(On Cable TV, April 2016) There isn’t much in Stonehearst Asylum that’s startlingly new, but the result is well executed enough to make anyone wonder why the film hasn’t received more attention. As is usual with nearly all movies revolving around an asylum, the question of who’s sane and who isn’t weighs heavily on the plot—and seeing Ben Kingsley in a role similar to the one he played in Shutter Island doesn’t do this film any favour. There is a bit of a plodding rhythm to the movie, with a second half that seems a bit empty once the film’s Big Revelation is explained a third of the way through. (There is another Big Revelation toward the end, but it feels almost meaningless.) Still, what makes Stonehearst Asylum so interesting as an unassuming late-night cable-TV discovery is polish and atmosphere. The surprisingly good cast helps: Alongside an always-effective Kingsley, we get Michael Caine in a smaller part than expected, Kate Beckinsale looking pleasantly glamorous despite being in an asylum, David Thewlis playing the heavy and Jim Sturgess as the everyman protagonist doing his best to avoid overshadowing nearly everyone else. The 1899/1900 period setting is effectively rendered by Brad Anderson’s direction, the Victorian-era asylums offering plenty of opportunities for atmospheric visuals. The cinematography is clean and crisp, adding to the visual polish of a thriller than may not be exceptionally thrilling, but certainly has an appeal of its own. It wouldn’t be helpful to expect too much from Stonehearst Asylum: The film runs on low-grade thrills compared to some similar movies. But it plays much better than expected from a film that was a commercial failure and practically went straight to video.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-budget serial-killer thriller, and while The Call doesn’t quite escape the confines of its chosen genre, it does have one or two high-concept moments that make its first hour worthwhile. The chosen focus on 911 responders is novel, and the way the script uses the limits of the caller/responder link to set up a lengthy car chase sequence is the kind of stuff fit to rejoice even the most jaded thriller fan. Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin are both initially sympathetic as (respectively) the responder and kidnapped caller, while director Brad Anderson seems to be able to wring the most out of his low production budget. The highlight of The Call has to be the titular call, a lengthy sequence in the middle of the film where the kidnapped victim, stuck in the trunk of a car, dials 911 and tries to piece together clues as to where she is, where she is headed and who her kidnapper may be. It’s a sequence with twists and turns and clever little moment and sadly it ends well before the film does. Inevitably (for so are Hollywood thriller written), the character played by the lead actress has to inject herself in the action, go investigate on the ground, find clues that trained investigators have missed, go into a lair without calling for backup, and execute vigilante justice with a heavy side-order of sadism. The Call would be a far better film without its trite and unpleasant last act –too bad that the screenwriter couldn’t recognize that the script’s best assets would be undermined by a conventional end sequence. But so it goes with the Hollywood theory of converging premises: No matter how original the set-up, it usually ends up with a female hero facing down a serial killer in a basement.