Thursday, October 20, 2011

Movie Review: Asylum

Another "light" post for now, as baby is impending and life is full of things. Anyhow, let's get to it...

A very wise (at least about movies) man once said: "The one thing you CANNOT do in a monster movie, is make it boring." And he's right. Nothing else is essential - there are great monster movies with ridiculous plots, terrible acting, dreadful scripts or some combination of the above. It's not even necessary to be ironic about it, The Mummy (no, not that one, the good one) played the entire setup totally straight, without even recourse to wacky character deaths and still manages to bring it off.

Unfortunately, this is where Asylum falls down. Of course, the fact that it was directed by the man responsible for Final Destination 2 really ought to have been a clue. Technically, it's a slasher, rather than a monster movie - but it's a supernatural slasher, which is very nearly the same thing.

The premise (I'm really not spoiling anything by telling you this) is that a group of blandly generic teenagers haunted by blandly generic "dark pasts" get murdered by an undead psychiatrist who was murdered by the inmates he'd tortured in his asylum. The teenagers are exposed to the undead psychiatrist because their university dorm used to be his old asylum building (and naturally they go exploring in the shut down bit of the building, 'cos why wouldn't you?)

The sad thing is that Asylum could have been saved at any point by simply turning the knobs up to 11. The characters are pretty dull, but that could have been ameliorated by having the undead psychiatrist kill some minor or background characters as well as focusing on the 6 central ones. The psychiatrist is a pretty crappy supernatural slasher, but that could have been fixed by having the "tripout" moments he inflicts on his victims intensified, and having him break out the crazy barbed-wire gimp-suit (no, I'm not kidding) earlier on.

Instead, the movie keeps breaking away from the murders (which, after all are the point of a slasher movie) to focus on "character development" - by which I mean dull characters sitting around and telling each other their "tragic back stories". This is clearly an attempt to give the movie some depth, but it fails horribly. The "issues" each character has are so mind-numbingly obvious and grounded in such ham-handed pop-psychology that each revelation elicited a new and louder groan from my wife as we watched.

Think I'm kidding? OK, see if you can pick what issues each character has based on their thumbnail character sketch (don't worry - these are also all played straight up from the start and never change, this isn't a spoiler either).

So, we have:
  1. A precocious 16-year old "genius hacker" who's quirky and makes cat's-cradles.
  2. A studious "generically ethnic" girl who never lets anyone get too close.
  3. A musclebound "jock" who never shuts up.
  4. A broodingly-interesting "artistic" type.
  5. A blond "hot chick" who is implied to be promiscuous.
  6. Our flavourless protagonist who occasionally hallucinates.
I'll put some lines in here so you can think for a second, and then scroll down to see if you guessed right...







OK! Enough! Time to see if you guessed right...
  1. A precocious 16-year old "genius hacker" who's quirky and makes cat's-cradles.
    Neglected by an alcoholic mother who doesn't understand him. Because no well-socialised person is ever good with computers, that's why.
  2. A studious "generically-ethnic" girl who never lets anyone get too close.
    Used to be in a generically-violent relationship with a generically-ethnic man. Because that's what ethnic people are like, obviously.
  3. A musclebound "jock" who never shuts up.
    Used to be fat and self-conscious, because of his family who have food issues. It's clever because he's the opposite of what he used to be! Get it? 
  4. A broodingly-interesting "artistic" type.
    A recovering drug addict, obviously.
  5. A blond "hot chick" who is implied to be promiscuous.
    Sexually abused by her father (Duh, why else would a woman want to have lots of sex?)
  6. Our flavourless protagonist who occasionally hallucinates.
    Her father and brother both killed themselves as a result of "insanity*" and she's afraid she might go the same way.
The reason the characters' mental health is an issue is that the undead psychiatrist preys on people with "issues" under the guise of trying to "cure" them. This might be an interesting concept** if the characters' histories were interesting in any way, and if the psychiatrist actually addressed them at all in his attacks. Instead, he simply makes them hallucinate their traumatic circumstances for a couple of minutes before (usually) stabbing them.

The final disappointment here, is that there's (tangentially) a real story buried under the rubbish - and an interesting one too. The undead psychiatrist is was at the forefront of the "icepick lobotomy" technique popular between the 40's and 60's. He was supposed to have gone off the rails when the procedure was discredited, and been killed by his patients shortly afterwards. Aside from the "torturing people for fun" and "being killed by patients, then coming back as an undead killing machine" parts, this story mirrors that of the real-world psychiatrist Walter Freeman II.

Freeman actually did pioneer transorbital (or "icepick") lobotomy as a neurosurgical treatment for mental illness. He was motivated (at least initially) by his concern that the people who would benefit most from the "miracle of lobotomy" (patients in state mental wards) would never have access to the procedure, as it was prohibitively expensive. Transorbital lobotomy provided a cost-effective alternative, as it could be performed by someone without neurosurgical qualifications. Having developed the technique, he became a celebrity travelling around the US doing demonstrations and training people. He was eventually discredited after one too many of his patients died on the table, and retired to run a quiet psychiatric practice in California. And he's much more interesting than the character he seems to have inspired.

In short, Asylum is a disappointing movie in every way. Not deep enough to be deep, or deranged enough to be any fun, it simply limps along until it reaches its contrived and uninspired conclusion. Do yourself a favour and watch a proper slasher movie instead.

It is a mark of the kind of movie this is that, even though it's reasonably common knowledge (even in shitty pop-psychology like this) that the kind of mental illness most likely to cause people to see things and hear voices is schizophrenia, the flavourless protagonist looks up "Insanity" as a generic condition when she wants to research her chances. "We're trying to be deep, but we don't even have the Psych 101 chops to look up schizophrenia." 

** For a more interesting (if still flawed) take on the idea, check out Dread...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Police philosophy, or: what are cops for?

Currently, here in NZ, our government is trying to rush through legislation to retrospectively legalise some illegal behaviour that the police have been engaging in. Like many people, I think this is a Bad Idea. In fact, I think it's a particularly bad idea at this point in time, because it exacerbates a real problem I've noticed of late in the relationship between the police and the wider community.

There seems to be a fundamental confusion in the ranks of the police as to what the purpose of their organisation is. This became glaringly clear with their last recruitment campaign (thankfully now defunct) which suggested that young people should join the police to "Get some better work stories" and "Make more money than your Dad" - they also compared the interest of the police in younger recruits to the sexual approaches of "cougars". This promotes a view of the police as a glamorous and heroic (not to mention subtly sexually fetishistic) organisation who bust Bad Guys and are desired and/or admired by all.

This is a mythic description of what a police force is, let's call it the Superman narrative. There's another mythic description of the police which is reasonably common at the moment. This one inverts all the values of the Superman version, to paint the police as at best dupes and at worst active players in a corrupt system deliberately designed to hurt innocent people. We'll call that the Robin Hood narrative.

When Superman believers hear people complain about the expansion of police powers, or suspect decisions regarding the use of violence, or searches of innocent foreigners, they're liable to shrug those off as an acceptable price for catching baddies or trot out a line like "if you're innocent, you have nothing to fear". Similarly, when Robin Hood believers hear about cops getting hurt or killed in the line of duty, they're liable to consider that their just desserts. Neither of these positions are helpful (or strictly truthful) and, worryingly, they make it very difficult for either side to talk to the other.

So, what are the cops? Well, they're public servants. They're empowered to enforce the law, which is the common ethical code our society has decided on, and their implicit responsibility following on from that is to prevent members of our society harming themselves or others. They do this, by and large, to the best of their ability but occasionally make mistakes. They are also (forgivably enough) subject to mental and emotional fatigue as a response to the relentless stupidity and bloody-mindedness of their fellow humans.

Ideally, a police force run along these lines would take steps to build links with as many communities as possible. There would obviously be the occasional bad call, resulting from the inevitable stress of the job, but they would be very cautious of damaging any relationship by appearing publicly arrogant or self-righteous.

Unfortunately, our police appear to be in love with the Superman narrative at the moment. This can be seen in their response to the complaint from the South African journalist they wrongly searched for drugs. A sensitive police force would have understood that given the man's history, his offence was understandable and apologised for that. It's also obvious from the police response to being told that they'd broken the law in the Urewera "anti terror" case - claiming that holding police to the same standards of law as everyone else will damage their effectiveness, instead of apologising for the breach.

The fact that the government are currently attempting to make everything the police have done retrospectively legal (and in the process make it legal for fisheries officers to bug New Zealand citizens) instead of investigating police practice and updating the law to sensibly reflect modern technology proves that they too are dazzled by the glamour and 4-colour moral simplicity of the Superman version.

The real problem with this is that it only gives the Robin Hood crowd more ammunition - and with enough provocation, they might just start shooting.