A nifty little B-movie adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether bolstered by a terrific cast, Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum is an enjoyably old-fashioned piece of horror filmmaking, though it won’t hold many surprises for astute viewers.
Especially those who have seen Jan Švankmajer’s excellent Šílení, a 2005 film that told exactly the same story. That movie starred Pavel Liška as the young doctor who travelled to a remote asylum, and Jan Tříska as the eccentric doctor in charge.
Stonehearst Asylum doesn’t have Švankmajer’s cuts of meat memorably dancing across the screen, but it’s an effective retelling of this story just the same. Here, Jim Sturgess plays Edward Newgate, a recent med school graduate who treks out to the titular asylum via carriage in an ominous opening that recalls the various Dracula movies.
There, he meets the hospital’s superintendent, Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), whose unorthodox methods of treating psychiatric patients includes allowing them to run the grounds freely and mix in amongst the staff doctors during official functions.
Newgate’s introduction to the asylum is a trial by fire which includes being thrown into a pit to deal with hulking psychotic Arthur Timbs (Guillaume Delaunay). Later, he discovers that the grounds hold some secrets, including a basement full of patients locked up like prisoners; characters played by Michael Caine, Sinead Cusack, and Jason Flemyng have some interesting revelations about the doctor in charge of the asylum.
The film also stars Kate Beckinsale as Eliza Graves, a patient and seemingly perfunctory love interest whose importance to that plot is given away not just by the casting but also the film’s original title (the unoriginal Eliza Graves).
David Thewlis has a meaty role as Mickey Finn, Lamb’s drooling-mad right-hand man who hunts down escaped patients through the atmospheric local forest. Brendan Gleeson has a disappointingly small cameo as a doctor seen showcasing Mrs. Graves to a classroom of students in the film’s opening scene. Eliza’s ex-husband is played by Kingsley’s son Edmund.
While not as eerie and atmospheric as some of director Anderson’s earlier films, which include Session 9 and The Machinist, Stonehearst Asylum is a faithful adaptation that includes a fitting Gothic backdrop and some great moments for its star cast; a subplot featuring the characters played by Caine and Kingsley is particularly well-executed.
This is still mainstream B-movie filmmaking, but it’s a big step up from Anderson’s previous feature, the Halle Berry-starring The Call; unfortunately, while that one made a significant profit, the studio seems to have dropped the ball with this one – it barely received a release stateside.
For anyone not familiar with the original story or Švankmajer’s Lunacy, Stonehearst Asylum holds a number of twists and turns right up through the end; just stay away from the trailer, which gives many of them away.