Overview: Isabel, a well-to-do young Victorian woman chooses to go to Rosewood Institute, a mental health convalescence facility, at the urging of her brother in order to recover following the death of their parents. There, she meets Doctor Cairn, whose “methods” draw her into a bizarre world of experimental personality modification and role-playing participated in by doctors and patients alike. Momentum Pictures; 2017;Rated R; 90 minutes.
BLUF: This movie is absurd—so much so, in fact, that it’s difficult to review. It’s absurd, and not remotely frightening. If that’s what you want to know, you can stop reading here.
You want to know more?: All right… The film begins with promise: a pretty young woman in a Victorian mental health institution. The script could almost write itself, because the truth of such institutions is horrifying on its own. In fact—well, I’ll hold that thought and return to it later.
There’s a lot to untangle here. As I’ve already covered, this movie is absurd, and its absurdity comes primarily from the amalgamation of high school lit class references, unfortunate dialogue, and classic horror movie tropes that make up its script. There’s so much going on that one doesn’t know where to start—which, I think, may have been the experience of the writers as they brainstormed the plot of this piece.
But I’ll try. So let’s start with…feminism(?): Pretty much right away, you learn a lot about the so-called doctor on the premises, Dr. Cairns (played by James Franco). First, he is a sort of proto-feminist, and he uses that to manipulate his patients (want independence? I can help you with that!). Second, he has an obsession with the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Salem witch trials. Third, he uses aconite (also known as monkshood or wolf’s bane, as any Harry Potter fan would know) to “treat” his patients, and rather than killing them, it turns them into docile playthings for Dr. Cairns weird fantasies (again, Hawthorne-related).
In her first real session with Dr. Cairns, Isabel shares that her general practitioner thinks she needs therapy because she is “willful” and “curious.” Dr. Cairns, with all the perspective of a 20-something modern-day man, tells her that there is nothing wrong with her, and that she is unhappy because she feels confined by the life she leads. He intends to liberate her by helping her find her true identity.
So, this is a bit heavy-handed, but enough to pique one’s interest. Maybe this will become one of those horror films in which the woman claims her agency and exacts revenge on her tormentors! If you hope to see ideas of feminism explored further, though, you will be disappointed.
And then Hawthorne. And whipping? And chanting?: Things go a little off the rails following the hollow discussion of the plight of the Victorian lady. Isabel, being a curious person as discussed, naturally explores The Institute at night, and soon discovers a group of patients who seem really disturbed. I mean, they wear night-gown-like dresses, have stringy hair, and moan and scream a lot, so they’re clearly insane (–eye roll–). What you would expect is that the doctor is performing experiments on these women—lobotomies, say, or electrotherapy, or sterilization—and he is, sort of, but when he’s not having the ladies whip each other while topless, he’s having them reenact scenes by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Also, drugging, and a secret society: To get his patients to be cooperative, Dr. Cairns (moustachioed James Franco) gives them “tonics” that include aconite, which, rather than killing them as it ought to have, makes them servile and Hawthorne-obsessed. That servility is the goal of the Aconite Society, which puts on and participates in the “performances…”
Wait. What?: Yes, the Aconite Society. This is one of a handful of subplots that add little but further confusion to an already confused movie. It seems like the plot should be “Victorian woman escapes mental health institute where she is being tortured in scary ways.” Unfortunately, what should be a simple plot meanders and takes so many zany turns that by the end the viewer feels like they’ve been on a trip. You might recall that Josh Duhamel is in this movie—he is! He investigates Rosewood at the request of Isabel’s brother, and discovers only that there are “stories” that people would rather not talk about. Oh really? Thanks, investigator, for the details. There’s also the matron of the place, who is supposed to be significant in some way but that way never becomes totally clear. And then there’s the guy who runs the Institute, who is supposed to be a villain but again this never becomes totally clear, and he’s so easily forgotten that it’s kind of confusing whenever he shows up.
Workshop this thing: I truly believe that everyone has some good ideas—sometimes it takes a lot of constructive criticism to trim away that which is getting in the way of a nice, clean, good idea. It doesn’t seem like this script got that criticism, however. A few quality workshops a la freshman Creative Writing, and you’d have a tighter plot with better dialogue. As it is, it feels like it was written by a college kid who recently studied American Literature and took an Intro to Philosophy course, and who is carried away with their recently broadened understanding. Phrases like “tabula rasa incarnate,” “narcissistically concerned with petty trivialities,” and “is the disgusting repulsive little urchin sampling my wares?” should never have made the cut.
Returning to that thought I held: In fact, much of this script should not have made the cut. It felt cluttered with half-formed ideas, with the result that it was not tight, plot-wise, but also wasn’t remotely scary. At the end, it’s revealed that the real Rosewood Institute was a front for human trafficking, and my thought was, “Well, why not just stick with that?? That’s horrifying!.” That’s scary. That’s good material. Why bring in Hawthorne at all? Why the Aconite Society? Why all the animal masks and boobs (yes, boobs)? Why?
Overall: In the end, The Institute is an inchoate mess that’s kind of difficult to review. If you’re looking for good writing or a good scare, look elsewhere.
Featured Image: Momentum Pictures