Review: Stonehearst Asylum

A recent medical school grad who takes a position at a mental institution soon finds himself taken with one of his colleagues, though he has no initial idea of a recent, horrifying staffing change.
Also released as Eliza Graves


Stonehearst Asylum has been knocking about in various guises since last June and it’s only just getting a UK release after receiving its UK premier at the Edinburgh Film Festival in February & a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ run in cinemas – exclusive to Showcase. Its come out in the states and even in Poland on DVD before coming to our shores. For a British film with this much of a budget, and this good of a cast (TWO Sirs no less!!), you have to ask yourself…why?

The original story is by Edgar Allen Poe and because of this for a chunk the film felt stunted. The short story that it’s based on (The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether), has been plagiarised and mangled to death so many times through the years, you are bound to of already seen a handful of film based on the premise. The film at points felt almost pantoesque in Dr. Newgates naivety to the situation he finds himself in when he arrives at Stonehearst. Lucky the filmmakers have created something highly original that goes far beyond Poes original story. Granted its not going leave you reeling or cause you to spring from your seat, but it keeps your attention and the momentum keeps the film going well enough.

The film is a gothic horror in the classical sense, there is very little gore and it’s low on scares. The films tone and subject matter is left to supply the horror. Ben Kingsley’s performance as Lamb is quite simply a show stopper. He stalks the Asylum, hamming up the performance of the over the top Victorian quack, his delivery is superb, talking with such bravado you cant help but laugh at his comments and at the same time find yourself wary of his underhanded and menacing demeanour.

While my excitement of having the actors from my favourite film (Sir Michael Caine and Sir Ben Kingsley – Without A Clue) make another one together, my enthusiasm diminished as the film progressed. I instead spent my time looking and admiring the wonderfully lavish sets and costumes that the film had spent a decent amount of the budget on. Its sizeable budget had been well spent, the actors, cinematography, sets, costumes and score are just superb. Why its fallen by the wayside I’m unsure.

While its not perfect and to be fair I would be quite pushed to even call it great, Stonehearst Asylum is a good film that seems to of been unfairly swept under the rug over other smaller (and not as good) horror films that have been stocking shelves in recently. While I’m not in any rush to see it again, if I stumbled on it one evening on TV, I wouldn’t change the channel.

Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Session 9 director, Brad Anderson, with a cast deep with British acting talent, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Kate Beckinsale, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Sinead Cusack, the list goes on. So, what does this melting pot of rather disparate talent give us? Well, perhaps surprisingly, the elements blend to create an effective little mystery/ thriller with an absolutely hysterical turn from Ben Kingsley at it’s heart.

The isolated asylum of the title, changed from the far more ambiguous Eliza Graves, is suitably isolated and spooky. One of those olde tyme remote, stark, brooding buildings much favoured in Poe adaptions ( specifically the Corman 60’s films) over the years. When a young doctor first arrives at the rather uniquely run mental health facility, towered over by Kingsley’s head psychiatrist, it is clear that all is not as it should be.

My only real issue with this entire film is that the story, one that back in 1844, when the original short story was written ( The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether) would have seemed fresh and groundbreaking. Almost two centuries later much of the story and location have entered cliche. That would be enough to scupper lesser attempts at such a film, but here director Anderson expertly subverts expectations with his use of Ben Kingsley. The knighted actor has in the last decade or so reinvented himself with a number of extreme characters that tower over their movies, think Sexy Beast, Iron Man 3, well this role puts Kingsley alongside Johnny Depp in the extreme character stakes. The difference is that while as time goes on Depp’s characters loose the pathos of his earlier more complex roles, ( Edward Scissorhands anyone?) Kingsley always roots his characters with a backstory that informs all of their attitudes and character choices. I can’t impress on you just what a joy it is every time his character is on screen, which is thankfully a goodly amount of time.

The other cast all perform their roles well, but to be clear it is definitely Sir Ben that makes this film such a must see.

This isn’t a horror film. It has a few jumps but it is full of atmosphere and is for the most part lots of fun. Things lag slightly in the second half, but never to the point where boredom sets in. This is the type of film that quite frankly isn’t made any more. Just the cast budget alone must have put this into the mid budget range. It often feels like a film out of time, a throwback to an earlier age. But, whoever this was green lit, I am extremely happy that it was. At points I laughed so hard I thought I was going to loose a lung.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this upon first viewing, a historical horror, could this be a film for me? With echoes of WOMAN IN BLACK I wasn’t too enthused about watching this but stuck with it regardless. If nothing else then how could you go wrong with such a superb cast of acting talent?

What I found running through this movie was a very wicked sense of humour, it all seems a bit tongue in cheek but it is done so brilliantly. It is a very clever film that keeps you guessing what exactly is going on as the arrival of Dr Newgate seems to be upsetting the way the asylum has previously been run. As the film progresses we learn what it is that is really going on and it is a superb twist on the story. Whilst it may run at a slow pace it has enough going on that as it reveals more and more it never seems to get tiresome or boring.

Kingsley and Caine are superb as arch enemies whose roles have been seriously twisted around and there’s an interesting message about how those with mental illness were once treated the belief that Dr Lamb has that he can get away with it as no one cares about those committed to Stonehearst.

This is one truly crazy movie that when you think you have worked out what is happening it throws something else into the mix but it makes for a very entertaining movie as a result, with a run time of just shy of two hours it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

I found this a fantastic watch, at first I was very apprehensive about a gothic horror but it really is a good watch. There is a real fantastic array of acting talent on show here and it just veers off into total insanity at times but that is what makes it so charming. It never gets boring and it has little pockets of humour throughout that never make it feel like some historical drama. Whilst bordering the horror/thriller genre it does in itself make for a hugely entertaining experience from start to finish. Don’t be put off by the fact its set over 200 years ago, this is a movie that gets it right and whilst not normally my thing I’m glad I watched this!

Stonehearst Asylum is out on DVD & VOD from Monday 22nd June 2015




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