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Entries in Doom Asylum [1987] (1)

Sunday
Sep162012

Doom Asylum (1987)

Asbestos Picture

The keepers of universal wisdom* never tell you that adulthood's strangest secret is how much you'll miss "Back to School" time. Kids grouse about returning to class because they have no idea how lucky they are to have an intellectual jump-start as a seasonal marker. Most grownups get so caught up in our year-round routines that we only notice falling leaves if we happen to drop our keys on the way to work.

Since last year, September has become a magical month for me, a time when movie reviewing stops being about whatever strikes my interest, and becomes homework for really cool interviews. Study Mode often involves wading through gems both forgotten and unexpected; last year, it was discovering The Newlydeads while preparing to talk with Doug Jones. This year, I came across Doom Asylum--one of only two films in the brief but amazing acting career of Patty Mullen.

The movie, which, even as an Amazon.com rental is a fuzzy, full-frame eye-strain, centers on a group of college kids who decide to spend a weekend at an abandoned insane asylum. Little do they know that the broken down facility is home to Mitch Hansen (Michael Rogen), an attorney who was presumed dead following a car accident ten years earlier--but who awoke in the middle of his own autopsy and proceeded to kill everyone on the hospital staff; a hospital, by the way, which somehow became an insane asylum.

Did you get all that?

Doom Asylum is billed as a "horror/comedy", but I'm convinced that the production company applied this label after seeing the finished movie. Some of the laughs come from Mad Magazine-style jabs at genre tropes, but the rest come from amateurish direction, performances, and editing. One could probably teach a semester on whether or not Doom Asylum is this shitty on purpose, or if it is the result of a thousand happy accidents.

Even if you're a fan of "so-bad-they're-good" horror movies, this one may push the boundaries of your tolerance. Director Richard Friedman and editor Ray Shapiro manage to make a seventy-seven-minute picture feel three hours long, thanks to a repetitive story (hapless teen wanders off into the asylum alone; gets killed by grotesquely disfigured attorney who loves him some wisecracks; rinse; repeat) and an inability to let a rotten gag go:

They milk an off-kilter, slow-motion cut-away of two characters running towards each other in a field harder than Family Guy's "chicken fight" bit. And as the dimwitted leading man, William Hay's Mike is a one-note frustration whose gimmick is that he can't make up his mind about anything; it's cute the first few times, but my desire to see him dead came way too early in the film.

I can't get too down on the movie, though. Friedman and screenwriter Richard Marx almost make up for their mediocrity by ambitiously aiming to make a satire of the Reagan era, slasher movies, 80s punk culture, and teen vapidity. The bloated, nearly unwatchable result succeeds, in its own way, by being as lame as its targets. Whereas Slaughter High (this film's first cousin, twice removed) focused on gore, sex, and poorly executed creepy atmosphere, Doom Asylum wants to be smarter than its audience. But in botching the fundamentals of the slice-and-dice formula, it winds up being twice as dumb.

The filmmakers also get props for allowing a sixth of their movie to be another movie; specifically, the 1936 version of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Our deranged lawyer friend watches the film in his basement sanctuary between kills, and we're treated to whole scenes from George King's black-and-white thriller. Like all the other gimmicks, this one gets old fast, and served only to remind me of the more-enjoyable HBO sitcom Dream On.

It's likely that this film would have been totally forgotten if not for its two secret weapons. The first is Mullen, who plays the dual role of the killer's girlfriend, Judy (who also died in the car wreck), and Judy's daughter, Kiki, who now finds herself at the mercy of mom's demented boyfriend.

(Sorry, I keep writing this stuff as if it makes sense.)

Mullen is rather unremarkable here, but that's mostly because she doesn't become a key player until the last act. Though there's little in her performance to indicate the comic chops she would soon unleash in Frankenhooker, she's great in the final scene--which feels like the predecessor to a hundred "shock" endings that dominated the genre in later years.

The second gem is the fact that a twenty-two-year-old Kristin Davis made her acting debut here as a mouthy bookworm named Jane. Before getting a buzzsaw to the face, she spends a lot of time running around in a blue bikini and demonstrating a sharp, know-it-all wit that she rarely got to display in Sex and the City. She joins the ranks of Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander as mainstream stars who made their bones in the unlikeliest of places.

Speaking of buzzsaws to the face, there's not a lot here to recommend, gore-wise. Rule number one of slasher films--even parodies--is that the kills, attendant makeup, and filming of that makeup have to be inventive and believable (if not believable, then at least bad in a way that suggests they look terrible on purpose). The effects are better than what I'd expected, but they still fall short of other such movies that were popular at the time.

You may wonder why I've spent a thousand words on a movie that most of you will never bother to watch. Believe me, that question has bogged me down in the Swamps of Despair since paragraph three. The answer is that every film has something to teach its audience about the art of cinema. You go to Kubrick to learn about the paradox of grandiosity and simplicity; you go to Spielberg for lessons in turning schmaltz into caviar; and you go to movies like this for mental gymnastics.

Yes, Doom Asylum is stupid. But why is it stupid? What makes it a less effective genre satire than, say, Scary Movie? Does the handful of quality elements redeem it as a viewing experience? If so, is the movie still stupid? I never expect these big questions to spring up during Z-grade movies that make summer blockbusters look like Oscar contenders by comparison. But as Evil Ed used to say, "That's the point of a pop quiz, Brewster--to surprise you!"

*An anecdotal, rarely-seen collective known as "They".