Revolver Entertainment // 2012 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // March 28th, 2013
They found the tapes. They never found the bodies.
Since the craze began with The Blair Witch Project, I have wished that first-person horror would just go away, but it seems as popular as ever. There are a select few that I have liked over the years, including one of my favorite horror films in many moons, [REC], but the overwhelming majority of them are unwatchable to me. Many of the reasons why get highlighted in The Asylum Tapes, a new found footage entry with a good concept and a famous name attached, but with execution that leaves a lot to be desired.
Sean (director Sean Stone, son of Oliver Stone) is a young filmmaker who is obsessed with Greystone Park, an abandoned psychiatric facility with a checkered past that is rumored to be haunted. With the encouragement of his father, Oliver, he takes his two friends, a few flashlights, and a camera into the hospital to see what they find. They never returned, but their tapes were recovered. This is the footage they shot.
On the face of it, The Asylum Tapes isn't that bad an idea. I reviewed a film with a similar concept out of Singapore called Haunted Changi that wasn't necessarily great, but used some inventive techniques to show one of the creepiest places you never want to enter. The Asylum Tapes had the potential to match or exceed the merits of that film, but Sean Stone undermines himself at every step, shining a light on the problems of the style.
Greystone Park is a real place, but The Asylum Tapes wasn't filmed there. Instead, it was shot at three separate abandoned facilities that lend a certain amount of creepiness through the old dilapidated architecture, but don't give the sense of wholeness that a movie like this needs to feel real. In contrast, Haunted Changi was shot entirely at Old Changi Hospital, and the ability to go around corners and down dark staircases without edits makes all the difference in the veracity of the concept.
The bigger problem is that, on a fundamental esthetic level, horror works through the interplay between light and darkness, what is seen and unseen. If there are no shadows and everything is visible, it's very difficult to be scared. But conversely, if there is nothing but darkness, then everything is shadow. While it's easy to claim that, through that, horror can come from anywhere, with no parts in the light, there's nothing to juxtapose the shadows against. It might be interesting in concept or, especially, in horror literature, it's very difficult to make work in film (even if it does keep the lighting budget down). The Asylum Tapes is pure darkness, save the three flashlights darting around, and there's never a time where the viewer can see what's occurring. So, when a character says something like, "Look at that! That's crazy!," you just have to take their word for it.
Though, when I say it's pure darkness, that's only actually true up until the very end, when The Asylum Tapes pulls out a finale that recalls the bizarre finish of The Last Exorcism. I truly liked that entry, but many didn't and, more often than not, the reason for that is the hard left turn that the film takes with mere minutes to spare. Here, this and a few other callbacks to popular found footage films makes me wonder for a moment whether The Asylum Tapes is some kind of parody. I can only think this for a moment, though, because the film is entirely too earnest. If I'm wrong and, indeed, this is an attempt at parody, it's neither clever nor funny enough to be anything but an even bigger failure.
It says something that my favorite scene in The Asylum Tapes is a non-horror scene in a library, which actually shows a little character. Of course, it begs the question of why he's filming in the library, but that's an issue that plagues many of these films. The three principle actors: Stone, Alexander Wraith, and Antonella Lentini (all performing as characters with their own names) do a reasonably good job of acting scared, but none of them are terribly experienced and there is some inconsistency. The end scene, though it may be totally incongruous with the rest of the movie, does present some interesting visuals, but it's too little too late in a film that is otherwise impossibly dark.
The Asylum Tapes arrives on DVD from Revolver in a decent release that is nothing special. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image fares reasonably well, with fairly deep black levels. There's a little bit of black crush at times, but it's mostly solid, though there's not enough definition to discern much of what's going on (whether that's intentional by the director or not is up in the air). The 5.1 surround mix is a little better, with solid surround action and a decent dynamic range. The big problem with it is the dialog, which is often mixed far too low, making it difficult to hear what the actors are saying much of the time. the only extra on the disc is an alternate ending, which is far worse that what's already there and would have undermined the whole thing had it been included.
I shouldn't be so hard on somebody's first film; Stone shows a little bit of storytelling talent and the visuals at the end show he has an eye for this sort of thing. It isn't the worst entry in the found footage genre, but it still doesn't rise much above the level of a low budget debut film. That should tell you how I feel about the style, but in any case, The Asylum Tapes is only for die-hard fans of the genre.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Revolver Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Ending