Baltimore’s own Edgar Allan Poe has long sat at the head of the table in thriller-cinema Valhalla, his tightly wound tales of the macabre providing fodder for decades of psychological chillers. Sergio Martino reinterpreted “The Black Cat” as complexly erotic giallo in 1972, and Czech stop-motion wizard Jan Švankmajer brought his surrealist touch to “The Pit And The Pendulum” in 1984, but Vincent Price and Roger Corman left their mark on Poe’s work most indelibly. Over the course of half a dozen lurid B-movies, Corman used Poe’s supreme creepiness to turn Price into a physical embodiment of all things weird and grim. Brad Anderson’s outstanding new film Stonehearst Asylum expands Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” to feature-length, but doesn’t fit as snugly into the spooky-fun tradition set by past adaptations. The films making up the Corman-Poe cycle remain a sinister delight, but between its distinctly modern intelligence and razor-sharp plotting, Anderson’s clever contraption matches the heights of Gothic grandeur that keep Poe held in esteem today.
The film opens on a classroom full of 19th-century Oxford students scribbling notes during a demonstration of a frightful new procedure used to pacify mental patients. The professor warns his rapt charges that the key to psychological evaluation lies in the discipline to “believe nothing of what you hear, and only one-half of what you see”—words that could’ve come from Anderson to his captive audience just as easily. One of the young alienists-in-training is Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), who shortly thereafter ships off to the titular sanatorium to accrue some hands-on experience with its unhinged inhabitants. Upon his arrival, Newgate learns that Stonehearst only faintly resembles the dank, barbaric abattoirs of his textbooks. Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley, who ought to pay himself royalties for such unabashed swag-jacking from his Shutter Island performance) conducts his madhouse in a progressive, humane fashion, having discovered that indulging his patients’ delusions and letting them freely roam the halls does wonders to soothe the savage breast.
Anderson (Session 9) wastes no time in playing the first card from his stacked deck, quickly revealing that Lamb and his “staffers” have staged a coup and now run the show, while Dr. Salt (Michael Caine, a lion in winter) and the real medical assistants languish in the dungeon. Poe’s short story hinges on this revelation, but Stonehearst and Anderson recognize it’s too thin to support an entire film. Instead, he uses it as a jumping-off point for a far twistier, twisted yarn.
Anderson’s consistent refusal to take the easy way out elevates this film above the delightfully dark trifles that preceded it. Stonehearst digs far deeper into the true nature of mental illness than its first act leads audiences to believe. When “Dr.” Lamb tells Newgate early on, “We’re all mad, but some of us are simply not mad enough to admit it,” viewers can already hear their ninth-grade English teachers eagerly asking whether patients are really that much crazier than their doctors. But every passing scene further shades the complicated nature of human psychology, where neurochemical imbalance can result in anything from a suspended state of mild gloominess to homicidal fury. Anderson’s well-realized view on mental illness culminates in a late, brilliant scene in which Newgate makes a move on patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) and learns what so many present-day writers of fiction still haven’t grasped: Depression is not a sexy, mysterious character trait to be romanticized until it’s cured by a man’s love.
Meanwhile, a well-curated lineup of British thespians make high chamber horror out of each spine-tingling setpiece. Watching finely aged titans like Kingsley and Caine go toe-to-toe is an exquisite pleasure. Kingsley in particular imbues every line with the gravitas of a stage veteran, taking full advantage of the opportunity to bellow bon mots like, “We shall heat ourselves with the fire of our ignominious past!” David Thewlis has a ball with his loose-screw groundskeeper, Mickey Finn; his bite marks really tie the immaculately designed period scenery together. With his dreamy good looks concealed beneath scraggly facial hair and a pair of wire spectacles, Sturgess manages to hold his own among a cast of heavyweights, too.
In an early scene, Lamb shows Newgate a device used to bore holes in skulls so evil spirits may be able to freely exit the brains of the tormented. “Let us be thankful we live in more enlightened times,” he says. The line elicits a little snort of incredulity; the cultural dialogue surrounding every new public mass shooting proves America still has a ways to go before reaching a full understanding of abnormal psychology. But in taking a clear-eyed view on such a nuanced subject, Stonehearst Asylum does heroic work to set the world in the right direction.