I didn't have high hopes for the straight-to-DVD imperiled-coeds thriller Asylum, based on its fairly wretched trailer, but a viewing of the movie confirmed my overall suspicion of the final product while also departing from my pre-judgment in a number of significant ways. Top-lined by Sarah Roemer (aka the chick Shia LaBeouf ogles in Disturbia), the flick is a sort of cross between Stay Alive and Session 9, with a healthy smear of down-market horror moves copped from '80s-era DIY flicks that never made it off of VHS.

Written by Ethan Lawrence and directed by David Ellis (Snakes on a Plane, Final Destination 2), Asylum follows a group of six freshman college students as they uncover dark secrets about their new dormitory, which just happens to have once been an infamous mental institution where a demented, lobotomy-loving psychiatrist, Dr. Burke (Mark Rolston), performed all sorts of tortuous experiments on his teenage patients. The central character is Madison (Roemer), who's had to suffer the suicides of both her father and brother Brandon (Benjamin Daniele), the latter of whom she still has nightmarish visions of, since she's decided to attend the same university he did.

There's also the cocky Tommy (Transformers' Travis Van Winkle), vaguely sympathetic Holt (Jake Muxworthy), 16-year-old String (Cody Kasch), Maya (Carolina Garcia) and Ivy (Ellen Hollman), the requisite blonde with the "fantastic tits," according to Tommy. After orientation and a get-to-know-one-another party with some booze passed around, the students eventually find themselves trapped in their dorm, picked off one by one but looking for an escape as the ghost of the deranged Dr. Burke begins "treating them."

The acting here kind of runs the gamut. Roemer sort of recalls, physically at least, in profile, Amy Smart, though without really any of the bite, sass or personality that (momentarily) helped distinguish her from the rest of her brethren. (For those keeping score at home — and without a subscription to Mr. Skin — there's a fleeting glimpse of breast from Roemer, in a sequence where she hallucinates in the shower, and thinks she's drowning.) Van Wickle is saddled with a ridiculous, preening character — the coarse jock, squared; he eventually wins you over with some smart, atypical line readings, though, and a back story that at least attempts to explain why he acts the way he does. The real revelation might be Kasch, who makes an impression as the requisite outsider-loner without tipping over into math-lete brooding. The other actors — including Rolston, and Lin Shaye in a small cameo as String's mother — fail to really impress.

Powering through what was no doubt a compressed shoot, Ellis fails to elevate the material; he shoots the introductions of all the kids in a wide, awkwardly staged master shot, and does the same thing with a couple other group scenes, which are all seemingly covered by a single boom mic. He spends whatever time he presumably saved here indulging in overly affected hallucinatory scenes, with different film stocks and a variety of filters, perhaps nipped from Simon West. There's too much speechifying by Dr. Burke for it to be scary, though. Other passages, meant to evoke tension, are far too cloaked in shadow and darkness. There's no codifying visual scheme for this movie — it's a case of Jackson Pollack-type filmmaking, with different styles just flung at the screen. For a movie that needs a slick packaging to lift up its cardboard-thin premise, that doesn't do the job.

Asylum presumably comes in a regular Amray case, presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language 5.1 Dolby surround sound audio track, a Spanish language Dolby surround track, and optional English, Spanish and French subtitles; I say "presumably" because the special slip-sleeve review screener I was sent didn't include its packaging. Nor did it want to play in my regular DVD player either. (It finally worked fine in the PlayStation 2, oddly enough.) At any rate, apart from a few previews that play automatically upon start-up, there are no supplemental features. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. D+ (Movie) D- (Disc)


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