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The Search for the Worst Movie Ever: 'Stonehearst Asylum'

By Cinesnark | Film | November 5, 2014 |

By Cinesnark | Film | November 5, 2014 |

Stonehearst Asylum manages to be both utterly boring and completely ludicrous. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” Stonehearst Asylum takes a parody of histrionic Victorian torture porn and turns it into a mish-mash of would-be Gothic horror and black comedy. It must have looked good on paper, because somehow the movie has a staggering amount of talent at its disposal: Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, David Thewlis, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, and Jim Sturgess star, and it’s directed by Brad Anderson, who also made The Machinist. There’s a lot of talent on display, it just doesn’t add to up anything.

Sturgess—who perpetually looks like he’s on the verge of tears—plays Edward Newgate, a newly-christened doctor in 1899 England. He goes to Stonehearst Asylum seeking an apprenticeship, and there he finds a madhouse gone mad. It SHOULD be great. The production design is really good; the asylum looks like Whipstaff Manor by way of 12 Grimmauld Place (aka my dream home), and the movie does manage some decent swipes at the barbaric methods used to treat the mentally ill, as well as “hysterical” women. But the first half is so boring it’s almost unwatchable, and the second half is so over the top that by the time the final reveal occurs it feels anticlimactic after all the batshit crazy stuff that came before it.

The original story is a lesser Poe, and it works mainly because of its brevity and whimsy. It’s a really short story with a really obvious plot twist, made tolerable because it’s perversely funny. But the movie is two hours long and it trades Poe’s goofiness for Gothic melodrama, and the result is a mess. I’d really like to know why so many talented people signed onto this movie. Was there an earlier script draft that made more sense? Did everyone really want a paid vacation to Bulgaria (where it was filmed)? Or does Brad Anderson have compromising photos of everyone involved? Were they paid in gold bars and/or dragon eggs? Why? Why would they do this?

Kate Beckinsale I kind of get—she’s basically Goth Nicole Kidman and this is the type of movie she makes—and let’s be honest, Ben Kingsley will be in whatever shit you’re paying him to be in (see also: Prince of Persia, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, The Love Guru). But what about everyone else? What is MICHAEL CAINE doing here? And Brendan Gleeson, I hope he got paid like, a million dollars. I hope he got a new car AND a vacation home out of this deal.

I had a lot of thoughts while watching Stonehearst Asylum—mostly about everything I could be doing besides watching Stonehearst Asylum—but I kept coming back to how much I wish someone would make a movie about female hysteria and the “rest cure”. There’s already a comedic take, Hysteria, but the notion of hysteria and the insidiously evil rest cure have always struck me as ripe for cinema. I wish Quentin Tarantino would make a movie about a group of women escaping an asylum and exacting revenge on the husbands and fathers who had them committed. Call it Corsets Unbound.

This is not that movie, though. This is more like Corsets Loosely Laced. It’s too weird to work as an actual good movie, but it’s too boring to work as weirdo “gotta see it for yourself” cinema. It suffers from The Hobbit Problem (trying to stretch short source material into a feature-length film), and neither Goth Nicole Kidman nor Weepy Sturgess is a compelling enough protagonist to carry the movie. Given the sheer talent involved it’s confounding that Stonehearst Asylum didn’t manage to be at least a little entertaining, but it’s not at all. It didn’t make me want to claw my eyeballs out, but that’s only because my levels of boredom hovered around “apathetic” and “despondent”. The only reason to ever watch this movie is if you want to take a nap on a Sunday afternoon and need help going to sleep and golf isn’t your thing.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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