Tuesday, July 8, 2008

INSANITARIUM (2008) d. Jeff Buhler

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Horror films come in all shapes and sizes, mixing genre and subgenre, blending styles and substance and pushing boundaries or mining traditions. One of the most common elements of greatness by which all horror films are measured is how frightening they are, but that is often achieved through subtlety. Whether a horror flick starts off somewhat quietly like William Castle’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or there is an initial shock to the system to set a hook like John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, great horror movies proceed subtly towards their climax, building tension, suspense, imagery and character development. By the end, what emerges is a satisfying experience where a view has been lead from point A to point B in a way that leaves them feeling like they got what they wanted. Too many films today start off with too many shocks and are left with an empty well from which to draw or they have to go above and beyond the initial scares into realms of deepening depravity and misery. INSANITARIUM, starring Desperate Housewives’ Jesse Metcalfe is a grisly shocker that puts too many eggs in its basket to begin with, forcing it to overload the basket in such a way that a bloody mess ensues.

INSANITARIUM is the story of Jack (Jesse Metcalfe) who willing arranges to be committed to an insane asylum so as to locate and rescue his emotionally disturbed sister Lily, played by Kiele Sanchez. Once inside the asylum, Jesse is subjected to one horrifying incident after another and soon realizes that the director, Dr. Gianetti (Peter Stormare) and his assistant Vera Downing (Carla Gallo) are involved in terrifying human experiments. Jesse soon enlists the aid of fellow inmate Dave (Kevin Sussman) and employee Nancy Chen (Olivia Munn) to assist him in his undertaking, but before Jesse can liberate anyone, all hell breaks loose on the grounds as Dr. Gianetti’s research rapidly devolves into ghastly chaos.

INSANITARIUM is a very hard film to review. It utilizes a very old premise that has been used time and again, as well as having some worthwhile qualities here and there, but those strengths are cancelled by some potential weaknesses. The venerable story idea of infiltrating a locked down facility, then having to break out is one that Hollywood never seems to tire of. As a child watching Star Trek, “Dagger of the Mind” was a favorite episode of mine, as was the two-part installment of Charlie’s Angels during my teenage years when the girls allow themselves to be put into prison to solve a case. In the early part of the film when it is shot and lit effectively, there are many scenes that are successfully rendered to be atmospheric and unsettling. Even when the camera-work descends into blackness and shake-o-rama, there are darkened hallways lit with swatches of blue, green and red that is reminiscent of one of the Three Mothers films by Dario Argento. Surprisingly, Jesse Metcalfe’s performance is reasonably good. Expecting a pretty boy “flavor of the month”, I got an actor with a surprising amount of range. At times the filthy language that came out of his mouth belied the “cute little boy” image and compromised some of that sincerity, but his effort was apparent and that is a good thing. There is also Peter Stormare, who must top the list of any “100 Scariest Looking Bastards” of all time. Sometimes Mr. Stormare’s acting style can be a little grating and/or can take you out of the movie, but in this case he is the quintessential “mad doctor” and fit the role perfectly. Kudos must be given to Mr. Stormare for being himself and double kudos to Kelly Martin Wagner for casting him.

INSANITARIUM started off with bloody shocks and gruesome imagery, and once you start a film that way, you have to ask, “Well, where do we go from here?” The answer is straight into a crimson-soaked whirlpool of appalling debauchery. For those who love gore, they will delight in this film for it is overflowing with slashes, stabs, gouges, tearing, biting, ripping, bludgeoning, gut munching, and spouts, sprays and splashes of blood. By film’s end, everyone living and dead is covered in viscous fluids of every description. All manner of appendages are torn or chewed off and there is nudity, kinky sex and mutilation, vomit, feces and urination to mix in with the gore. When the insidious depravity cranks up, that is where INSANITARIUM lost me. INSANITARIUM starts off as a medical horror/thriller, but over the last half of the film, it becomes more like a zombie film similar to 28 DAYS LATER, but without the careful story telling. In fact, it struggles with gaps in logic and makes leaps beyond most viewers’ ability to simply “suspend their disbelief”. Granted, this film may be more “fantasy” than realistic fiction, but to be an effective horror film, you have to have some roots in reality so that the viewers can feel like this “could really happen”. INSANITARIUM chooses to go the route of “shock-horror”, but it ranges up that road to far. It may have the arterial sprays, and it doesn’t descend into base degeneracy like torture-porn misery debacles like SAW, HOSTEL or CARVER but it also has none of the sophistication of George Romero or Dario Argento. I prefer my horror to be more atmospheric and subtle than this is. While I am a big fan of Romero, if you look at his films, they are more than just organ gobbling zombie flicks, there is character development and social commentary. INSANITARIUM is more closely related to the films of Lucio Fulci. When I think of his films like HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, that movie looked good at times too, but it was one disgusting shock after another, replete with “probing the wound” and reveling in violence for violence sake. INSANITARIUM went down that path and for that I was disappointed. However, I liked how the ending could be a prefect set-up for the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. If you like gore and watched INSANITARIUM, and then segued right into the recent DAWN OF THE DEAD, they seem to go hand in hand, and you can end on a better film.

INSANITARIUM does have a sizable extras menu. There are no commentary tracks, which is surprising in this day and age, but there are two 7 minute featurettes, “Inside the Asylum: Jesses Metcalfe and Jeff Buhler” and “Inside the Asylum: The Patients”. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Both featurettes are a little too clip heavy and don’t allow for enough information to be developed, and it is too bad. In “Inside the Asylum: Jesses Metcalfe and Jeff Buhler”, Jeff Buhler “interviewed” Jesse Metcalfe and things were just getting interesting in regards to production anecdotes and then the feature ended. “Inside the Asylum: The Patients” was more of a behind the scenes set of images mixed with interview clips of the cast and crew. Once again, it could have been longer and delved into the thoughts of the interviewees in a more in-depth manner. There is a Storyboard Gallery of 17 components as well as three deleted scenes. Like THE TATTOOIST, INSANITARIUM has a “bonus digital copy” that allows you to access this film through your personal computer. Sony is clearly learning the lesson that good or bad, a dvd with some interesting bonus features is better than a bare bones disc.

I wanted to like INSANITARIUM and am willing to give it points for a few things done right. If you like Fulci or the Cannibal films of Antonio Margheriti, you will probably enjoy elements of INSANITARIUM. I would be interested to see how many fans of Jesse Metcalfe and Desperate Housewives would sit through this film. Maybe Mr. Metcalfe is trying to break out of his current role and the possibility of typecasting. Maybe the film makers wanted some face and name recognition and thought his good looks would pull in the young women who are watching horror films in larger numbers. Still, since INSANITARIUM involves experimentation, I’d love to try an experiment and lock twenty or thirty women from affluent backgrounds, ages 30-50, in a room and see what their reactions would be to a screening. Would they tear each other apart like the inmates of INSANITARIUM, would they cry, cringe and hide under their chairs or would they turn on their oppressors and slash them to death with the razor sharp edges of their credit cards? Now that’s an idea for a film! Is anyone game?


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