Edge of Madness, by Aaron Pinkston
In 2001, Brad Anderson released possibly the scariest mental asylum film ever made. I’ve always been curious if Session 9 was just a personal favorite of mine, wearing out the VHS in my early high school years, or if smart film people also hold it in high regard. At any rate, it seems like no one ever mentions it anymore. The story of an asbestos cleaning crew working on an abandoned mental hospital is a unique approach for the genre as a slow-burn character study that hinges on moody creepiness. Thirteen years later, Anderson returns to the asylum setting in a much, much different kind of film. Stonehearst Asylum is a welcomed return for Anderson, his best film since 2008’s Transsiberian (not exactly saying much given The Call and Vanishing on 7th Street are the only features he’s released since). Compared to his classic asylum film, though, Stonehearst Asylum doesn’t stand much of a chance.
The film is very much a throwback to classic horror tales. Taken from horror master Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and with visual influences of the classic Universal monster movies, this has a much more playful tone than Anderson’s previous thrillers. Stonehearst Asylum doesn’t waste time announcing its influences, with its first two scenes calling back to the screen’s two most recognizable monsters — the first has a professor (Brendan Gleeson) performing a medical demonstration for a group of students (OK, maybe that is pulled more directly from the classic’s famous spoof, but work with it), while the second follows a young doctor (Jim Sturgess) arriving at a spooky new job opportunity in the middle of nowhere. The film’s plot jumps from there, with new employee Dr. Newgate finding himself mixed up in a bizarre conflict between the medical staff and their patients.
Stonehearst Asylum uses these classical influences to create a dreamy, slightly campy atmosphere. The titular asylum is outfitted with patients who seem more kooky than dangerous — the types of “eccentrics” who think they are a horse, or shriek at any physical contact; there is a lot of wide eyes and mumbling going on. This mood also works in the narrative. Instead of hiding the usual madhouse plot twist that has become standard for the genre, the film lays (most of) its cards on the table within the first thirty minutes. I’ll keep away from direct plot points here, but will say that it sets up a pretty crafty game that is refreshingly fun in an increasingly serious subgenre. I wouldn’t say the film ultimately transcends its genre, but it does actively play with its broader conventions in entertaining ways.
Unfortunately, the tone doesn’t let the film aspire to be much more than pulp. Though there are interesting ideas, particularly in the staff vs. patient dynamic, they never rise above being half-baked. At the other end, the film also doesn’t push hard enough into its inherent wackiness for my tastes. The film’s biggest misstep is within the romantic relationship between its two leads, Dr. Newgate and the beautiful and seemingly competent patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). Their romance would feel icky if it wasn’t so dull. Sturgess and Beckinsale are fine enough actors, but surrounded by the stout rogues gallery of character actors with a certain gravitas who are given the opportunity to play up to the sillier parts of the script, they come off as particularly bland. Whenever the likes of Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and David Thewlis, in an especially juicy role as Mickey Finn (yeah, like the date rape drug), are offscreen, the viewer can’t help but to lose interest.
Stonehearst Asylum lives in a sort of weird space. It isn’t really a comedy, thriller or horror film, but it takes bits and pieces from the three, thrown together with a range of success. This goes hand-in-hand with the film’s modest status, as it never feels truly substantial despite the ingredients. Brad Anderson has made both far better and far worse films and I’d say that Stonehearst Asylum is worth watching, especially if you are into classic horror tales. But the film is limited, refusing to take its most promising parts to the extremes, as its filmmaker has been able to do before.