion. But the field got far too crowded to compete and since 2001's SESSION 9, Anderson has been known primarily as a suspense and/or horror filmmaker when he wasn't paying the bills by taking TV directing gigs on shows like THE WIRE, FRINGE, TREME, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE. THE MACHINIST (2004) and TRANSSIBERIAN (2008) earned Anderson significant acclaim if not mainstream success, and after misfiring with the terrible VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (2011), he rebounded with his first box office hit, the Halle Berry suspense thriller THE CALL (2013), which opened strong before falling apart and turning into a stupid revenge thriller. Anderson's latest film is the intriguing STONEHEARST ASYLUM, dumped in six US cities and on VOD by Cannon cover band Millennium with the opening credits still sporting--at least in the VOD edition--its original title, ELIZA GRAVES, which is a telling indication of how much support the film is getting from its distributor.


There's a generic "Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe" credit and STONEHEARST uses the writer's 1845 short story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" as a starting point before venturing off on its own path. Poe's story, with its inmates-running-the-asylum twist, isn't enough to sustain a feature-length film, though there have been direct adaptations like Juan Lopez Moctezuma's THE MANSION OF MADNESS, aka DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON (1973) and Jan Svankmajer's LUNACY (2005), and the idea has turned up in various films over the years, such as the anthologies ASYLUM (1972) and TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), not to mention a kickass 1976 jam by The Alan Parsons Project. Scripted by Joe Gangemi, who also wrote 2007's effective and little-seen WIND CHILL, Anderson's film takes place in the late 1890s, with Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arriving at the titular location in the middle of nowhere in rural England. He hopes to gain clinical, hands-on experience as an alienist--a specialist in asylum medication--and is to work under the facility's superintendent Dr. Silas Lamb (Anderson's TRANSSIBERIAN co-star Ben Kingsley). Almost all of Lamb's patients come from the aristocracy, dumped at the asylum by their prominent families and promptly forgotten as embarrassments and outcasts with such afflictions as epilepsy, "incurable homosexuality," and chronic masturbation ("I've never seen the harm in chronic masturbation," Lamb concedes in one of the film's numerous bits of dark humor). Lamb's unorthodox treatment of his patients allows them to basically roam free inside the facility, with close supervision by his strong-arm, Mickey Finn (David Thewlis). The sympathetic Newgate takes particular interest in the beautiful Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), committed to Stonehearst by her father after she attacked her abusive husband, gouging out an eye and biting off an ear. Eliza claims she's not insane and Newgate believes her, but he stumbles onto a bigger problem when he discovers filthy, malnourished prisoners being kept in a dungeon underneath Stonehearst. The leader of these prisoners identifies himself as Dr. Salt (Michael Caine), and claims to be the real superintendent of Stonehearst Asylum, explaining that Lamb led a revolt among the inmates and took over, imprisoning Salt and the staff in the secret dungeon.


And with that, STONEHEARST ASYLUM is about 1/3 over and it's done with what it's going to use from Poe's story. The rest is a mostly enjoyable, old-school, atmospheric gothic chiller that suffers from a muddled, draggy middle as it stretches to nearly two hours. In keeping with the flavor of the Poe adaptations from the 1960s, this could've easily lost 20-25 minutes and been a much more efficient and effective work. Once Newgate is convinced of what Salt is telling him, Anderson and Gangemi spend far too much time with Newgate dithering around with Eliza (despite her top billing, Beckinsale is really a supporting character here, which may not have been the original intention considering it was once called ELIZA GRAVES and technically still is) and trying to convince Lamb and Finn that he's not on to them. The story takes a few genuinely unpredictable turns, such as the rationale behind Lamb's overthrow of Salt and his staff, and a twist at the end that's very well-executed even though you can more or less see something coming, as there is one very familiar and busy character actor in the cast that you know must serve more of a purpose than his one brief scene at the very beginning. STONEHEARST ASYLUM makes very good use of its dark, foreboding sets, looking very much like an old-fashioned mid '60s or early '70s period horror where you can imagine any combination of gents like Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee in the roles played by Kingsley and Caine (how can you not love seeing those two working together?), with Patrick Troughton, Nigel Green, or Oliver Reed in Thewlis' role and Robert Powell, Ralph Bates, or Ian Ogilvy in place of Sturgess. Given the shoddy nature of most Millennium joints, STONEHEARST could've easily turned out like one of those numerous T&A-filled dueling Poe revivals that Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers were cranking out in the late '80s. Surprisingly, despite shooting in Bulgaria and listing Avi Lerner as an executive producer (Mel Gibson also has a producer credit), it turned out looking quite classy for the most part. Even the visual effects and greenscreen work, done by the Swedish company Filmgate instead of Lerner's usual Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX, are well above average for a Millennium production.


As evidenced by its scant distribution, there isn't much of a market for STONEHEARST ASYLUM in today's multiplexes. It's too restrained and low-key for the Halloween crowd and not serious enough for the arthouse, but a film like this is a welcome respite from the quick-cut, shaky-cam histrionics of today's horror scene. Sturgess and Beckinsale are good, and Caine is terrific in his few scenes as the harumphing head doc trapped in a prison of his own making, but it's Kingsley who steals the film, attacking his role with gusto but holding it at just the point where one step further would take him into hammy overacting. If only its midsection weren't so lethargic and plodding, Anderson might've had a really nifty little throwback gem here. It's not scary as much as it's ominous and moody, but as it is, it's well-acted, handsomely put together, and entertaining enough that die-hard devotees of Poe, AIP, 1960s Hammer (with touches of the opulent Italian castle horrors of the likes of Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti), and 1970s Amicus will probably get more out of it than the casual moviegoer in search of cheap jump scares.



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