Review Date: August 27, 2008
Released by: MGM/Fox
Release date: 7/15/2008
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.40:1 | 16x9: Yes
There was a practice in the home video industry, long since abolished, that I rather miss. I’m probably the only movie aficionado who actually misses it, but I’m okay with that. The practice was called “rental pricing”, in which studios took releases of new films on VHS and priced them with an insanely high MSRP - usually in the $100 range – for the first six months or so after they had been released. The idea was to price the ordinary consumer out of the market while the studios made a profit selling to rental outlets, and then only drop the price when that market was fully saturated (occasionally a blockbuster like Jurassic Park
or Independence Day
would be priced affordably from the start). It’s a practice that died alongside VHS, as studios from the beginning priced all their new DVD releases to own. The reason I bring this all up is because the big studios weren’t the only ones who initiated the rental pricing strategy, many smaller labels did so as well with more obscure movies, including new releases of direct-to-video horror flicks. For all its faults I liked rental pricing in a way because it cut down on blind buys. Nowadays we fans think nothing of walking into a store and laying down $30 for a movie we haven’t seen and may not like. Although I certainly don’t advocate a return to rental pricing, it was useful as a sort of seawall against crappy movies, the kind that will just sit on your video shelf gathering dust after only being watched once. Such a practice would have been helpful in the case of this film, which is now on the shelves at Best Buy and FYE waiting to lure unsuspecting customers into its grip...
Despite the concerns of her mother, pretty young college freshman Madison (Sarah Roemer
) has decided to follow in the footsteps of her older brother and attend the prestigious Richard Miller University. Yet her mother has good reason to be worried - a year earlier her brother committed suicide on that very campus. In fact, mental illness runs in Madison's family, and when she was a child she and her brother witnessed their crazed father committing suicide. As Madison heads towards her new dormitory she runs into Wilbur Mackey (James Inscoe
), the slightly creepy maintenance man who warns her about her building before being told to get lost by campus security. Upon moving into her dorm - which happens to be a massive, gothic structure with one wing that is boarded up - she is introduced to some of her fellow freshmen, including the hunky Holt (Jake Muxworthy
), the sixteen year old computer genius String (Cody Kasch
), the obnoxious jock Tommy (Travis Van Winkle
), the voluptuous Ivy (Ellen Hollmann
) and the withdrawn Maya (Carolina Garcia
). At freshman orientation their RA, the obnoxious Rez (Randall Sims
), explains that although this is a new dormitory, the building itself is extremely old. The wing that they are occupying has been newly remodeled, but the other wing is closed and completely off-limits until renovations can begin next year.
During their first night on campus the six new students gather in the dorm's lounge where String shows them a website about the history of the building. As it turns out, before it belonged to the university it was an insane asylum. In the 1930's the facility's operations were taken over by a Dr. Magnus Burke, who converted it into a treatment center designed exclusively for adolescents. Unfortunately Dr. Burke had unorthodox theories about how to treat the mentally ill and many of his therapies were not far from outright torture. As new research began to invalidate his ideas, Dr. Burke had started to go insane and murder some of those in his care until a fateful day in 1939 when a riot broke out and a mob of patients murdered the doctor. Using his hacking skills String manages to defeat the electronic lock on the door to the other wing and they go exploring in the creepy old asylum, but are quickly forced out when a security guard catches Madison.
What none of these bright young minds realizes is that a force of terrible evil walks the halls of their new residence. Dr. Burke may be dead, but he’s not at peace, and he’s eager to resurrect his old therapeutic techniques on this new group of patients, each of whom has their own distinct mental traumas and tortured past. Can this terrible spirit be defeated, or should our college heroes start looking to transfer?
is a 2007 straight-to-DVD horror film directed by David R. Ellis and filmed on location in South Carolina. As a gore film, it from time to time succeeds with warped scenes of torture and mutilation. As a supernatural story, it is full of holes, unexplained events and plot inconsistencies. And, as a thriller, it is a mediocre and juvenile waste of time, talent and effort. Seldom have I seen a more glaring example of a “paint by the numbers” horror film, one in which practically every scene, every line of dialogue and every scare was a cliché. The film is so unoriginal that it becomes unique in a way, its flaws so overwhelming that they almost become poetic. Some of those flaws are purely cosmetic, such as the fact that most of the actors are too old to be playing college freshman, and that the actor who plays Wilbur Mackey is noticeably too young (as it turns out, Mackey was an eleven year-old patient at the asylum when Burke died in 1939, making his character seventy-nine years old when the film takes place). Other flaws go much deeper into the story’s lack of logic, such as the fact that the ghost of Burke, a phantom which can apparently teleport anywhere, can also be kept at bay simply by barricading a room.
The clichés begin almost as soon as the film does. The movie opens with the young Madison and her brother witnessing their father as he shoots himself in a fit of dementia. The narrative then transitions into the present day via the most overused method currently in Hollywood’s playbook: the adult Madison is actually having a flashback, and is snapped back into reality by someone (in this case, her mother) speaking to her. Then no sooner has Madison been dropped off at college when she runs into Mackey, the obligatory “creepy, tries to warn us but still knows more than he’s telling” character that every one of these movies must have. His onscreen introduction comes in the form of him accidentally short circuiting an electric panel, almost hitting Madison with the sparks. Asking if she’s moving into the dorm behind them, he ominously warns her to be careful when she answers yes. This simple event, captured in less than a minute of screen time, instantly lets us make three assumptions about Mackey. First, despite being a little weird in the head, he knows exactly what is going on and nobody is going to believe him until it is too late. Second, he has some sort of personal back story relating to whatever evil is going to happen, and third, once the shit hits the fan he will relate that back story to the main characters, after which, his usefulness to the plot exhausted, he will be killed. The story does not disappoint these assumptions.
From this point, the plot continues into familiar horror territory as String, the first victim to die, is more or less simply shrugged off by campus authorities who assume he went home to visit his family. They summarily ignore the pleas of Madison who sees the elusive body, only to have it disappear as soon as she can run for help. This is the plot point that puts the collegiate twist on how characters in older slasher films simply assume that their friend who has disappeared “just went into town”. As Burke’s ghost strikes again and again, the film moves further and further into well-worn genre grooves.
As played by veteran actor Mark Rolston, the ghost of Dr. Burke is almost a caricature of the type of gleefully sadistic fiend that has become so fashionable in horror films ever since Saw
. With a leering expression and an overdone Southern accent, Rolston’s character takes warped delight in not simply killing his victims, but in taunting them and using their traumatic past memories against them. In other words, he’s simply one more cliché. I suspect that Rolston was instructed by director Ellis to ham up his performance out of a misguided assumption that it would make the character scarier. Instead it makes him laughable. Men like Burke have always existed in real life. You can find them in history books telling of mankind’s greatest tyrants and mass murderers, you can find them in the memories of those who survived the horrific medical experiments carried out by the Nazis, and you will still find them today awaiting trial at The Hague. What makes men like Burke scary is not that they had monstrous personalities, but that they were so convinced of their infallibility and the righteousness of their goals that they lost their humanity. The script’s treatment of Burke’s ghost turns him into little more than just a one-note slasher.
David R. Ellis has had a long career in Hollywood, but a relatively limited career as a director. He began directing with the 1996 Disney film Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco
, of all improbable things. He followed that up with the brutal Final Destination 2
in 2003, the not bad thriller Cellular
in 2004, and the instant cult sensation Snakes on a Plane
in 2006. Asylum
represents his lowest ebb as a director so far. In this film he is at his best when he is not trying to scare his audience or gross them out, and there are two scenes that do stand out for their subtle qualities. The first is the opening scene. In it, the young Madison is awakened out of bed by a commotion downstairs. Discovering her brother is already out of bed, she joins him at the foot of the stairs as they watch their mother try and control their crazed father. Ellis shoots the scene exactly how the children would really see it, with Madison and her brother watching the action through a doorway. Pulling away from their mother, their father disappears from sight, there’s a gunshot and he falls into view, dead. No fancy camerawork, no flashy editing. And it works beautifully. Almost as effective is a scene that comes near the end where Holt has a Burke-induced flashback of how he, while high on drugs, allowed his kid brother to drown in their parent’s swimming pool. Jake Muxworthy injects a raw energy into the moment and brings a genuine sense of tragedy to a familiar idea.
If what happens in Asylum
feel familiar, it’s because you and I have both seen this scenario before in A Nightmare on Elm Street
and its sequels. In a movie this bad true originality seems out of the question, but it would have been to the benefit of the production had its writer and director at least injected even a small note of creativity in the proceedings. As it stands right now, Asylum
isn’t just bad – it’s insulting.
Before we delve into the image quality, I should note that my review copy is not quite the same as the copy that is in stores. Although the specs on my disc are exactly the same, it also has anti-piracy watermarks in the form of the 20th Century Fox logo that appears over the image from time to time.
is presented letterboxed at 2.40:1 and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. Although I haven’t been able to find any source to confirm it, the movie looks like it was shot digitally, as there are no signs of print damage, not even the tiniest of specks, and the image has a video-like gloss to it. The film itself is very dark, with many dimly-lit scenes, and shadow detail is actually quite good, as are the colors, which usually reach a perfect level of saturation without being too vivid. However, with all the dark scenes come a number of digital artifacts, including a number of shots that break up into big blocky pixels. An above average but imperfect presentation.
The movie is presented in Dolby 5.1 Surround. No surprises here, positive or negative. It’s hardly the most inventive or dynamic 5.1 track that I’ve ever heard, but it gets the job done. Dialogue, sound effects and music are all reproduced with accurate fidelity and there are no instances of audible distortion or background noise.
A Spanish 2.0 Surround track is also included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
There are no extras, thank god.
marks a low point in the already undistinguished directorial career of David R. Ellis. It is an unoriginal, unimaginative and unlikeable film that is simply an imitation of other, better movies. Despite the acceptable audio and visual qualities of this disc, it is impossible for me to recommend this release even as a rental, unless the viewer is motivated by morbid curiosity.
Movie – F
Image Quality – B+
Sound – B
Supplements – N/A
- Running Time – 1 hour 33 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 5.1 Surround
- Spanish 2.0 Surround
- English subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- French subtitles