“SANITARIUM” (Miami International Film Festival World Premiere Movie Review)
Midway through the artfully rendered horror anthology film SANITARIUM, Dr. Henry Stenson—a fourth-wall smashing psych ward headmaster/tour guide portrayed with typical sinister-civil aplomb by Malcolm McDowell—confides in we, the audience, the following distillation of his life’s work: “The mind is unbelievably resilient. It can create whole entire fantasies to protect us from reality and blind us from the truth…The more unpleasant the truth, the more potent the fantasy.”And, indeed, the great conceptual strength of Sanitarium is its setting—a veritable smorgasbord of unreliable narrators, slanted perspectives, and trauma-induced psychosis. At the outset of each segment we are presented with a faceless patient and a case number, which is essentially a prophecy to be fulfilled: One of the characters we are about to meet is insane or will very soon be driven insane. But who? Hints drop; red herrings fly. Eventually the truth is revealed and we move onto the next padded room, a little less sure of our perceptions than before. Imagine the soul of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS possessing the body of the eighties TWILIGHT ZONE iteration, and you’ll have a decent idea of the balance SANITARIUM strikes.
The film’s three directors are greatly aided in this endeavor by a bevy of impressive casting coups. First and foremost, of course, is McDowell, who brings a cultural cachet and gravitas to the proceedings that is strangely fitting: Thirty odd years after his indelible portrayal of the ultra-violence-enamored Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, SANITARIUM sees the screen legend return to similar aesthetic stomping grounds—only this time out McDowell isn’t a psychopathic human guinea pig at the mercy of an even more demented social engineering bureaucrat; he is the demented social engineering bureaucrat. (Perhaps viewers are being subjected to a clever clandestine Ludovico technique?)
McDowell is hardly the only “get” here. Bryan Ramirez’ tale of talking puppets and art world intrigue, “Figuratively Speaking,” features both a gloriously on fire John Glover (SMALLVILLE, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH) in uber-eccentric-mode and a coiled, reserved Robert Englund. A twitch-tastic Lou Diamond Phillips anchors Kerry Valderrama’s Doomsday-Preppers-meets-X-Files segment “Up to the Last Man.” And DR. S BATTLES THE SEX CRAZED REEFER ZOMBIES: THE MOVIE! director Bryan Ortiz deftly summons the harrowing kid vengeance nightmare “Monsters Are Real” into being with serious assists from twelve year-old TOUCH star David Mazouz, veteran character actor Chris Mulkey, and Lacey Chabert (MEAN GIRLS, PARTY OF FIVE).
SANITARIUM is not perfect. The runtime could easily be pared down a bit. There is some unnecessary lingering, in both the narrative and visual realms. Nevertheless, the film largely avoids the pitfalls to which many horror anthologies fall victim. While each segment has its own identity and feel, there is an overarching continuity of tone and coloring that keeps this cohesive entity from devolving into a schizophrenic hodgepodge of jarring blares. The writing is smart and polished, ensuring the film’s conceit never slides into gimmickry. There is confidence in the execution and verse in the performances. It has the gait and mien, in other words, of a work produced through creative synergy and synchronicity, not strife and pissing contest one-upmanship.
McDowell’s Dr. Stenson would probably see such harmonious equilibrium as bad for business, but the even keel in the telling is precisely what allows SANITARIUM’s batty stories to succeed so well.