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Asylum
cast: Sarah Roemer, Jake Muxworthy, Mark Rolston, Cody Kasch, and Carolina Garcia

director: David R. Ellis

93 minutes (18) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Mark West
The film opens with eight-year-old Madison being woken up by her father who's having a rant downstairs. She creeps down to see what's going on, standing with her brother on the stairs and watches her mum try to calm her dad down. It doesn't work and he shoots himself. Cut to several years later and mum is now dropping off Madison (Sarah Roemer) at the Richard Miller University (Dick Miller University? If that's deliberate, that's very cool), both of them mourning the loss - by suicide - of Madison's brother, Brandon (who killed himself at this very university). At enrolment, Madison meets up with her fellow dorm-mates, a mixed but friendly bunch, shown to their quarters by a vaguely obnoxious grad student called Res. He gives them his rules (designed to stop anyone enjoying themselves basically) and tells them never to go through the locked door into the deserted wing attached to their building.

Once he leaves, String (Cody Kasch) hacks into his laptop and the gang discover that the deserted portion of the dorms was once an asylum, run by an evil and sadistic Doctor Burke (Mark Rolston), who experimented on teenagers to cure them of their ills. He went mad, the teenagers revolted, he was killed and the asylum shut down. Our gang decide to investigate, find papers that prove just how insane Burke actually was but are chased away and told off by campus security and Res. However, their collective interests are now piqued and they decide to look further.

In a contrived move, it quickly becomes clear that each fresher is hiding some kind of secret, which would make them ideal fodder for Dr Burke - is that purely coincidence (i.e. contrived by the screenwriter) or the suggestion that those in the know are aware of Burke (much more interesting, but never mentioned). Anyway, our run-down is this: Holt (Jake Muxworthy) is a recovering drug addict, wracked with guilt over the death of his little brother, who drowned whilst in his care; Tommy (Travis Van Winkle - a spit of Top Gun-era Tom Cruise) was a big kid, overfed by his mother who he no longer talks to, having lost his weight and toned his body to an almost narcissistic degree, Ivy (Ellen Hollman) is a self-harmer who (in an unsettlingly off-hand way) we later discover was abused and filmed by her father Maya (Carolina Garcia) was involved in a violent relationship that she's only just managed to break free from, but doesn't want to let her guard down for fear of it happening again, while String (Cody Kasch) is a prodigy, a smart hacker whose home-life is both depressing and downtrodden.

It won't spoil anyone's enjoyment to discover that Burke isn't really dead. Well, he is but he isn't - the film can't make up its mind and when he needs to be a physical presence he is, when he needs to disappear, he can. He keeps popping up, tormenting and pushing each of the characters back into their old lives, to torment them with the secrets that they are trying so hard to hide, with their deaths tying in - often quite deliciously - with that thing that shamed them (tongue and lips removed for one, another scalped, another hung, yet another subjected to brute violence).

If you're in the right frame of mind, this is actually quite an enjoyable movie. With its sinister maintenance- and security-men, who might or might not know more about the mystery than they're letting on, there's a touch of 1970s' horror cinema. With the eagerness of the likeable leads and their eagerness to get stuck into what actually happened in the asylum, it has an almost Scooby-Doo-ish feel. With the colour-scheme and busy, if muted, gore effects it harks back to late 1980s' slashers. The story moves along briskly, the little vignettes for each character work well and the actors all convey their parts well and although the film isn't at all brutal (though the eye-knives did have me cringing), it gets its message across.

If anything, that might be the film's failing - this has the feel of Nightmare On Elm Street 2; you know they want to make a horror film but they're also having to tame their ideas to try and accommodate as many people as possible. Burke could have been an interesting, almost iconic character, but he's caught between two stools - whilst he's obviously designed to be a frightening character, his make-up is fairly bland and his appearances are generally well-lit and clearly signposted. Even his 'underclothes', a bizarre concoction of leather and barbed wire, seem more like a kind of fetish vest than anything else.

I did have some problems with the ending - not so much the action or the denouement (which follow the film's logic), but the way it's handled, a riot of terribly produced CGI that looks as if it was done on a Commodore 64. Speaking of which, just because someone has produced a nice digital matte painting of the old asylum, don't keep using it as an establishing shot and don't linger - the audience can tell after a while.

All in all, this is a fun film - there are no major scares, but it tries its best and it has a sense of humour about what it's doing (and the production company is called Mad Scientist Inc, which just about says it all).
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