Tuesday, February 23, 2010

You Don't Have To Be Crazy To Work Here, But It Helps


As a follow-up to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, I felt like taking another trip to the nuthouse by way of the 1972 Amicus-produced omnibus Asylum. With a screenplay by novelist Robert Bloch of Psycho fame, Asylum has one of the best framing stories ever concocted for an anthology as Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), a candidate for the position of new director of the Dunmoor Institute for the Incurably Insane, is met by Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee) and given a bizarre test in lieu of an interview. Dunmoor's former director, Dr. Starr, has lost his mind Dr. Rutherford tells Dr. Martin that if he can interview the institute's solitary confinement patients and deduce which one is the ex-director then the position will be his. Each patient's tale is a separate segment and the wrap-around story comes to a satisfying conclusion of its own.

The framework of Asylum holds up wonderfully. It's an ingenious set-up and Asylum is still a neat little movie (it's amusing to see Rutherford and Martin engaged in the same psychiatry vs. surgery debate that's so key to Shutter Island) but I have to admit that I was thrown off by the age of the cast. It's nothing negative towards Asylum - just the opposite, in fact - but while I thought I was fully aware of how youth-orientated horror movies have become in recent years I found myself really taken aback to see how filled with old or middle-aged faces Asylum is.

Take a look and ask yourself: Would we ever see a horror film cast with actors like this today?













Not a chance.

Even the few young people cast in Asylum - such as Powell, Britt Ekland, or Charlotte Rampling - look damn near ancient by today's standards. What's really jarring to me in watching Asylum now is knowing that when I first saw Asylum on TV as a kid, it never occurred to me to notice the age of the actors because a cast like this was normal then. It didn't seem odd or unusual to me at the time to see this many mature faces in a horror movie. It was invisible to me then but now it immediately jumps out as being so different than what we've become used to.

I'm all for horror movies centered on teens and twentysomethings (hell, I'll probably be buying the Sorority Row remake on DVD today) but I lament the fact that somewhere along the way, horror movies (and, to be fair, the entire culture) became myopic to anything that isn't young.

Older actors automatically gave films like Asylum a sense of character, a sense of gravity, a sense of life lived. Now it seems like the only thing too scary for modern audiences to bear is the reality of aging. It makes for a rueful comment on today's mania to appeal to the very young that Asylum has come to look more like a nursing home.

16 comments:

Bob Ignizio said...

Excellent post, Jeff. I remember seeing the TV spot for this as a kid (under it's alternate title 'House of Crazies') and having the imagery of severed limbs wrapped in butcher paper crawling around seared into my brain.

Here's a <a href= "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rLq0phhddk>link</a> to that TV spot.

And I would love to see movies return to casting more actors over 30. To use the 'Shutter Island' comparison again, this is a rare modern film to have a large number of older actors in its cast, and boy does it benefit from the presence of people like Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, and Patricia Clarkson.

Mike Dobbs said...

Great piece and good point on the age of the cast!

Jeff Allard said...

Bob, Mike - thanks for the comments, guys!

And Bob, I've gotta say - when I initially saw Asylum the sight of those crawling body parts wrapped in butcher paper was enough to send me running out of the room!

senski said...

Jeff, I propose that you and I start the Alliance for the Restoration of Geriatric Horror (ARGH). OK, so the name is negotiable, but the cause is just!

When I was a kid, Horror - and all movies - happened to adults, and made me feel adult watching them. Growing up, I looked forward to being able to see the R rated entertainments like The Godfather, Cuckoo's Nest and of course The Exorcist. Maybe two weeks of #1 non-teen Horror at the box office will even things out a bit.

There's a wonderful book that came out a couple of years ago on this topic - Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage. Highly recommended, and exhaustive in its research.

http://www.amazon.com/Teenage-Creation-Culture-Jon-Savage/dp/0670038377/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266939730&sr=1-3

Great post, Jeff!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Senski! I also felt drawn to all the adults I saw in horror movies growing up. Instead of feeling I couldn't relate to them, I liked being privvy to the manners of an older, more experienced world.

Your idea for an alliance is great, by the way - I even like the acronym! - but I think the internet has finally reached its upper limit on leagues, alliances, and organizations!

Arbogast said...

Oh, don't get me started on the difference between Then and Now. It wasn't all age, although you're right that the median age of movie protagonists was much higher then. But it also had to do with elements of empathy and just plain curiosity that you really don't see now. In films such as The Haunting, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre you had characters who showed curiosity about their fellow men and that shadowy realm of wonder was a crucible in which fear and horror were fired. I miss that. We live in such incurious times. There are exceptions, of course, but not enough of them.

Jeff Allard said...

It used to be a given that characters in horror movies would be allowed moments of reflection. Even in a movie that didn't have an awful lot on its mind, like the original Friday the 13th, the characters were engaged in each other and their surroundings in a way that you rarely see today. I don't know why or when things changed but it sure hasn't been a change for the better.

Arbogast said...

Funny you should mention Friday the 13th because I'd guess that the sea change in horror occurred with the advent of the slasher cycle, which prized spectacle over humanity. Sure, there were death count movies before (going back at least as far as Universal's The Invisible Ray, if not earlier) but the slashers downgraded the quality of available humanity while supersizing the apportionment of creative cruelty, centering the only joy to be derived from most of these movies in the thrill of determinism. And the lowest common denominator was impressed!

Arbogast said...

My word verification for that comment was "olderadi." I think that should be the name of our breakaway sect of grumpy middle aged men.

Jeff Allard said...

"olderadi" sounds perfect - grumpiness has a new name!

Arbogast said...

It's worth remembering, of course, that Asylum and movies like it, particularly in the 70s, had the casts they did because the demographic was shifting and guys like Richard Greene and Ian Hendry and even Joan Collins were no longer top drawers for movie audiences. So it was good work for has-beens and that trend continued into the slashers, where you had guys like Farley Granger and Betsy Palmer soldiering through stuff I'm sure they never thought they'd be doing in their respective heydays.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I'm sure Glenn Ford never thought he'd be acting in the likes of Happy Birthday to Me! It used to be that old pros would be cast in low-budget slashers to give the movie some legitimacy as a 'real' movie. Now when actors like Tom Atkins or Carrie Fisher show up in slasher remakes, it's a bid on the part of the filmmakers to make their Hollywood product look credible to jaded Gen-Xers.

Dr Gangrene said...

I totally agree about the age of films from the past as well. I wish movies of today would mix in some older actors. I just really have a hard time when the entire cast are twenty-somethings.

I love this movie and have heard it's in the public domain, but have never verified it. Good flick - good post here, bro.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Dr. G! If Asylum is in public domain, that's wild news. Dark Sky Films put it on DVD a few years ago but I don't know what its status is now.

Carl (ILHM) said...

ASYLUM has been sitting on my wishlists for over a year, cant wait to see it and glad to see a review up to get the fire under my ass to finally buy this one!

Jeff Allard said...

Cool - hope you like it!