★ / ★★★★
Clark Stevens (Joshua Leonard) recently got accepted as an intern in the Cunningham Mental Hospital. While some gave him a warm welcome like Sarah (Jordan Ladd), a fellow intern, others like the head nurse of the facility (Dendrie Taylor) gave him the stink eye. While Clark awaited to meet Dr. Franks (Lance Henriksen), the director of the hospital, he noticed something strange. It looked like Dr. Franks was researching about paranormal phenomena in psychiatric facilities. Assigned to live in the upper floors, Clark eventually started to see ghosts of a little boy, a first sign that maybe something was very wrong about the place. Written by William Butler and Aaron Strongoni, directed by the former, “Madhouse” was effective in terms of building a creepy atmosphere but it didn’t quite know how to deliver scares that audiences would remember. The editing was partly to blame. Whenever the film wanted to show something scary, manic editing overshadowed the tension. Images of snakes, blood, and shadows were shown but none of them were ever explained. Without explaining to us the significance of the symbols, there was no reason for us to be scared of them. Instead of focusing on the gruesome kills, the editing became distracting and annoying. The director should have allowed us to absorb the horror of what was happening to the ill-fated characters. Speaking of characters, none of them were fully developed. The staff performed unethical practices, which I’m sure held some truth in actual mental hospitals, but I’m afraid the picture didn’t highlight enough positive elements of such places. The staff were simply cardboard cutouts for the sake of being a horror movie. In doing so, the material failed to challenge us by showing us a glimmer of reality. Sometimes we get scared the most of we knew that what we were seeing could potentially happen in actuality. If the writers wanted us to feel like the mental facility was a real place, they should have added depth by highlighting the pros and cons of rehabilitation centers. If the writing and direction, with enough skill and luck, were synergistic, the place itself could have been a character. There’s a difference between simplicity and somnolence. Unfortunately, “Madhouse” teetered toward the latter. With such an unbelievable ending, I got the impression that Butler and Strongoni had no idea how to end their story so they took the easy (and lazy) way out by writing a “shocking” ending. I thought it cheated and that was unforgivable. I enjoyed Leonard’s performance because he had a certain vulnerability about him. I wished the material he had to work with was more worthy.
Sucker Punch (2011)
★ / ★★★★
After their mother’s death, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister were left in the hands of their evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). When he found out that the sisters were the heir to the fortune he hoped to receive, he was possessed by rage and tried to hurt the girls. Commotion ensued and Baby Doll was accused of accidentally killing her sister. She was sent to a mental hospital where she eventually planned her escape with other patients (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung). Directed by Zack Snyder, there was no denying that “Sucker Punch” delivered visual acrobatics galore. The action sequences looked dream-like, appropriate because much of the fantastic elements occurred in Baby Doll’s mind, and the girls looked great in their respective outfits. However, it was unfortunate that there was really nothing else to elevate the picture. The acting was atrocious. Blue (Oscar Isaac), one of the main orderlies, for some reason, always felt the need to scream in order to get his point across. I understood that Isaac wanted his character to exhibit a detestable menace, but he should have given more variety to his performance. Sometimes whispering a line in a slithery tone could actually pack a more powerful punch than yelling like a spoiled child. I was astounded that we didn’t learn much about Baby Doll’s friends. They were important because they helped our protagonist to get the four items required if she was to earn her freedom. I wondered what the sisters, Sweat Pea and Rocket, had done to deserve being sent to such a prison. They seemed very close. Maybe for a reason. The girls were supposed to have gone crazy in some way but there was no evidence that they weren’t quite right in the head. If they were sent to the mental hospital for the wrong reasons, the script should have acknowledged that instead of leaving us in the dark. They, too, could have been framed like Baby Doll. Overlooking such a basic detail proved to me how little Snyder thought about the story. “Sucker Punch” tackled three worlds: the mental institution, the brothel, and the war against Nazi zombies. Too much time was spent in the whorehouse, the least interesting of them all, and not enough time in the asylum. Though beautiful to look at due to its post-apocalyptic imagery, I could care less about the battle scenes with the dragons, giant samurais, and Nazi zombies. The reason why Snyder should have given us more scenes of Baby Doll in the asylum was because that was Baby Doll’s grim reality: in five days, she was to be lobotomized. Those who’ve played a role-playing video game in the past five years are aware that the games have mini-movies during key events in the story arc. Those images were as good as the ones found here and some of the stories in those games are quite compelling. If images were all this film had to offer, then why should we bother to watch it?
In Dreams (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
The movie started off with a breathtaking tour of a town submerged in water that Claire (Annette Bening) saw in her dreams. She also had dreams of a little girl who was kidnapped by a man (Robert Downey Jr.) who lived in a place full of apples. Obsessed with the details of her dreams because they came true before, her own daughter was eventually kidnapped and she had to find a way to get to the man who kidnapped her child while trying to persuade her husband (Aidan Quinn) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) that her dreams were real. Even though the movie asked its audiences to take a leap of faith time and again about visions eventually becoming reality and strange coincidences, I could not help but get really into the story because of the way Bening invested in her character. I mean the following as a compliment but she made a very convincing crazy person when she eventually was sent to a mental hospital. I was entertained with how some scenes were supposed to be scary or haunting but they had strong hints of comedy and even tragedy. I liked that quality because although I knew where the story was going, it still managed to surprise in small ways so I did not lose interest. Neil Jordan fascinates me as a director because of the masterful way he balances elements of surrealism and realism. I noticed he would play with the extremes but there would come a point when it became difficult to discern what was real or what was fantasy. In other movies, I am usually aware of the intermediates of the extremes. What I was not very excited about, however, was how useless some of the characters were which negatively impacted the movie’s middle portion. I saw the cops and the psychiatrist as mere distractions or hindrances instead of figures that genuinely tried to help the main character. It was one of those horror movie clichés that just did not work and I grew frustrated with the material because I knew that the director was more than capable of doing something completely different with his characters like in one of his films called “The Butcher Boy.” Since the movie was based on the novel “Doll’s Eyes” by Bari Wood, perhaps Jordan was just trying to remain loyal to the book. Nevertheless, when adapting a novel to film, there should always be an artistic leeway in which the writers could tweak certain aspects in order to avoid the obvious. Upon its release, “In Dreams” did not receive good reviews which I thought was understandable because it tried to do something different in terms of not everything making complete sense in the end. I thought it worked because we don’t necessarily understand our dreams at times and I believe Jordan was deliberate in leaving certain strands unsolved.
Kings & Queen (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rois et reine” or “Kings and Queen” tells the story of a man and a woman who were going through their own problems in life. Initially, the two camps seemed to be unconnected because of their predominantly disparate tones–one comedic and one tragic. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who lives with her third husband-to-be, visited her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and father (Maurice Garrel). After Nora’s father confessed to her that he has been having some stomach problems, she took him to the hospital and found out that he was terminally ill. This caused a great interruption on the life she desperately wanted to believe was going great because she now had to deal with where to put her son because he and the third husband do not get along. She also had to deal with her sister who only used their father for money and what the father really thought of Nora. On the other hand, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) was sent back to the mental hospital against his will. In there, he found amusing ways to cope such as finding romance and discussing his psychology with a psychiatrist. Although this film was about a many things at once, it impressed me because in a span of about two hours and thirty minutes, it was able to balance comedy and drama throughout. What’s more impressive was Arnaud Desplechin’s, the director, ability to cut to one genre to another when things began to feel suffocating. So, in a way, it worked as two different but good films but the connections that the two had made it that much more enjoyable. Just when I thought everything was going to wrap up in a neat little package when Devos and Amalric finally had a scene together, more problems began to appear because two had a history. Many questions were then brought up such as when one’s responsibility should end when a relationship has been mutually agreed upon as over, whether the mother is doing the right thing by indirectly choosing her third husband over her only child, and the pros and cons of keeping a certain knowledge a secret when the burden is too much to bear. There was a certain organic feel in the film which made me believe that the events portrayed could have happened in real life. I thought one of the strongest scenes in the movie was its ending–the conversation between Amalric and Lelong–because it remained true to itself: with every negative comes a positive (and vice-versa). “Rois et reine” is the perfect film for those who love character studies of individuals who have many imperfections but still have certain reedeming qualities.
The Uninvited (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Uninvited,” directed by Charles Guard and Thomas Guard, is a remake of a Korean film “A Tale of Two Sisters.” I have not seen the latter but I was actually surprised with how this one turned out because the trailers looked unconvincing to say it lightly. This picture is about a girl (Emily Browning) who is recently released from a mental hospital. When she returns home, she finds out that her father (David Strathairn) is in a relationship with the very same nurse (Elizabeth Banks) who took care of her mother when she was still alive. After dreaming about her mother’s angry ghost proclaiming that the nurse murdered her, the main character teams up with her spunky sister (Arielle Kebbel) and the two gather up evidence to get the nurse out of their lives. Since the movie is about a girl who has been recently released from a mental hospital, I decided to view this film from a psychological point of view. Right away, I knew something was a bit off with some of the characters because they exhibited paranoia, delusions and even psychosis with memory relapses. Yes, the premise of the film involved a ghost story/murderer backdrop but I thought that all of it was ultimately justified considering the main character’s state of mind. To me, this is not really a horror film as most people would say. It’s more of a psychological thriller because the way the story unfolded is really from the main character’s perspective. It was able to utilize the whole evil stepmother concept to add to the ever-growing conflict in the house (and stress that comes with it). The stresses then triggers something explainable (to an extent) which happened in the final act. This horror remake is far from perfect but it was interesting enough to keep my attention to figure out what was really happening underneath the supernatural facade. Having said that, I can also understand why a person who sees this film from a purely horror genre perspective may be frustrated with it. I say if one is remotely interested in watching it for whatever reason, then by all means do so. But I must give a warning that “The Uninvited” offers nothing new.