Jan 18, 2013


Asylum employees George (Rupert Evans), Ricky (Joseph Kennedy), and Max (Kenny Doughty) believe they are meant for better things, and they believe their unnamed rock band will take them there. It's for this reason that they've seemingly made their peace with working in the kitchen of an asylum serving food to the criminally insane day-in and day-out. 

As the title suggests, a power failure within the asylum kills the lights and puts them on automatic lock down. It's not soon after that the inmates soon begin to slowly take over (that old adage), seemingly led by the brilliantly-blue-eyed Harry Green (Richard Brake, probably best known for taking the lives of the Waynes in Batman Begins, and taking a dump in Doom). In an effort to assist the security team of escorting the inmates back to their rooms, the friends become isolated from each other in different parts of the hospital. And the inmates don't make it easy - not when they're throwing kitchen knives and beating weaker patients to a pulp.

Director Alexandre Courtès and co-writers S. Craig Zahler and Jérôme Fansten are smart enough to set the story in 1989, rendering arguments of "they could have used their cell phones to call for help!" obsolete  And though it's a dream that will forever remain timeless, the year also makes the idea of these young fellows endeavoring to become grunge rock 'n roll stars a bit more palatable, using their location (damn-near-Seattle) and their Nirvana-inspired lifestyle to easily establish just what we would expect of our characters. If the aspiring musician movie trope has taught us anything, it's that country boys are simple, rappers are playas, and rock stars start off with the best of intentions but soon teeter on the edge of losing themselves to drugs, alcohol, and "the life." Today, the grunge movement - and Nirvana specifically - are bemoaned for putting the final nail in the coffin of "true" rock 'n roll (as if there were still a place for Kiss and Bon Jovi in the land of triple-priced coffee) before putting another nail in their own. The grunge movement was the most short-lived in musical history. This does not bode well for our characters.

Asylum Blackout is a simple story, and simple means are used to tell it. Our actors are perfectly competent, and in the case of Evans' George, likable and sympathetic. Courtès rests on old techniques - slow motion,  the Wilhelm scream, distant blurry flashes of "what the fuck was that?" - but manages to use them effectively. He lets the story tell itself, not necessarily in the mood to ramp up the action for the less than patient crowd. But at the same time, there is that indescribable feeling of unfulfillment that permeates the hallways of Sans Asylum. The makings of a potentially unnerving and disturbing tale is here, somewhere, but for whatever reason it never comes to fruition - at least not on a significant level. As a piece of pulp, however, it works just fine. It is a zombie movie without the zombies. It is Friday the 13th with a dozen killers. People die, oh yes, and in brutally bloody ways. The set pieces in this regard are effective and are capable of providing a few thrills, cheap though they may be. The political or societal subtext of George Romero are nowhere to be found (which I bring up because this feels like something he would have made somewhere between Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies) and it makes you wonder if director Courtès ever had any intention of attempting such. IE, yes, Richard Brake biting off one of his own fingers and slowly chewing it is messed up, but after you're done squirming, you wonder what was the point.

If your horror film is set in a lunatic asylum, then that's half the battle. Even the most rudimentary filmmaker can gain some mileage from the dark, barred, and hopeless surroundings in which their characters find themselves, but those with a fine eye and keen sense are apt to deliver a minor horror classic. Brad Anderson's Session 9 comes to mind. And though it didn't set the world aflame, Carpenter's The Ward utilized its institutional environment to maximum effect. And let's not forget the over-the-top-but-wonderful remake of House on Haunted Hill, boasting perhaps the creepiest asylum captured on celluloid. 

In Asylum Blackout, Sans Asylum of Washington State is no different. The place is sprawling, and it's entirely constructed of white brick and gray metal. Dimly lit corridors stretch off into dull darkness, and what light there is becomes lost in a nauseating haze.

Asylums are naturally creepy and very sad. They exude an effortless history - more so than medical hospitals, ancient universities, and even museums. Within the confines of an asylum, even the most mundane object has the power to make your imagination run away; a wheelchair, a master key ring, a tray of pills. They only hint at the madness and the despair you'll find within each room.

While this is all well and good, the problem is Asylum Blackout depends only on the "they're ALL crazy, be afraid!" mindset to shock its audience. It also relies on the idea that the insane behind their cell doors are just dying for a chance to take back, violently, the prison that houses them. In filmdom we're supposed to let that slide and not take things so seriously, but it can't help but feel as if there were a real missed opportunity to say something about the environment of the asylum and those that are housed there. A suggestion that one of the inmates, Pete, is meek and harmless is interesting and injects a little much needed humanity, but his character is never used to full effect. Instead, the innocent are stabbed with crowbars, and bare eyeballs endure tasers.

I've read of critics' dismissal of the film's twist ending (because every horror film needs one these days) but I rather like it. It's in keeping with the aforementioned sadness and despair that asylums exude. That is, until, the last horrific gag of the film - and then you're reminded that Asylum Blackout doesn't want to do anything other than shock you. And I suppose that's okay, depending on what you want. To expect anything more, however, is crazy.

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