Updated: Jul 19, 2021
The 262nd review overall!
My wife is playing Christmas music right now after watching the Dr. Strange version of The Grinch to counteract all the horror I’ve been watching. Every so often she threatens to make me watch a Christmas movie for every day in December. Because she puts up with me, I let her pick today’s movie and she went with...
Stonehearst Asylum (2014). Netflix.
The movie opens with a medical lecture in the late 19th century. The doctor (did you know they were referred to as “alienists? Weird.) is giving a lecture and brings in a woman who swears she’s sane. The alienist (Brendan Gleeson) says no one believes they’re crazy and gives a demonstration with her. He ends the demonstration by warning the class when in an asylum, believe nothing you hear and only half of what you hear. That’s important to keep in mind while watching this movie.
The movie flash forwards to a young man, called Edward Newgate, trying to get some clinical practice, goes to the Stonehearst Asylum and meets the staff. It’s run by Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) who has some pretty unorthodox ideas on treatment. The patients are free to mingle with staff, most are not locked up, they’re taken off their drugs and the barbaric methods used in the Victorian era are strictly off limits. While Lamb and Newgate are making their rounds they come across a patient who thinks he’s a horse. After some unpleasantness, Newgate is shocked to learn they’re not trying to cure him of his delusions. Lamb, shocked, asks him why they would do that, which leads to my favorite bit of dialogue in the movie...
“Well to... bring them back to their senses.”
“And make a miserable man out of a perfectly happy horse?”
The movie raises an interesting question that I’m nowhere near qualified to answer. The patients in this asylum were committed by rich families. People that are disappointments to their families are sent there to be hidden. The families don’t care if they’re cured or not, they just want them out of the way. So why not let the people be happy? There’s also a twist that I suspected from the beginning because it’s based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story. I don’t think it was supposed to be a big secret because everything just seems off. While the movie doesn’t try to hide what’s going on, the reveal is still really good and has the one scare in the movie.
The reveal also shows off the difference in treatment philosophies and you’re left wondering what exactly you feel is worse. A previous regime was very old school in their methods, being stripped naked, doused with freezing water, stuffed full of drugs and being put in super spinny chairs. The philosophy is, “if we know what scares them we can cure them.” One way is basically torture in order to cure someone, while the other is to keep you happy by giving more freedom with really no breakthroughs. But later in the movie you realize it’s nowhere near as noble as originally presented and there are other major problems hiding beneath the surface.
I know that last paragraph can be a little confusing but I desperately want to avoid spoilers. I know you probably pieced together the twist, but still it’s better to watch it and make up your mind. It’s a good movie but gets a little boring in the second act. It raises some philosophical questions that are interesting to think about, and the cast is great. You have Ben Kingsley, Kate Beckinsale, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Caine, the dude from 21 and the werewolf from Harry Potter. Unfortunately there’s not much of a sense of dread and there’s nothing really scary about it. I feel with the cast they had and the wonderful setting and atmosphere there were plenty of opportunities but the director didn’t want to tell that story.
Those are small things in an otherwise solid movie. It makes you think, has an obvious, but good twist and it’s very well acted. There’s also one final twist at the end that’s not at all telegraphed but still is pretty good. It does make sense and in the end everyone ends up where they should be. It’s worth a watch if you’re not into horror movies but like ones that are incredibly atmospheric like Shutter Island (also starring Ben Kingsley).
7.5 Dr. Chainsaws!
Learn More: Stonehearst Asylum