Review Date: June 8, 2002
Released by: Tempe Video
Release date: 4/30/2002
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen: 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Reality TV is everywhere. It seems like every time you turn on your television, average Joes are engaging in some kind of stunt or contest, and the loser must leave the competition, until we're left with a new millionaire (before taxes). As viewers get bored with the concept, the stunts have to get wilder and more dangerous. It's only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt or even killed. This concept, taken to it's worst extreme, is the basis of Danny Draven's 2001 movie Hell Asylum. Hell Asylum was shot on digital video, rather than film, and went straight to video stores rather than get a theatrical release. All the hallmarks of a low-budget crap-fest, right? Well, you never know…
TV producer Max (Tim Muskatell) is trying to sell his concept of yet another reality TV show to his program director Sam (Joe Estevez). His idea is called "Chill Challenge", a show where gorgeous women are subjected to their worst fears. The sole survivor of the night of terror will win, (like you don't already know), 1 million dollars. Max doesn't HAVE the million dollars to give away, but he can work around that pretty easily.
After getting a reluctant green light for his show, Max begins the production at the notorious "Mason House." Seems the man who built the house, one Phineas Mason, would import brides and torture and kill them, and the ghosts of those wives still roam the halls of the giant mansion. Selected to spend a night in this lovely setting are 5 girls: Stacey (the timid one), Rainbow (the Goth chick), Amber (the boy-crazy one), Marti (the athletic one), and Paige (the bitch).
The girls will be selected one by one to complete various spooky tasks, and if they fail, they will be removed from the house until just the winner remains. First up is Marti (Olimpia Fernandez), who freaks out after she's locked in a closet. But before she's able to leave the house, a specter-like creature savagely kills her. Next up is Paige (Debra Mayer) who possibly gets the most chilling assignment of all. The pattern continues until it's just one girl vs. the ghosts of Phineas Mason's brides, who really have no need for a million dollars.
Hell Asylum was shot-on-video, which is the lowest form of cheap filmmaking. And you know something? Hell Asylum is not a bad movie at all! Director Danny Draven spends time unfolding his story and developing the characters (remarkable since this film barely pushes the one-hour mark). Most directors would keep it violent early and often to make up for a crummy story, but Draven waits till more than halfway in before the major mayhem begins. You'll also notice a few (minor) plot twists, which are rarely handled well in such low-budget filming. Usually, the twists are either non-existent (to concentrate more on violence and nudity), or so over-the-top as to be completely dumb. In this movie, they help keep the movie flowing along, provide a few surprises, and logically answer some of the inconsistencies in the storyline.
The subject matter also lends itself well to the video format, since most of this movie is intended to be television footage. Draven uses a "snow cut" edit way too many times, but the video seems quite natural. The commentary on the reality TV fad is also well-done, as I have to believe it will only be a matter of time before someone is killed or seriously injured doing some reality TV stunt. Yes, "Chill Challenge" may be a rip-off of Fear Factor, but almost all reality TV shows are virtual clones anyway! Gotta hand it to the writers here, as they can openly rip-off other's ideas, and fit right in with the rest of Hollywood.
Draven is an obvious horror fan, as the influences of several films are readily apparent. I thought there was an obvious nod to Hell Night, with the telling of the Mason House story quite similar to the recount of Garth Manor's history. Draven didn't mention it in the commentary, so it may or may not be a coincidence. You'll also be reminded of Argento's Suspiria when poor Amber (Tanya Dempsey) is subjected to a rain of maggots. And of course, there is the major influence of The Blair Witch Project, with much of the movie being filmed (supposedly) by the actors themselves. Haters of that film will at least enjoy getting to SEE these characters' demises.
Speaking of the actors, they do a relatively good job considering the low budget. They're not Oscar-caliber, and we likely won't see them in any major films anytime soon, but they're a cut above the usual acting talent in films of it's ilk. The girls are all one-dimensional stereotypes, and not at all realistic, but I don't think that hurts the film. The distinct personalities that they all have make it much easier to tell them apart. I was also pleasantly surprised to see no nudity in Hell Asylum. Not that nudity is a bad thing of course, but it's probably the number one gimmick in ultra low-budget films like this one. What you get here are filmmakers and actors who actually want the movie itself to stand on it's own, yet another reason that Hell Asylum is a cut above the rest.
Hell Asylum was shot on digital video, which has come a long way. It's quite a step above borrowing Dad's camcorder to make a backyard movie, but it still falls way short of the quality you get from using film. Now, as already mentioned, the use of video falls perfectly in line with the theme of the movie, but there are still scenes where the harsh look of video as well as the muddiness and lack of detail really distracts the viewer. But it is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 screens, so at least attempts were made to have as film-like appearance as possible.
Surprisingly, Hell Asylum is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This is definitely one area that Tempe Video does not skimp on. Some of the sound effects are gimmicky and excessive, and it seems that sometimes they used the rear speakers just to prove that they could do it. But the music sounds really nice and full, and the dialogue is quite clear. I'd have preferred if they had toned down the rear speaker use a little, as it's rather unnatural, but overall the sound presentation is well done. Fans of hard metal music will like the tunes, especially the Phantasm-inspired closing theme.
Since Tempe is also the studio who produced Hell Asylum (along with Full Moon Pictures), they had no problems providing a wealth of supplements. Danny Draven and music composer Josephine Soegijanty provide a running commentary that actually disappointed me a little. Most of the talk is the logistics of the film, such as location, the title, the actors, and the bands that provided the songs used. I'd like to have heard a little more about Draven's goals with the movie, his influences, and any social commentary he might have been making. He also mentions doing more of this type of work; while it is an enjoyable film, I hope he uses this as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and not develop a career as a low-budget straight-to-video hack, like so many others have done.
Draven also made a video diary of his work on the film, and that's well worth a watch. You see the pre-production, the hectic filming schedule, and the editing process. It was interesting to note that this whole production was done around September and October of 2001. Just over six months from pre-production to DVD release! The cast and crew provide interviews, including a duet of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" courtesy of actresses Stacey Scowley and Tanya Dempsey. Joe Estevez (yes, one of THOSE Estevezs) is interviewed too. After that is a still gallery and a few bloopers and outtakes. The bloopers aren't too bad; you'll get to hear Tim Muskatell refer to the fictional show as "Fear Factor", and also get to see him dislocate his kneecap in a stunt sequence. And finally, we get a trailer and teaser for Hell Asylum as well as some other Tempe Films trailers too.
Lastly, another shot-on-video movie appears on this disc too. It's Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker directed by Chris Seaver. Now, this is what we come to expect from shot-on-video features. This "movie" may just be the most annoying 45 minutes of my life. Not only do we have the movie, but there's a director's introduction and full commentary. At least Seaver isn't concerned with political correctness, as he appears in blackface (!), as a sort of cross between Bill Cosby and Jackie Childs (the lawyer character on Seinfeld). But it's the character of Mulva herself that will have you looking for things to throw at your TV. You've been warned.
Hell Asylum will never be mistaken for The Exorcist, and it was never meant to. It's cheap, the acting isn't great, and director Draven relies on video tricks a little too often for my taste. But it also has a decent premise, some pop-culture commentary, a few plot twists, and a pretty fast pace. It falls into that "pleasant surprise" category (although I really could have lived the rest of my life without ever seeing Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker). Horror fans looking for something different and contemporary might really enjoy Hell Asylum. The DVD of this movie is worthy too, with decent 5.1 sound and supplemental features that provide a nice little background on the movie (although navigating the DVD is a little slow). I hope Draven continues to try to improve as a filmmaker and not stay in this niche. He just might be able to make the jump from "not bad" to "pretty damned good."
Movie - C+
Image Quality - C
Sound - B
Supplements - A
- Running Time - 1 hour 12 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
- Commentary Track with director Danny Draven and music composer Josephine Soegijanty
- Director's Production Diary
- Cast & Crew Interviews
- Cup O' Joe - The Joe Estevez Interview
- Bloopers & Outtakes
- Still Gallery
- Trailer and Teaser
- Tempe DVD Trailers and Coming Attractions
- Bonus Feature - Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker, with intro and commentary