Monday, June 29, 2020

Girdler Binge: Asylum of Satan (1972)

Shot in Louisville, Kentucky, reportedly on a budget of just $50,000 dollars, Asylum of Satan (1972) is director William Girdler’s first feature film. He made it when he was just twenty-four years old.

As is the case with all of the director’s films, Asylum of Satan possesses notable gaps in logic, and the director makes some astoundingly poor choices about the monsters he chooses to visualize on camera. The film’s depiction of the Prince of Darkness is horribly inexpressive and phony-looking, and yet it receives considerable screen-time.More than that, the cheap Devil mask/head succeeds in scuttling the film’s crimson-hued climax.

Beyond these readily-apparent missteps and limitations of budget, however, it feels sometimes during the film like Girdler is actually onto something interesting, at least from a visual perspective. His best conceit is that of an asylum that seems to span two different or competing realities, and notably this leitmotif requires no visual effects or make-up at all, only set re-decoration. Accordingly, the double-nature of the film’s setting, Pleasant Hill Hospital, may be Asylum of Satan’s most memorable achievement.

From one perspective, some viewers may also enjoy Asylum of Satan as a kind of 78-minute dirty joke, given the film’s final revelation or punch-line. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to know if this is a case of a plot point that is unintentionally or intentionally humorous. 

Regardless, the film’s final revelation remains unforgettable.

In Asylum of Satan, concert pianist Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) is unexpectedly transferred to Pleasant Hill Hospital -- a sanitarium -- by her regular physician, Doctor Nolan. She vehemently protests, but is told by an employee at the asylum named Martine (Charles Kissinger) that she will be glad to be treated by Doctor Specter (also Charles Kissinger), a “great man” whose specialty is pain.

Lucina meets Dr. Specter and promptly demands her release from custody, but he insists that she has had a nervous breakdown, and that she must recover in the isolation of the asylum. Specter also performs a physical examination of the lovely Ms. Martin and notes that her skin remains “unblemished…by sin.”

While Lucina’s boyfriend, Chris  Duncan (Nick Jolley) goes in search of her, and attempts to get the police, led by Lt. Walsh (Louis Bandy) to raid the asylum, Lucina’s fellow residents are killed one at a time, by insects, by fire, and by poison snakes in the swimming pool.  

As she soon learns, Lucina is to be Dr. Specter’s final sacrifice to Satan, one that will grant him eternal life for the delivery of virgin…

A legitimately great shot pops up early in Asylum of Satan. An unconscious Lucinda is carried on a stretcher up the stairs to her room by several paramedics. At the same time, a dark shadow, his features indistinct, silently watches her go. The positioning of the characters in the frame, with the dark figure intruding but un-moving,creepily suggests menace, and furthermore that, on occasion, Girdler is able to catalyze his instincts to make a shot that really carries psychic weight, at least purely in terms of imagery.

At another juncture, some kind of hideously deformed creature emerges from Room 319 in the hospital, lunging out of the dark at the camera. The moment is odd and frightening, and it goes unexplained. The creature’s make-up doesn’t hold-up to the scrutiny the camera’s gaze provides, so terror dissipates. But for the first few seconds, the fear generated by this set-up is palpable.

Alas, so many other moments fail to come off as Girdler no doubt hope and intended, and largely because, at this early junction in his career the director still seems to be calibrating what things should be seen on camera and for how long.  

For instance, the crippled female resident who is killed by bugs gets the worst treatment perhaps. Fake, jiggly insects -- creepy crawlies? -- land on her face, and there is no illusion of life, just the suggestion of jello or gelatin. Similarly, the final scenes of the film that depict a Satanic Mass that goes on for far too long.

And when the Devil himself shows up, it is in in a guise that inspires no fear, no dread. Yet Old Scratch remains in our sight, moment after agonizing moment.

As I noted in my introduction, there’s no reason, really, to show all this stuff, because Girdler does far better with the movie’s central location: an asylum that is sometimes an immaculate, state-of-the-art-facility, and sometimes a dilapidated, ruined place of EVIL. The environs shift back and forth unpredictably and without reason, and are thus, if not disturbing, at least discomfiting. The idea of the asylum being two places also fits in nicely with Lucina’s nervous breakdown. She could be imagining the horrors she encounters.

And though it is undeniably odd that Charles Kissinger should play both Lucina’s female hostess Martine and her male doctor, Specter, the double performance by the actor also contributes to this plot line about two universes operating on parallel tracks. This idea has been repeated in horror films and television since Asylum of Satan, but notably, and to great effect in (the brilliant) Silent Hill (2006).

What works effectively about many of the asylum scenes is Girdler’s choice to explain very little regarding the imagery. Instead, Lucina ends up in a dining hall with the other asylum residents, surrounded by hooded figures with hidden faces. These hooded figures all sit frozen in wheelchairs for some reasons, and are completely silent. On their plates: eggs still in the shells, untouched.  It’s such a weird and visually disturbing set of images that tension and intrigue are generated. 

Are the eggs there to represent souls? Why aren’t the people moving? Who are they?  Are they even, truly, present? Why is one of the hooded figures burned?

Meanwhile, the nurses in the institution all deliberately lack any emotional affect, and seem like drones or zombies. And creepy Dr. Specter has a peep hole in his medicine cabinet through which he watches Lucina disrobe. All these touches together work nicely to suggest a realm of darkness and diabolism.

It’s all creepy and slightly surreal, and even Kissinger’s stilted, declamatory manner of speech seems to play towards rather than against Asylum of Satan’s prevailing mood of strangeness. I often write about how many effective horror movies (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take on the qualities of a dream, or a waking nightmare. Asylum of Satan is obviously nowhere near the same class of filmmaking,but occasionally it attains that kind of abject, disturbing weirdness that critics like me tend to covet in the genre.

From a certain perspective, Asylum of Satan is really and truly a dirty joke. The devil’s henchman, Specter, goes out of his way to procure a virgin for the Devil, only for the Devil to detect, almost immediately, that she has already been deflowered.  On one hand, this seems like wicked, droll commentary about the youth-revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the difficulty of finding someone virginal.

On the other hand, as I noted in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s, there’s no clear “tell” that Girdler is pulling a gag or intends for the discovery to be played as tongue-in-cheek. Lucina’s *ahem* condition is played, for lack of a better word, straight.  

Also, it isn’t entirely clear to me, on this re-watch, why Specter missed that Lucina is, uh, sexually experienced since he performed a full medical exam on her.  We know she wasn’t deflowered at the asylum, but rather beforehand, because we get a flashback of Lucina and Chris making love after a walk in the snow on a wintry day.

I have a tremendous fondness for Girdler and his films, but it isn’t always easy to forge an affirmative case for his artistry. However certain shots and set-ups in Asylum of Satan work pretty well, and more than that, make the case that the director has a good eye….or was working to develop one. I limit that observation mostly to Lucina’s arrival in the sanitarium, and that weird scene in the cafeteria from Hell.  

Unless you’re really into horror films and horror film history, Asylum of Satan may not be your thing. The acting is weak, the dialogue is pretty atrocious, and the end is opaque in the sense that it isn’t clear how it is to be interpreted.  

But, again, every now and then the movie engineers a moment of creepy frisson, and thus keeps audiences tuned in.  In some ways, William B. Girdler’s first film, Asylum of Satan remains as schizophrenic as its two realities. 

On one hand, Girdler wants to show you everything, and “everything” -- like the bugs or Satan, himself -- doesn’t look so hot. 

On the other hand, he pulls back in terms of the explanation for the monster in room 319 and regarding the cafeteria of egg-eating cultists. In those moments, the film seems to achieve genuine idiosyncratic nuttiness.

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