Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing and Violent Images, Sexual Content and Language
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Written by: Joe Gangemi
(based on the short story THE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR TARR AND PROFESSOR FETHER by Edgar Allan Poe)
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Jason Flemying & Sinead Cusack
The source material for STONEHEARST ASYLUM isn’t Edgar Allan Poe’s most renowned tale. THE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR TARR AND PROFESSOR FETHER is more like a one-note joke that’s spread out for a few pages. Not even Roger Corman (who adapted as much Poe as he could in the 1960’s) bothered to touch this material. It’s 2014, enter screenwriter Joe Gangemi and director Brad Anderson. This filmmaking team have fleshed out a darkly funny little tale into something special. Anderson, who’s been on a bit of a downward spiral with his last efforts (VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, THE CALL), has returned to cover his second creepy movie set in a huge asylum (he’s responsible for 2001’s disturbing SESSION 9). STONEHEARST ASYLUM isn’t perfect due to a couple of issues, but it’s probably my favorite of the genre crop for 2014’s Halloween season.
The story begins on Christmas Eve 1899 at an isolated sanitarium in Britain. Edward Newgate is an up and coming doctor who only needs clinical experience to move his career forward. He chooses to gain his hands-on knowledge at the countryside Stonehearst Asylum. It is here that he meets the eccentric Dr. Lamb, who employs unorthodox methods in feeding patients delusions and letting them roam free around the asylum. Though uncomfortable with his surroundings, Edward is immediately attracted to a patient named Eliza Graves. Graves suffers from hysteria, but finds solace in music thanks to Lamb’s treatments. During his first night at the hospital, Edward discovers terrible evidence in the basement that suggests that the unusual Stonehearst staff might actually be mental patients who have taken over the Asylum (NOT a spoiler, it happens about 20 minutes into a nearly two-hour movie). Edward must keep his head low, search for clues, and use any clever ideas he has in order to get out of the hospital alive.
STONEHEARST kicks off with quality right out of the gate in a thick fog-laden atmosphere and an eerie location. This film would be right at home in the 1960’s with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as headliners (could you imagine how awesome that project would be?). This isn’t a detriment at all. There is plenty of style, glossy visuals, and fantastic sets (I believed this was a real location and wouldn’t be surprised if it actually was) that feels as modern as you can get in a period piece set at the end of the 19th century. The story is also compelling the whole way through. Even if it does rely on a couple of familiar clichés in a few scenes (a guy hiding in a closet while someone’s about to find him), I was hooked from start to finish.
Besides a great atmosphere and solid story, the cast here is hugely impressive. Jim Sturgess is good as Edward Newgate and Kate Beckinsale is Eliza Graves. The relationship between the two feels a little forced (which is one of my problems with the film). They’re really not the focus here though. The script is packed with such an interesting array of characters that I found myself entranced with each individual for different reasons. Michael Caine plays a side character who doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but raises a few questions as to what kind of man he is. Jason Flemying and Brendan Gleeson also have ever-so-fleeting roles as well that leave enough of an impact to warrant their appearance. David Thewlis steals almost every scene he’s as the ironically named Mickey Finn (meaning drink laced with drug). The best performance here comes from Ben Kingsley. Silas Lamb is not a simple character by any means and Kingsley’s talent lends to the man being a complicated antagonist of sorts. Even if I didn’t agree with his actions, I saw we’re he was coming from and completely understood his motivation. Fleshed out villains offer more to chew on than someone who’s all out evil. Kingsley sells Silas as such.
Aside from the forced romance between Sturgess and Beckinsale, the plot weaves through one twist too many. Though there’s plenty of unexpected revelations and reveals through this tale that never drags, STONEHEARST ASYLUM needed a better closing scene. I didn’t completely buy what the movie was selling me, but everything else up to that point was so awesome that it didn’t wreck or put a damper on the whole film. STONEHEARST perfectly captures madness in its various forms, which is entirely appropriate and essential given the subject matter. While the lunatics are indeed criminals, the methods being used by the staff aren’t humane either (science and medicine were far from they are today). Add to the mix that some off-centered camera angles and little details (like a cook eating a maggot off a piece of fruit) blend in perfectly to the unsettling tone of the film too.
A forced relationship and one tiny plot twist too many are the only two flaws that keep STONEHEARST ASYLUM from being a completely ideal film. Everything else considered, this is a really solid horror flick that doesn’t rely on gore (the PG-13 rating is not a distraction here) or quick jump scares to freak out the viewer. Instead, a sophisticated sense of ever-building dread and a complicated story full of interesting characters (boasted by great performances) make this one of the best horror films I’ve sat through in 2014. Those who love Roger Corman’s Poe classics and yearn for a throwback to those films had better check themselves into STONEHEARST ASYLUM for two hours.