Abandoned mental asylums have always seemed appealing to me. These vast, self-sustaining communities exiled from the rest of the world, now left to decay. Photographer Christoper Payne has a beautiful collection under the simple title Asylum; the perfect coffee table book for anyone who can see the dilapidated aesthetic wonder of such places. Marcus Nispel’s new horror movie goes by many names; The Asylum is just one. Depending on your territory it might also be called Backmask or even Exeter.
Now, I live in Exeter. The real Exeter in Devon, that is. It’s a fairly sedate place. As a horror fan, the idea of a scarefest sharing the name of my current home taking place in an abandoned asylum proved a little too had to resist, sucker that I am. Sucker, yes. For The Asylum is a massive let down and waste of time, even if it doesn’t appear to be at first glance.
Nispel’s film has no interest in thoughtful contemplation or atmospheric place setting. Fine. I’m up for a schlocky treat as much as a slow brood. After a seemingly inexplicable opening scene in which a grimy topless woman commits suicide, the film whips through some gravel-voiced narration advising us of the predictably abusive history of Exeter School For The Feeble Minded, before cutting to present day and church volunteer Patrick (Kelly Blatz) begrudgingly allowing peer-pressure to rule over common sense. “Let’s have a party at the abandoned asylum you’re helping to tidy!” Have none of these kids ever seen a horror movie before?
Within seconds its beer bogs, beer pong, and a veritable smorgasbord of drugs. Bratty teens everywhere. Even a rock band. Patrick stands in the middle of it not sure how things escalated so quickly. But The Asylum is all about escalation, and it isn’t about to stop now. For a little while here, it’s all pretty amiable. Despite largely looking as though they’re blowing off steam between GAP adverts, these meddlesome kids are fairly relatable and economically drawn. Reign (Brittany Curan) is the pretty girl at the party that Patrick takes a shine to; Drew (Nick Nordella) is the permanently shirtless loudmouth with, err, cheese puffs stuck to his back (don’t ask); Brad (Brett Dier) is the really boring, vanilla one; Amber (Gage Golightly) is his mildly trashy girlfriend. Rounding out the group are the token wise cracking tubby guy Knowles (Nick Nicotera) and super-irritating Hanson-wannabe prankster Rory (Michael Ormsby). Before you can say ‘poor life choices’ Rory has been possessed and the party’s over. Or, depending on your tolerance thresholds, it’s only just begun.
Nispel – whose previous credits include the phenomenally dire remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – ensures that his movie hits a level of strung-out mania early on. Though we are generally inclined to side with these kids, they quickly accumulate enough crimes and misdemeanors between them to end up on America’s Most Wanted by the time the movie’s a third over. It is around this point (when a shotgun-toting stranger – looking like a cross between a pro-wrestler and Snarf from ThunderCats – briefly crashes the movie) that any sense of vague empathy or immersion gurgles its way down the drain. Having started out riffing on your standard possession movie set-up The Asylum persists on shifting restlessly from one tired trope to another, becoming an ADHD haunted house movie as magic shuts off all the exits, before free-falling into a dismal gore-fest in which anything can and will happen excessively.
It is this final third that strips the film of points at an alarming rate. Up until about midway through I was happy enough to give The Asylum a generic three out of five, pleased enough by its energetic genre-hopping, amused by how often these kids Google their way into/out of trouble. The filmmakers were evidently having a blast making this, and the actors are all incredibly game. That’s infectious, up to a point. So for a while this is super-disposable nonsense of a fairly enjoyable stripe…
However, the cast quickly become far too disposable. Amid all the constant gear-changing, Nispel’s movie gets stuck on the track marked ‘brainless meatgrinder’ and then simply accelerates. Funny thing is, the more ‘shocking’ it becomes, the less interesting it is. While The Asylum hardly began with the rich characterisation of recent gems like Spring or It Follows, you can’t help but get a sense that any connection to our doomed heroes has been swiftly traded away in favour of letting the crimson flow in a variety of uninspired death scenes. One even succumbs to an accident worthy of a Darwin Award; a moment of staggering stupidity that might just be the only smirk-worthy moment in the otherwise joyless crawl to the finish line. It’s disheartening how quickly the film trades in its early positives. As it does so, giving up is the only option. It’s virtually impossible to give a shit as the movie spirals ever downward.
And all the while the soundtrack crashes and booms wildly. It’s far too hyperactive, oscillating from quiet to loud with more gusto than a Pixies album running at 78rpm. It’ll have home audiences permanently adjusting the volume. To call the sound design of The Asylum irritating would be something of an understatement. It’s a frequent bugbear of modern horror most prominent in James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious series.
But here’s something crucial… those movies are fun. The Asylum gets steadily less enjoyable as it goes along. Until it’s just annoying. Until you just want it to stop.
Did I mention Stephen Lang (Avatar) is in the mix too? Yeah, he is. As a priest. Do you care? Who the hell should? Is this an abrupt way to end a review? Maybe. Too bad. You get the gist. The gist is don’t bother.