Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Asylum of Satan (1972)

Asylum of Satan was William Girdler’s first movie. He directed it and co-wrote the screenplay and it was shot in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. It has all the flaws you’d expect in a first feature by a very young film-maker but it does have a certain schlocky low-budget charm to it.

Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) is a concert pianist who wakes up one morning to find herself in a lunatic asylum. She remembers being taken to the local hospital but has no idea how she came to be transferred to Dr Jason Spector’s asylum. She also has no idea what’s supposed to be wrong with her.

The asylum is a pretty disturbing place, even by the standards of madhouses. There are a whole bunch of patients in wheelchairs wearing hooded robes. The few patients she manages to talk to regard Dr Spector with reverence but they seem to be rather vague about his methods, and rather vague even about their reasons for being there. The head nurse looks suspiciously like a man in drag which adds to the general ambience of weirdness.

She starts to have what seem to be hallucinations or visions of some sort but this asylum is such a strange place that it’s hard to know whether anything she sees is real or not. This is the result not so much of skillful contrivance on the part of Girdler as on the sheer incoherence of the script. Poor Lucina can’t be expected to know what’s going on if the writers don’t know either!

Her boyfriend tries to visit her at Dr Spector’s hospital but is informed that visitors are not permitted. Since he has no idea why she is there he gets pretty annoyed by his, annoyed enough in fact to go to the police. The detective assigned to the case is uninterested and unimpressed by his story, but eventually he does do a little digging around and uncovers some odd things about Dr Spector. For one thing, Dr Spector looks to be in his mid-forties but he was in his early seventies the last time he published anything in a medical journal, and that was ten years earlier. And there have been vague accusations of devil worship!

There’s not much doubt that devil worship is indeed one of the things going on at this hospital. Not to mention that quite a few patients seem to die very unusual and rather grisly deaths.

Asylum of Satan has all the ingredients to make a nifty little satansploitation flick but the screenplay is all over the place and while Girdler, an obsessive Alfred Hitchcock fan, does his best to throw plenty of shocks the audience’s way he lacks the experience to make his visual set-pieces come off. The result is a mess, but an oddly appealing mess. Girdler would go on to make eight more movies, including the wonderfully weird The Manitou (1978) before his tragic death in a helicopter accident at the age of 30.

Carla Borelli as Lucina is reasonably competent and makes a sympathetic heroine. Charles Kissinger is suitably hammy as Dr Spector. The rest of the cast was composed mostly of Girdler’s friends and the general standard of acting is several grades below awful.

The makeup effects are quite good and much of the film was shot in a wonderfully spooky old house in Louisville, a house that sadly no longer exists.

Considering this movie’s extreme obscurity Something Weird have done pretty well to find a print that is at least quite watchable. A commentary track is included which features Patty Breen, a lady whose knowledge of the life and work of William Girdler is awe-inspiringly encyclopedic. The movie is paired on the DVD with another very obscure 70s movie, Satan’s Children (1974).

Asylum of Satan is a long way from being a good movie but if you just let yourself be carried along by the totally incoherent script and don’t try to make sense of anything the experience is weirdly satisfying in a low-budget trashy sort of way. Worth a rental anyway if you’re a 70s satansploitation fan.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Okay, I have to admit that the picture of the Ku Klux Klan guys in the wheelchairs had me chuckling. I'd hate to be at that retirement home. :)