Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1845 short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, this year’s Stonehearst Asylum proved to a highly enjoyable yet anachronistic little genre film, which, despite being quite good, still managed to provoke the question: “how did this ever get made?” Indeed, as a tremendous fan of Hammer’s 60s-70s gothic chillers as well as Roger Corman’s stodgy-but-entertaining Poe adaptations, I was delighted to see a period horror flick released in 2014 that didn’t skirt away from languorous pacing, purple prose, and some deliriously (and intentionally) hammy performances.
The picture follows idealistic med-school graduate Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), who ventures to a remote asylum in the English country side to continue his research. There Newgae meets the prickly proprietor, Dr. Silas Lamb, introduces him to the enchantingly beautiful Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a neurotic patient. While touring the facility, Newgate notices that, beneath its prim exterior, the Asylum seems neglected and dilapidated. Upon further investigation, the young doctor comes to a shocking conclusion: the Asylum has been taken over by its insane inmates. He soon realizes that a group of supposedly dangerous “patients” boarded up in a basement dungeon are, in fact, the former staff of the institute, including its lead physician, Dr. Salt (Michael Caine). Newgate plans an escape with Graves, with whom he’s become hopelessly smitten, only to find that Lamb has gotten wise to his discovery and plans to keep the naive visitor forever trapped within the halls of Stonehearst Asylum.
While Asylum is no revelation, it is competently directed by low-budget horror auteur Brad Anderson (Session 9), and features several solid performances, most notably from Sturgess and Kingsley, who, for once, isn’t phoning it in from his vacation home in Ibiza. Moreover, the film sets itself apart in both its presentation, and its goals. There are no jump scares here—no real scares whatsoever in fact. Instead, Anderson is more interested in crafting a slow-burn witches cauldron of simmering tensions, slowly and purposefully leading to a calamitous conclusion. In this way, Asylum could have been released in 1964 and played just as well (or poorly, depending on who you ask) as it does now, half a century later.
Whether one likes the film or not, Stonehearst Asylum is worth viewing simply to witness something that simply shouldn’t have existed in a multiplex alongside the latest Transformers installment, and yet somehow, through a combination of foreign sales money and sheer willpower, managed to eek it through into our modern world. DVD extras include a making of featurette and a commentary track.