Review: “Stonehearst Asylum” 12.14.14

I used to speak director Brad Anderson’s name under the same breath as I did with some of my all time favorite filmmakers. As his one-two punch of both 2001’s “Session 9” and 2004’s “The Machinist” introduced to a new kind of psychological horror director. Particularly with that of the former, which I still consider to be one of my top 10 psychological horror films of all time. Following these two films he made a nice, 1 hour entry to the “Masters of Horror” series, and then for the most part, pretty much bottomed out. His next 3 subseqent films – “Trassiberian” (2007), “Vanishing on 7th Street (2010), and last year’s “The Call”. All wound up being totally duds and were panned by most if not all critics (with the sole exception being “Transsiberian” which got mediocre reviews…fitting for a mediocre film) and gave me and a lot of his other fans the impression that what we had was someone whose career which had started off so promising, had practically vanished and he became just another studio director who makes low quality films at the expense of his audience. Which I viewed as was and still is a complete and total shame. I had just about written Anderson off as a director, but I saw this film’s title among a new release calender that I check monthly for titles to add to my Netflix queue. The film more or less looked like a return to form for Anderson, at least in terms of genre, as the synopsis of the film said that it was a psychological thriller set in a mental institution. Strikingly similar to what I still consider to be his masterpiece in the aforementioned “Session 9” (2002). Though unlike his “has been” type casting of his crop of recent films, this boasted a rather impressive cast in Ben Kingsley, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Strurgess, Kate Beckinsale, David Thewlis, and Michael Caine. The story itself also deriving from an old Edgar Allen Poe story called “Eliza Graves”. So this seemed to be like it could be a possible return for director Anderson as it appeared from the surface that put him back into a position working within a genre that he became a big part of and was instrumental to in the early 21st century.

The film starts out simply enough. We are first brought into a classroom of apparent aspiring young medical students whom are being taught by a professor played by Brendan Gleeson in 1899 at the turn of the 20th century. To help in his presentation of this particular lesson he brings in one of his patients, played by Kate Beckinsale, a woman who is plagued by some sort of mental illness. Gleeson makes the case that she’s uncurable. But there seems to be something much greater going on here that is both aiding and abaiding her specific case. We then flashback and meet a young doctor (played by the great British actor Jim Sturgess), a recent medical school graduate from London’s prestigious Oxford University, who takes a job in the country at a mental institution called the Stonehearst Asylum. Upon his entrance there he meets the asylum’s director and overseer (played by Ben Kingsley, a role reminiscient of the work he did with Martin Scorcese in 2010’s “Shutter Island”). He quickly learns that the asylum operates both very unconventional and unorthodox ways as they see it as being somehow therapeutic to integrate the patients with that of the hospital staff. Sturgess’ doctor first meets and lays his eyes on one seemingly gifted patient (Beckinsale) who appears to be some sort of piano prodigy named Eliza Graves. It almost seems like love at first sight, and the young doctor doesn’t seem to have a care in the world for the young Eliza’s mental illness. And as strange events begin to occur he starts to doubt her mental illness, as he starts to do with the asylum in general, in one of those situations in which things aren’t quite what they seem at the surface. Especially when Sturgess’ character stumbles upon a basement containing one of the asylum’s best kept, deepest, and darkest secret. A revelation that pretty much sets the stage for the events that transpire as the rest of the film plays itself out.

This a mostly unwatchable and forgetabble effort. One that finds itself consistent with much of Anderson’s recent work. A film that felt like it had almost zero originality, by a director who continues to show us that he is more or less a studio director without any remaining semblance of his own sense of individuality. Really the only thing worth mentioning is that the film at least slightly kept my attention by the oddly overqualified cast of seasoned actors. Sturgess is the lead here and makes the most out of the minimally written and drawn out character he is given. Kingsley is also serviceable here as well, but his performance comes across as strikingly all too similar to the role he played in “Shutter Island”. I thought David Thewlis (whom I haven’t really seen in anything since Terrance Malick’s wonderful “The New World” (2007)) and Kate Beckinsale (who admittedly I really like in the “Underworld” series) are both standouts in an otherwise weak script. Michael Caine (who one can only sit back and wonder why he would sign on to a project such as this one) is also nice to see up on the screen and has a pretty considerable role. But again, the weak script and shoddy story narrative make it difficult to highlight some of the films stronger points like the acting. Outside of that I found it mostly flat and not even remotely scary. I also thought it’s underlying message about the mentally ill to be ludicrous and borderline laughable, as someone who works with this population I feel like I’m qualified to make such a statement. Do yourself a favor and skip this one, as well as anything that director Brad Anderson does from this point forward throughout the rest of his apparent continued failing career.

[C-]

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#4: ‘The Conjuring’ (2013)

The Conjuring Movie Poster

James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is almost about as good as it gets as far as American horror films go these days. Wan is arguably the godfather of the post-aught American horror film. His groundbreaking and undeniably influential “Saw” (2004) made him an overnight star and proved to the international film making scene that we had a new auteur on our hands. Not only that but to top it off (get this) he was only 27 at the time of filming. Being in that “Saw” was so successful and Wan set the bar so high, both artistically and commercially, it was only somewhat inevitable that his next film couldn’t possibly hold up. And they didn’t. He released 2 films back-to-back in 2007 – “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence”. Both which failed miserably at the box office and with audiences. Enter 2010 after a few years away from the film making spectrum and Wan releases his 2nd most successful movie to date – the downright creepy and chilling “Insidious”. Marking a return to form and putting him once again in the hot seat as America’s most artistically commercial horror director. Then another 3 years later and Wan gives us what might be the 2nd best horror film post-2010. What I and some other people I know consider to be his masterpiece.

There are so many elements to talk about in regards to “The Conjuring” that its hard to break it down to just a few. But I will try my best. First things first, it is impeccably shot. And I rarely use that adjective to describe a piece of film making (I picked it up from Steven Spielberg in an interview when he once described the look of the films of the late, great Stanley Kubrick). Wan is in complete control here and it comes through in just about every frame and shot. It’s one of the most confident and assured pieces of film making from a directing standpoint in American horror since the great films of the 1970’s like William Friendkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) or Tobe Hoopers’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). The way in which he zooms in and out and sweeps through the corridors of the inhabited home is purely the work of a master. Secondly, in what I refer to as Wan’s “bag of tricks”. He utilizes just about every horror technique we’ve seen in the history of the genre. His arsenal bag of tricks contains everything from a grandfather clock, creaking doors and stairwells, white noise, evil spirits, old tape recordings, saturated lit archival footage, a game of “clap and seek” (remind me never to play that), haunted cellars, the scariest doll since “Chucky”, and what I find to be the most terrifying piece – a wind up corkscrew jack-in-the-box (used beautifully in the film’s closing shot). Last, and certainly not the least, is the all out, balls to the wall, horror show freak out that is the third act. It features some of the most haunting images that will forever be etched into my brain. To say he really brings it as the film comes to a close would be a huge understatement. The last half hour to 45 minutes contains some of the most pure, unadulterated horror that I’ve seen put onto celluloid since Brad Anderson’s brilliant and overlooked “Session 9” (2001). My one very minor criticism of the piece is that it follows the whole exorcism movie trope formula just a tad bit too closely. But again, a very minor criticism. Outside of that this is about as good as modern day horror gets. And solidifies my statement that James Wan is the Christopher Nolan of the horror genre.

[strong B+]