For most of Western Civilization, the asylums have been kept on the outskirts of town, to protect normal, god-fearing denizens of rationality from the Plague Of Madness. The 20th century saw the closing of these asylums, as treatment has switched to pharmaceutical therapy, and public funding for these Gothic citadels has been slashed. The Plague Of Madness has broken and spread, and we are forced to interact with insanity in a much closer and more visceral manner than ever before, when lunatics were left to their private demons in white padded cells.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why the Asylum trope seems to be gaining in popularity, in recent years, the most famous version being the second season of American Horror Story. We are forced to see, and consider, where the insane are coming from, forced to relate, to interact with non-sense and un-reason.
These grey states have always been the realm of Horror, which dwells in and investigates the supernatural, the paranormal and the illogical. Horror reminds us that there is much in this world that we do not understand, and is not afraid to look, even if it is terrifying and maddening.
Sanitarium is an athology film from 2013 in three segments, directed by Bryan Ortiz, Bryan Ramirez, Kerry Valderrama, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Robert Englund and Lou Diamond Phillips. Malcolm McDowell stars as Dr. Stenson, who plays the role of omnipotent narrator, like Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone, or The Cryptkeeper.
The first segment tells the story of Gustav, wonderfully acted by John Glover (Gremlins 2), an eccentric doll maker whose creations seem to speak to him. He becomes convinced his best friends Sam, played by Robert Englund (A Nightmare On Elm Street), and Mateo, played by Walter Perez (The Avengers), are going to steal his dolls when Gustav decides not to sell, after a successful art show. Gustav is a kindly man, who wants to remain true to his art, but will do what he has to do to protect his ethereal friends.
The first segment has a lot of things going for it, and illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of this film. First of all, there are some wonderful performances, most notably between Gustav and Mateo, who seem to have a real connection and a great onscreen chemistry. When Gustav stops Mateo, as he is walking away, to say simply ‘I love you’, it is a tender and believable moment, especially considering the madness that is to come.
Secondly, the design and cinematography are stunning, with some beautiful shots of Gustav’s dark-eyed dolls, who owe more than a little bit to Tim Burton, but are still haunting and elegant. There was some serious care taken with the visuals of this film, which is true of even the slightest horror films released today. It looks outstanding, but you get the feeling they spent their whole budget on big name actors and visual effects, and I wish they would’ve spent more money on the script.
This can be seen most clearly in the second segment, ‘Patient 26’, which tells the story of Steven, a dreamy eight-year old boy with big eyes, who comes from an abusive household, physically and most likely sexually. Steven is the poster child for William Blake‘s famous slogan, “Some are born to sweet delight/some are born to endless night’. He seems a lovely child, which makes it that much more heartbreaking that he catches grief nearly every which way he turns. Steven begins having visions of a hooded stranger, lurking out of the corner of his eyes, like Michael Myers in the original Halloween movie.
“Patient 26” seems to exist solely as a function to see the wicked adults get their comeuppance, and it is satisfying, even if you see it coming from 2 miles away. However, the complete lack of surprise and suspense keep it from being ultimately effective.
“Patient 26” is the best example of the triumphs and failures of this film. There’s some more stunning visuals, and a genuinely likable lead, but the supporting characters are completely wooden and stereotypical: ‘the abusive father’, the ‘school teacher’. The teacher, played by the very pretty Lacey Chabert (Lost In Space), might as well be saying, “I’m a third grade teacher. Take out your books and start reading.” The dialogue is completely generic and unbelievable as a High School musical.
On top of this, there are scenes which really just do not need to exist. Spending valuable minutes watching Steven floss and gargle, without moving the plot along at all and when the segment was already overlong, makes it seem as if the directors were reaching, filling time.
The last story, which doesn’t have a name, focuses on James Silo, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, (who I haven’t seen in ages), who is a college professor who becomes obsessed with the Mayan Prophecy of 2012, spending his family’s entire savings on building an underground bunker. The story begins with Silo going through his daily routine, trying to survive, trying to stay sane. The bunker sequences are intercut with Philips in the sanitarium, talking to Dr. Stenson, with him saying things like, “It doesn’t matter. None of this is real, anyway,”. He believes that the Doctor and the hospital are the aliens playing tricks on him, trying to get him to open the hatch.
While this segment is also overlong, as are the other two, it also showcases what is excellent about this movie, in that it is subjective and inconclusive, leaving you guessing (provided you are into that kind of thing). All three of these stories leave you wondering if the characters are mad, or if they have experienced something supernatural. You’re not sure if the demons are real, or if they’re in their minds.
This kind of thinking gets inside your head, makes you begin to suspect the world around you, to not entirely trust yourself and your own senses.
Logic and reason and science would have us believe that it has it all figured out. That it is just a matter of time until every square inch of the globe is mapped and charted, until every experience has been quantified and charted. And yet, besides all of this, and even with all of our technology, madness still runs rampant, getting all up in our face, each and every day. Eventually, we might have to consider where they are coming from. Eventually, we have to wonder what they SEE.
This is labelled as horror, but is really more of a supernatural suspense film. There’s not a lot of blood, and most of the action is psychological in nature.
Critics have almost universally hated this film, which is part of what inspired me to write. It has its failings, and I cannot fully say that this is ‘a good movie’, but it has some things going for it, some fine details that should thrill any lover of the dark or the supernatural.
Some good acting
Some bad acting
A lot of really atrocious dialogue
Get It On DVD: Sanitarium