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Stars: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Flemyng, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Sinéad Cusack, Edmund Kingsley
Director: Brad Anderson
It's been a long while since mainstream cinema ventured into the murky works of Edgar Allan Poe, with their lurid trappings of death, torture and madness, and the best tribute one can play to this welcome, if dotty and uneven newcomer, is that it might well have been made by American-International in Roger Corman's heyday. Look him up on the Internet and you'll see what I mean.
For sure, this account of Poe's famous story (The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether) about lunatics taking over the asylum could have been better and a tad more flavoursome, but there are some inspired moments, and any entry into this genre makes a refreshing change from the standard slasher/redneck cannibal movie.
Sturgess, whose profile has been lower than it was a few years ago, plays Dr Newgate, a newcomer at Stonehearst Lunatic Asylum in the winter of 1899; doctors and nurses there seem to be in short supply, but he's quickly introduced to the main man, Dr Lamb (Kingsley), whose belief is that allowing patients to live out their mad fantasies renders them more content.
While the groundsman (Thewlis) and head nurse (Kennedy Clark) seem almost as off-kilter as some of the patients, Newgate finds himself attracted to the elegant, piano-playing Mrs Graves (Beckinsale). Ventures down into the boiler room, however, soon reveal the asylum's real secret.
'Death cannot be prevented,' Lamb tells Newgate, 'any more than madness can be cured.' But who are really mad and really sane, whose methods work the best, and who deserves to survive?
Kingsley reins in his recent tendency to overact, but Caine, in a role whose significance it would unfair to reveal, succumbs to his, long before the final, inevitable conflagration, which is how all horror films used to climax - although there's even a double-twist at the end of this one.
Nice photography by Tom Yatsko: grey and misty outside the asylum, red in tooth, claw and brocade inside. But a madmen's ball, perhaps the most striking set piece, surely owes a debt to the revellers in The Masque of the Red Death - another Poe short story converted to film.
USA 2014. UK Distributor: Metrodome (Orion). Technicolor.
113 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.
Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.
Review date: 19 Apr 2015