Stonehearst Asylum (2014)


1 hour 53 minutes – Rated PG-13 for gore, violence, and some insinuated sexual situations

Tomorrow is a day that will live in infamy. On October 7th, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died under mysterious circumstances. He was found in a terrible state and managed to utter “Lord help my poor soul” before he died although it is hard to substantiate that claim. He also reportedly called out the name “Reynolds” the night before his death but nobody knows who that is. His death certificate and medical records disappeared and so nobody could confirm what he actually died of. It is widely accepted that he was an alcoholic and that is often chosen as the direct or indirect cause of death. We do know that the death of his wife hurt him deeply and definitely unbalanced his life combined with his career in writing for journals causing him to have to move around a lot. Regardless, 168 years ago tomorrow he died and was buried in my hometown of Baltimore. The so-called Father of the Mystery Story had left behind two mysteries. One, the exact cause of his death and the other was a Baltimore urban legend. The Poe Toaster is an unidentified man who deposited a bottle of cognac, roses, and sometimes a note on Poe’s grave on Poe’s birthday. To this day, his identity remains a secret but it is theorized that since the tradition continued at least 60 years that it may have been a family tradition. It was a fitting triubte to a man who poured so much horror and mystery onto the page.

If doctors and normal hospitals are scary, then an asylum for the insane or mentally unbalanced is even scarier to me. When I was growing up, we were jokingly told to be good or we would end up in Shepard Pratt. Sheppard Pratt is a mental facility situated in Baltimore County and it has been there throughout my life. It is a modern center of mental health and nowhere near the frightening place that I imagined when I was a kid. Still, it is a facility full of people who are mentally unhealthy enough that they must be kept in a facility to cater to their needs. There should be no stigma for these people but the reality is that these people can be unpredictable. Walking amongst those patients, I would know that they are at least a little more volatile than I am. Dealing with that is scary to me. Beyond feeling less than safe, I would feel alone as I would not know whose mind I could trust beyond the staff. That is a modern facility, the asylums of Poe’s day were far less regulated and were unenlightened on how to treat these people. It was probably far more dangerous to work there.

Right away I really liked the acting. Every line is instilled with a little bit of tension so that even seemingly innocuous things seem scarier. This actually put me off my guard because I had no idea when the actual scares would be coming. This is much more effective than hitting the viewer with random jump scares and musical stings to cause unease. Actual tension is kind of a lot art these days and it was refreshing to get something with traditional horror rather than repeated frightenings. Most of the actors are people I am unfamiliar with but they all have such pleasant accents for an American-made horror film. The core of the movie is held by the legendary Ben Kingsley, legendary English actor and a very charismatic personality. Our protagonist is played by Jim Sturgess and he is likable and a great proxy for the audience. Finally, we have Michael Caine, David Thewlis, and Kate Beckinsale playing major roles.

The movie is an unreliable narrative in the style of similar books and films like Quills and Shutter Island. This is par for the course when you are dealing with insane asylums in fiction. As the movie says, you must not believe anything you hear and only about half of what you see. I will not spoil the secret of the movie but, as with a lot of great horror movies, there is a secret to the movie. It is a middle of the road mystery with some clever surprises. The lighting and the sets are great for a period piee set in one of the worst periods for medicine, a time when we knew just enough to be dangerous. The costumes seem to be impeccably researched as I did not see anything anachronistic.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty good creepy, period drama. While it is no great horror movie, it definitely helps to set the mood as we get deeper into Halloween. It is also a nice break from the two previous supernatural tales to see instead a tale of man’s inhumanity toward man. There are a lot of gray areas in this movie and that makes it all the creepier. I was looking for someting to honor Baltimore’s Edgar Allen Poe and this was the best adaptation I have seen so far. It adapted the The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether short story which is more dark comedy than this was. This had a few comedy moments but it was mostly drama and horror. I recommend it.

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