Friday, July 11, 2008

ASYLUM (2007) d. David R. Ellis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the rites of passage as a child is being asked “what you want to be when you grow up”, and then pursuing that question through life until you reach some kind of goal. When asking that question of a very young child, no one in their right mind expects an answer that will be reflected in what you really achieve 20 or more years down the line, nor does the questioner expect you to already have a plan mapped out. Eventually, you have to make a clear choice and follow some kind of clear plan, the best plans being ones where you blend a little good advice with your own original thoughts to reach a destination that is yours alone. A good film has to make a clear choice as to what it wants to be, and the best films blend inspiration and originality to become something sensational and satisfying. If a movie doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be and follows a plan that is horrendously derivative, it may arrive at a conclusion once the path has been followed, but it won’t be its own creation and it won’t be rewarding. Such is the case with ASYLUM, which had some very positive elements but struggled with a lot of troubling issues which led to cinematic schizophrenia and severe neuroses due to overbearing “parents” looking over its shoulder as it developed.

ASYLUM is the story of college coed Madison and her dorm mates Tommy, String, Holt, Maya and Ivy, who arrive for opening weekend and orientation at Richard Miller University and move into the newly renovated North Hall of what used to be the Burke Building, a one time Insane Asylum and medical facility for the mentally ill. Each of the students has deeply buried secrets and fears, but none more than Madison, who comes from a family torn apart by insanity and suicide. It isn’t long before Madison begins seeing eerie sights and she experiences frightening visions, most of which cause her to question her state of mind. Soon, all of Madison’s friends are fighting against a force that seems bent on smashing their psyches, ripping their flesh and shredding their souls. Madison’s only hope is to confront this evil head on before she becomes its next victim.

The great tragedies of ASYLUM is that it may be one of the best looking mainstream, direct-to-dvd, “Big Movie House” films I’ve seen in a while. At no time in this motion picture was there any assault to the eyes caused by the “shakey cam plague”, nor was there an apocalypse of rapidly edited sequences that moved so fast nothing could be ascertained. Neither was there a descent into darkness so deep that I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on. None of these banes to modern film making occurred, and as a result, I could enjoy this film on a visual level to a great degree. Even the soundtrack had some bouncy, airy but pleasant songs to go with the lighter moments and some innocuous metal and spooky orchestral accompaniment at the scarier parts. At least it wasn’t rap! Sadly, one visual error was peopling the cinematic canvas with impossibly good looking principal characters and even the extras looked like they stepped off the set of The O.C. or some other absurdly hip and hot TV show. While I can’t deny the appeal of the “eye candy”, it keeps me from getting in the mood of a horror film, and as any connoisseur can tell you, atmosphere is essential. It isn’t just the perfect teeth, superb legs and incredible hairdos that keep the right mood from being developed, it is a problem with multiple personalities and an inability to grow past the influence of its “parents” that cripples ASYLUM.

Director David R. Ellis brought us FINAL DESTINATION 2, and one of the reasons that film was enjoyable was that it “went for broke” right out of the gate. While it was a “horror” movie, the death scenes were so wonderfully over the top and outlandish, that FINAL DESTINATION 2 was just as much an action/comedy as it was a horror movie, and for that I gave it high marks. ASYLUM never chose a clear path and as a result, it meandered through the wilderness of subgenres, thoroughly unclear of its purpose. Part of the problem was its derivative nature. At the start, the initial premise seemed to combine the ideas of POLTERGEIST and the 1999 remake of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL: new building renovated on the site of violence and death disturbing the “spirits” and evil doctor haunting the creepy halls of his “practice” and seeking vengeance after his brutal demise. Even if ASYLUM had continued down a derivative path and mined these too oft used plot ideas, at least it would have gained some clear direction and momentum. As the movie progressed, it took on aspects of the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET flicks and the FINAL DESTINATION films, as the death scenes became more grandiose and absurd and as the evil Dr. Burke’s killing repartee and monologues consistently sounded more and more like Freddy Krueger. To make matters worse, there was a district aroma (or odor) of The O.C. or any other glamorous teen melodrama you can name. While getting inside the secrets of the characters made sense, too much of their interaction and interplay was mindless and superfluous flummery created for titillation purposes and nothing else. Beyond being repulsive archetypes of the “Beverly Hills” set, even the characters’ names were horrifically trendy. Once again, had ASYLUM chosen what it wanted to be in its essential stages of creation, it wouldn’t have ended up as warped as it did and in need of analysis. Possibly even more detrimental to its development, it often felt like “the suits” were standing over the film makers, forcing them to “paint by numbers” and adding in marketing devices and other forced story telling that ruined the originality of this film. As we all know, when a parent lives their child’s life for them, the kid is going to be “messed up”.

To make matters worse, the characters themselves were a perfect example of multiple personality disorder. From the serious side of the affected brain (ala HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) were Madison played by Sarah Roemer and Holt played by Jake Muxworthy. Both actors tried to create earnest, thoughtful and sympathetic characters, flawed by tragedy and working toward resolution. Both gave sincere performances. From the sillier side of the twisted mind were Tommy played by Travis Van Winkle and Rez played by Randall Sims. If both of these actors were trying to create a dynamic mass of irritating energy building a thermonuclear reaction of sheer idiocy, they succeeded brilliantly, and that is probably the case. Under other circumstances, their performances might have been wonderfully comedic and have been a great benefit to a screenplay. In this situation, they were the infantile anti-matter to the common matter that was Madison and Holt, and we all know what happens when matter and anti-matter come into contact. Every time the serious characters tried to divert this film the silly ditch and pull the characters stuck in the “no-man’s land” between the poles towards the real horror world this film should have lived in, Tommy and Rez would use their electro-magnetic powers of stupidity attraction and yank the film with overwhelming force back to its helpless “middle of the stream” drifting. I can’t honestly remember ever seeing a movie so deeply divided against itself, and as President Lincoln warned, no house (or mind) can stand in such a situation.

The final insult to injury was a disc that started with three auto-play trailers and then took you to a main menu that had no extras! How many times must I screech about this, but ANY dvd must have a little something. Since director David R. Ellis has a reasonable pedigree, a commentary track or short interview featurette should have been forthcoming. Some of the actors like Sarah Roemer have had some success in other films and probably have some interesting anecdotes about the production process. Even a short piece on the setting of this film in South Carolina and the grounds that were used would have been a good idea. One of the strengths of this film was a nice mix of appealing interior and exterior sets. Whether it was the fault of the production company, the releasing company, both or some other villain, whether it’s a good or bad film, some extras are always advisable, especially if it is a disappointing effort. There is no question that after I’ve watched a film that didn’t impress, I generally feel more kindly towards it if I’ve heard the thoughts of cast and crew about their experiences. I feel a sense of connection to their efforts and an even deeper sense of goodwill towards the people who made sure those stories was told.

One of the most difficult aspects of psychology is seeing beneath the apparently healthy surface to the internal illness that needs treatment. Once a diagnosis has been made, the healing can begin. Despite its glittering beauty and glamorous appeal, ASYLUM has some serious problems lurking just below the waterline. Whether these issues stem from a troubled start in the film world or a painful developmental stage during cinematic adolescence is not entirely clear, but the outcome is a specimen that does not know where it wants to go or how to get there, and the result is stagnation. ASYLUM would have probably benefited from early intervention to keep “the suits” from stunting its growth and/or counseling to determine its schizophrenia and to prescribe the necessary therapeutic protocols to address its needs. Whatever the reason, a lack of professional attention doomed a promising addition to the motion picture canon did not realize its full potential and will probably need some form of theatrical hospitalization.

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