From the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Sort of.
Stonehearst Asylum is very, very loosely based on Poe’s short story, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and, if you couldn’t tell from the names in the title, it’s a comedy. And if you couldn’t tell from the tone of this opening, Stonehearst Asylum is not. But here I am, fooled again by the promise of a Poe movie and an interesting cast in a period setting. The most disappointing thing of all is that it’s directed Brad Anderson, a solid filmmaker and the creator of one of my favorite indie horror films of the early millennium, Session 9 (also, as it happens, an Asylum movie).
Note that it’s next to impossible to talk about this movie without some level of spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
Recent psychiatry graduate Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess, Cloud Atlas) has just arrived at the revolutionary Stonehearst Asylum, where patients are treated like people and their manias are treated with kindness rather than punishment, and it’s all led by the revolutionary Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi). But as the days pass, Newgate begins to see a dark underbelly at the facility, one that becomes abundantly clear when he goes to the basement, only to find the asylum’s real doctor (Michael Caine, Zulu).
But it doesn’t end there, though I won’t speak on that super-surprising twist ending. The obviousness of it all wouldn’t bother me so much was the movie not so completely overblown on all levels. It starts with the performances from the two biggest names in the picture. In any film, there’s only so much scenery that can get chewed; Caine and Kingsley don’t leave any for the rest of the cast. Caine doesn’t even appear until halfway through the film, but his appetite here is huge and, instead of playing characters in a story, it becomes a joust between two old actors, turning the rest of the movie asunder.
It’s not just them, though; the writing is obvious and even main characters are lost in the shuffle. Notice that I haven’t mentioned the first name on the cast list and the woman at the center of the cover: Kate Beckinsale (Underworld). There was no reason to; she is integral to the opening scene and the twist ending. Every appearance in between, she’s plain window dressing. Even the supposed star in Jim Sturgess is hard to remember he gets pushed into the background so badly. It’s the writing that turned it into the Caine/Kingsley bout, not the actors, though they don’t help matters much.
Stonehearst Asylum might be a clunky film, but it’s a pretty one. The cold color palette works perfectly for the feel of the movie. The costuming is interesting and appears accurate, and I really do like the cinematography by Tom Yatsko (The Call). It has a dancing, kinetic quality that I think really fits. But it’s a pale adaptation of the original story that destroys any semblance of the comedy; the only remnant is the enforcer character with the on-the-nose name of Mickey Finn (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), a character that I don’t believe exists in the story (though it’s been a while). If you are familiar with the origin of the term “slip him a mickey,” than I bet you can tell what his role is. That’s ultimately the trouble. It’s too obvious, too awkward, and too dominated by its casting choices to work.
Stonehearst Asylum receives an average Blu-ray from Millennium Entertainment. The 2.40:1/1080p image represents the picture very well, with nice looking colors, deep black levels, and excellent detail. Audio quality is equally strong, with a full spectrum throughout the speakers that make the dialog, lame as it might be sometimes, and music sound very good. The only extra is a brief making-of featurette that is standard issue, but I’m not crying about it.
After all these years, I still get taken in by the lure of a strong cast, a period look and feel, and a name like Edgar Allan Poe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been burned in the past on stuff like this and, as has become clear to me in recent times, I’ll never stop being burned by them because I, obviously, am a sucker.