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One would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable setting for a psychological thriller than a home for those in need of mental support. Asylums have a long, near-traditional role in the genre, from fully staffed to completely abandoned and hunted, their long mysterious hallways and creepy old-school methodologies provide a near endless cache of nightmare fodder. And so it is with The Institute, a dreary, almost parodic story of a women searching for help who finds anything but.
In Baltimore 1893, Isabel (Allie Gallerani), feeling overwhelmed by the loss of her parent’s unexpected death, checks herself into the Rosewood Institute, promised the facility is far more like a spa than a hospital. She comes under the care of one Dr. Cairn (James Franco), a seemingly Freudian-esque doctor who is clearly a little unstable himself, who revels in calm tones and sinister glances.
After some apparent progress though, Isabel comes to hear strange noises in the night and upon exploring the cavernous dark corridors, makes a few unsettling discoveries and soon learns there are horrors in this home beyond her imagination. The institute specializes in subjecting women to vile acts of brainwashing that have them unsure of what is real and what is not, always under the whim of the doctors in control. Now Isabel must try and survive as she spirals into the literal pits of the real truth.
Directed by Franco and Pamela Romanowsky, The Institute treads with heavy steps along a very well-worn path, one laid out before it from dozens of films of the like, and yet there is a strange originality to it that doesn’t necessarily make it better, but certainly different. That stems from its oddly dark earthy tones to its Public Television-like approach to its acting style and presentation … well, aside from the graphic gore and nudity. It lacks any kind of large-studio production values, instead playing out like a student film, albeit with a large, well-known cast.
That includes small roles for Pamela Anderson, Lori Singer, Eric Roberts, Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Duhamel, and Dominic Rains, who all make appearances speaking in cliché-ridden dialogue and accents of the era pronounced with all sorts of peculiar emphasis that seem purposeful to be sure, as if the film is making a decided effort to walk uneasily along a thin line of bad drama and brilliant parody, though neither make it work well. One look at Gunther (Scott Haze), a dimwitted, kind-hearted hunchback lurking about the place is proof of that.
Franco is the most egregious of the lot though, decked out in his wire-rimmed glasses and Dastardly Whiplash mustache, inspiring laughs when it seems he’s going for the opposite. And that’s the where the film as a whole stumbles, it’s deadly serious take leaving no room for any fun as the production is wrought with well, over-wrought performances that yet seem weirdly restrictive. It’s hard to know how to feel or how to react.
Never convincing, hardly scary, and sapped of any tension or momentum, The Institute is a letdown from the start, a curious experiment that can’t compel nor inspire interest. Given the premise and setting, it feels like a missed opportunity with nothing to say of any importance.
Movie description: The Institute is a 2017 thriller about a 19th century girl who checks herself into an asylum, only to be subjected to increasingly bizarre therapies.
Director(s): James Franco, Pamela Romanowsky
Actor(s): James, Franco, Pamela Anderson, Lori Singer, Eric Roberts, Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Duhamel