Sometimes it’s a lot of fun to approach a new film in layers. For example, if you threw a casual glance at the poster for Stonehearst Asylum you might simply dismiss it as a particularly high-budget episode of Masterpiece Theater and then keep digging through the horror section for something like Hostel: Part II or perhaps Anaconda. But then you notice that the stars are Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Kate Beckinsale (Underworld), which is certainly interesting enough to make one look a little closer, and note that the supporting cast includes people like Michael Caine (Get Carter), Ben Kingsley (Gandhi), Sinead Cusack (V for Vendetta), Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later), Jason Flemyng (Below), and David Thewlis (The Big Lebowski) … and if you’re any sort of film fan, you then peer in for an even closer look.
Based on the darkly amusing Edgar Allan Poe story called “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether”?
Interest level rising higher…
Directed by Brad Anderson? The guy who did Session 9, The Machinist, Transsiberian, and Vanishing on 7th Street? (OK, fine, and The Call.)
Well, sheesh. If the cast, the source material, and my admiration for the director were not enough to get me interested in Stonehearst Asylum, the simple yet appealing premise probably would be, and that premise is this: “A young doctor travels to an isolated asylum only to discover that the inmates have tossed all the staff members into a dungeon and are now enjoying a temporary if tenuous sabbatical at the top of the pecking order.” As to why the newcomer, Dr. Newgate (Sturgess), doesn’t immediately bolt from the premises, well, let’s just say that one of the inmates is played by Kate Beckinsale. Not sure any straight male would need further motivation than that to spend time in a mansion packed with maniacs.
At its best moments, Stonehearst Asylum feels like someone at the Lifetime network said “Hey, let’s make our own version of American Horror Story,” but then they kinda gave up after three episodes, cooked up an ending, and released it as a movie instead. Anderson and screenwriter Joe Gangemi (Wind Chill) do a fine job of balancing dark humor, creepy vibes, and outright melodrama — although the tongue-in-cheek tone is occasionally undone by some of the plot’s more florid romantic divergences — but frankly Stonehearst Asylum is simply worth seeing for the ensemble cast, the enjoyably eerie asylum setting, and John Debney’s adorably old-school “Hammer vibe” score.
Probably about 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, and laden with a few “groaner” scenes scattered around here and there, Stonehearst Asylum still works a whole lot better than one might expect from such a strange concoction — and it certainly doesn’t hurt that virtually every actor on the screen is clearly having fun with such grim, Gothic material. It sort of feels like a “cable TV” movie, but that’s fine. It also feels like a rather well-made “cable TV” movie.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos
Stonehearst Asylum is in theaters and available on VOD now.