Writers: S. Craig Zahler & Jerome Fansten
Director: Alexander Coutres
As far as settings for a low budget horror movie, few places that can top criminal insane asylum. decrepit conditions, and building full of drooling maniacs that enjoy wearing ribcages as hats can make for a fun night at the movies.
IFC Midnight's latest pickup Asylum Blackout is a low budget affair set mostly in one location, with director Alexander Courtes putting the mental institute setting to good use. George and his three bandmates work kitchen detail in an overcrowded/understaffed insane asylum. It's good work with decent pay and the a wall to wall thick glass window shields them from any physical contact with the inmates. When a storm knocks out the power and triggers the emergency security measures, the friends find themselves locked in with a dangerous group of lunatics that are out of their cells during meal time. Overpowering the staff, in mere minutes the lunatics are running the asylum and the kitchen crew have to avoid them at all costs while trying to call for outside help.
With the exception of one inmate taking on the role of quasi ringleader, this is mostly a faceless, anonymous bunch of crazies who hold the advantage in sheer numbers and unpredictable nature. The second act sets up a nice, tense thriller with one member of the crew barricading himself in the pantry while the others tiptoe through the corridors for a phone. The low lighting and sound of their footsteps echoing down the hall heighten the sense that something bad can spring out from behind every corner. Not all of the inmates are prone to violence or even take notice of the crew. One of the best jolts comes from an inmate casually walking across the hall to the cell directly opposite his own and paying no attention the trio ten feet down the hall. The last act swaps out tension for gore with a handful of gross out scenes and one agonizing death.
The film is set in the late 80's which takes conveniences like cell phone and wireless internet off the table, and isolates the crew from the outside world. The setup of having the staff all part of a band works for a couple reasons. First, it's totally believable that these type of guys would work in this establishment. It's the kind of thing they would think makes for a great story one day in a future Spin magazine profile once they “make it”. Band insecurities also provides a realistic source of tension between lead singer George (Rupert Evans) and hot headed guitarist Max (Kenny Doughty). Evans comes off as the grounded and thoughtful one of the bunch, and he's an easy character to root for. The film also has its characters (aside from the stereotypical asshole security guard) making smart choices, but also shows how they're in over their heads and woefully underprepared for the situation.
Asylum falls victim to a few storytelling liberties. For example, why are there so few guards on duty in the first place? Aside from the asshole head security guard, there's three others tops, and they get taken out with ease. For that matter where is the rest of the staff? Aside from one nurse, there are no other medical crew on site. Even if it the action took place late at night, there should be a skeleton crew on board making the rounds. It doesn't make sense to ask your staff cook to show up at seven am for deliveries but not have medical personnel on board. While the budget has to be taken into account, it's hard to believe you couldn't hire a half dozen extras at fifty bucks as pop to walk down a hallway wearing a lab coat and holding a clipboard.
On the other hand, it's surprising to read that Courtes comes from a background directing music videos and this is his first feature film. I'm used to watching unwatchable dreck full of visual histrionics and and no flair for storytelling. The end result often is an jumbled assembly of quick cuts and fast moving camera work that looks like it was assembled by an ADD addled teenager force fed a bag of pixie sticks before being handed the camera. Courtes work is solid here, setting up long shots and takes that amp up the tension as it the situation gets more desperate. Even the climactic shots featuring a room full of maniacs reveling in their bloody handiwork avoids the jumpy, manic cuts its easy to fall prey to. There's even hints of Carpenter in the score, with pulsing synth notes accentuating moments of duress recalling the iconic music of The Thing.
The final few minutes are going to divide reviews. I'd read a couple reviews before watching the film and expected to be confounded by the end. While it certainly leaves some things open to interpretation, my own thoughts are Courtes was trying to depict the aftereffects of the experience, it just lacked in execution. Still, it doesn't completely mar an otherwise satisfying indie thriller.
Asylum Blackout is now available for On Demand rental via iTunes, Amazon, Xbox Zune and Playstation Unlimited