In the first scene of the gothic bash "Stonehearst Asylum," a doctor played by Brendan Gleeson gasses on about "the classic symptoms of the chronic hysteric." He may as well be talking about the madhouse genre itself, in addition to the fraught young woman on display, Eliza, played by Kate Beckinsale.
Based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," the film relocates the action from Poe's France to a remote corner of England, though the movie was actually shot in Bulgaria, which might look more like England if England looked a little more like Bulgaria.
Unlike his predecessor, Dr. Salt (what is this, a Victorian edition of Clue?), who allegedly favored sadistic methods of patient control, Lamb lets the loonies run amok and create their own little society. Michael Caine appears as Salt; Eliza is one of Lamb's permanent residents.
Director Brad Anderson ("The Machinist," "Transsiberian") heaps a lot onto the narrative table set by the screenwriter, Joseph Gangemi. Like Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," "Stonehearst Asylum" starts with the hysteria knob set at 11 and goes up from there.
We get bouts of electroshock therapy of a particularly harsh degree and, more frighteningly, both Kingsley and David Thewlis in cackling, bulging-eyed close-up, portraying asylum staffers you wouldn't trust with your brain, your secrets or anything else.
The key line in the script comes straight out of Poe: "Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see." The naive Sturgess character, an "alienist in training," learns more and more about what's really going on. Then there's a twist, which we won't discuss, in case you can't see it coming.
In the film's production notes, screenwriter Gangemi asserts his intent was to crossbreed a 1960s Hammer horror film with a Merchant Ivory period picture. It's nicely designed and photographed, but the movie careens from absurd comic overstatement to something darker and more troubling.
The original title was "Eliza Graves," suggesting earlier script drafts may have focused more on the Beckinsale character. As is, she gets a bit lost in her own story. And each of the actors, highly qualified, appears to be acting in a slightly different version of the same story.
"Stonehearst Asylum" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for disturbing and violent images, sexual content and language)
Running time: 1:52
Opens: Friday at theaters and VOD.