The Asylum (2000)

The early years of the 21st century have witnessed an upturn in the fortunes of the British horror film. Low and big budget films alike have captured the public’s imagination in a way not seen since the 1960s. A small group of British directors have appeared who cite Britain’s horror heritage as their inspiration, but who have gone on to make original genre masterpieces which, while owing something to the past, look strongly to the future. Genres have been invented (Dog Soldiers – is it a horror film, a war movie or a comedy?) and others have been turned on their heads (28 Days Later owes much to the works of John Wyndham and his 50s ilk, but is as resolutely forward-looking as its predecessor, Trainspotting).

But this wasn’t always so. Until 2001 the British horror film was in the doldrums, the flickering flame only kept alive by a group of rabid independent filmmakers who struggled on, knowing there was little or no chance of their product ever making it as far as the local Blockbusters, let alone a cinema screen. And although such artistic integrity should be applauded, it didn’t always make for great entertainment.

The Asylum is one of these productions. Financed through a share selling scheme and never given a theatrical release, it is obviously a labour of love – a homage to the Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren films of the 70s, packed full of genre stars (Robin Askwith, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Mower) and actually quite lovely to look at. The problem is that it is so inward-looking, so obviously a love letter to a type of film that few people in this day and age have actually seen, that it effectively excludes any potential audience. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the past, as long as you remember that we no longer live in the 1970s. Modern audiences expect more from their films, that is why you don’t see Pete Walker’s House Of Whipcord still showing at your local Vue Cineplex, and why a DVD release of Norman J. Warren’s Satan’s Slave didn’t exactly set the charts alight. The Asylum apes the films it references so much that it contains all their worst aspects – poor special effects, bad acting and a leaden pace. For anyone who isn’t a fan, it’s like sitting through a 90 minute in-joke that you just don’t get.

The story involves a young woman called Jenny, who, along with her sister, was brought up in the lunatic asylum run by her father (Mower, fresh from camping it up in Emmerdale and actually putting in a good performance for once). She dreams that it was her who stabbed her mother to death many years ago, and makes a pilgrimage back to the now-closed institution to dispel her fears.

But she’s not the only one who’s planning on returning - a disparate group of ex-loonies are all seeing a swirling special effect which they all decipher as meaning “return to the bin”.

Once everyone has arrived at the murky old building (including former Doctor Who Colin Baker, who plays a fat Northern estate agent with scenery chomping relish), people start getting messily murdered (the sight of Baker covered in blood and dying, mumbling “I’m sorry, mother... I didn’t mean it!” is a strange and disturbing one).

But the problem is that the deaths aren’t graphic enough for a 21st century film, and the plot doesn’t make any sense at all. People get scared for no reason, they jump to huge conclusions and walk into stupid situations.

Characters such as Jenny’s ineffectual boyfriend seem to have been thrown in for no reason other than Pete Walker had similar characters in Frightmare and House Of Mortal Sin (he even drives a very late 60s / early 70s foppish cliché, the Morris Minor), and no-one seems to be taking the serious proceedings very seriously. Pitt in particular takes up the ham baton and wildly runs off with it, pop-eyedly screaming lines like “Don’t you understand that you murdered your mother? You stabbed her and you stabbed her and you stabbed her!”

Robin Askwith, as befits a man of his station, tends to get all the good lines as a heroin-addicted hippy (“At least when the loonies were here you couldn’t hear yourself think...” and “Are you The Filth? No offence...”), but the whole thing gets very self referential towards the end, with the actual murderer giving soliloquies like: “I wish I could avoid the cliché of the deformed face and the deformed mind... I’m like a character in a bad play”.

The Asylum had its heart in the right place – and indeed, once looked like being a rather weak full-stop at the end of the British horror film genre. But things have moved on in the intervening years, and it can now be seen as a strange little blip in a long and illustrious history.

Updated: February 27, 2010

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