Fall horror film ill-conceived


Giovanni Solano


If you’re looking for a psychological thriller and a period film, I recommend watching Stonehearst Asylum, Brad Anderson’s loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”

The story begins in an Oxford Lecture Hall, where Eliza Graves (played by Kate Beckinsale) is brought in as an example of a hysteric woman. It is there that she pleads with the class that she is sane and she is promptly shot with heroin to sedate her.

The story then cuts to Edward Newgate, an Oxford Medical School graduate (played by Jim Sturgess), going to the titular Stonehearst Asylum to be an alienist (i.e. a psychologist) and to learn of the superintendent’s new and innovative ways of treating patients. It is after a tour of the asylum that he notices things aren’t exactly being handled in the most textbook manner. Fantasies are enabled and the inmates are allowed to intermingle with the staff. It is during this tour that Edward finds the almost-sane Eliza Graves, whom he falls in love with.

It’s after a Christmas Eve dinner at the asylum, with some of the inmates and staff, when he wanders and finds the original staff locked up in the basement of the asylum. The inmates had rebelled several weeks before and assumed control of the asylum.

The rest of the story follows Edward as he tries to help the original staff and Eliza escape while also trying to not let on that he knows the original staff exists. It’s a bit of a slow second act. This leads to the climax at New Year’s Eve and an ending that I’m not going to spoil, but had me do a double take as it came out of left field.

The casting was well done, as Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Lamb, the leader of the madness, and does it so well you forget he was the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Kingsley combines just the right amounts of sanity and madness to make him more than just a two-dimensional villain. Michael Caine’s performance as Dr. Salt, the rightful superintendent, is great, but it’s a shame he didn’t have a larger role.

Overall, it’s the writing that causes things to fall apart. The writing sets itself up to be a horror film with the atmosphere it creates, but falls short of any real horror. It does, however, touch on the horrors of the treatment of the mentally ill during that time, including the tortures some patients had to endure, as well as the treatment of women in Victorian asylums. The film plays with the topic of right versus wrong with treating the mentally ill, with Dr. Lamb going so far as to say “Why would you make a miserable man after a perfectly happy horse?”

The movie has some repetitive scenes, mostly involving Edward convincing Eliza to leave the asylum with him, as the asylum is unsafe. There is some stumbling, and the romance may feel shoehorned in, but it turns out to be part of the larger story.

Stonehearst Asylum is the type of movie that you watch when you need two hours to kill and don’t have much else to do. If it can be compared to anything, it would be American Horror Story Asylum, minus the religion, demons, aliens and horror. It had the potential to be more, but due to the writing, it’ll be another forgettable fall movie.


Three out of five stars

Brilliant cast

Not-so-brilliant writing.