Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stonehearst Asylum: the Poe Treatment

Dr. Silas Lamb certainly understands the pluses and minuses of corporal punishment and anesthetizing drugs as treatment for lunacy. He is after all based on the superintendent of Poe’s short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” He will indeed reveal a revolutionary and irreversible new treatment to his na├»ve young colleague. Yes, there has been the proverbial reversal of positions in the remote mental hospital, but the standard of care has arguably increased in Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum (trailer here), which releases on DVD and BluRay today, from Millennium Entertainment.

Idealistic Dr. Edward Newgate has arrived at Stonehearst determined to talk his way into a job. He has a passion for psychiatric medicine that duly impresses Dr. Lamb, even though he was not expecting a prospective assistant. Although he talks a progressive game, Newgate is rather shocked by Lamb’s indulgent methods. Several of the patients even perform nursing duties and dine with the staff at night. However, he is even more preoccupied with Eliza Graves, the abused wife of a rich and powerful society scion. For her own protection, Lamb promises to keep her safely committed. Of course, Newgate has his own ideas regarding Ms. Graves that become ever more confused when he discovers the real staff chained up in the dungeon.

It goes without saying, but Stonehearst would have been so much more awesome if it had been made by Roger Corman. Anderson and the design team get the trappings right, but they never properly convey an atmosphere of gothic dread nor a flair for cheeky camp. It is sort of like a middling BBC historical drama set in a nut house.

Still, Sir Ben Kingsley gets a spirit of things rather admirably. He certainly is not bashful when it comes to chewing on scenery and freaks out quite convincingly when he has to. Unfortunately, Jim Sturgess and Kate Beckinsale make pretty vanilla Victorians as Newgate and Graves, respectively. Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson have their moments as more conventionally problematic alienists, but there is only so much they can do. Even David Thewliss seems to be forcing matters as the malevolent groundskeeper known as “Mickey Finn.”

Screenwriter Ben Gangemi is about as faithful to Poe as the classic Corman adaptations, adding a further ironic twist that works well in context. Nevertheless, a costume genre film really ought to be more fun. Instead, Stonehearst is strangely determined to make a serious statement about the shortcomings of the Victorian mental health system, which seems beyond unnecessary at this point. Kingsley is a gamer, but only Poe completists should feel the need to catch up with Stonehearst Asylum, now available on DVD from Millennium Entertainment.