There are few writers whose work has passed so unconsciously into common parlance that those who reference it do not know the origin. The phrase “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” is generally attributed to film executive Richard A Rowland, an executive at Metro Studios in the year 1919 when the actors Charlie Chaplin, D W Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford set up United Artists in order to have more control over their careers, but the seed of that phrase had been sewn almost seventy five years before.
It was in November 1845 that Graham’s Magazine published Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, a more humorous piece than the author is generally associated with though also with the dark gothic elements and sinister undertone for which he is remembered. While many of Poe’s works have been adapted in a variety of media, some more faithfully than others, their names have usually been preserved regardless of the veracity of the production, but Tarr and Fether’s legacy is most often uncredited, certainly in Poe’s homeland.
There have been French, German, Spanish, Czech and even Mexican versions, but perhaps reflecting the deception and misdirection of the short story Hollywood preferred to appropriate the narrative for its own ends, with aspects of it showing up twice in Star Trek (Dagger of the Mind and most explicitly Whom Gods Destroy) and, to choose only two of many examples, the films The Forgotten and Shutter Island.
Arriving from Oxford University on Christmas Eve 1899 at the locked gates of the remote Stonehearst Asylum to complete his training, Doctor Edward Newgate (Cloud Atlas‘ Jim Sturgess bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Michael Palin’s many moustachioed Monty Python characters) anticipates welcome; instead the gatekeeper, the unfortunately named Mickey Finn (The Zero Theorem‘s David Thewlis) is brusque to the point of hostility, saying he is not expected, though grudgingly allows him entry.
Fortunately after an initially cautious interview superintendent Doctor Silas Lamb (Iron Man 3‘s Sir Ben Kingsley) is more enthusiastic, and Newgate is conducted through the wards to meet the patients, the black sheep of the finest families who suffer from the finest ailments, wards of eccentrics reminding of Exorcist III though the underlying tone could not be more different. Newgate is at first surprised by Silas’ approach of allowing his patients to fully indulge their delusions, but as it makes them happy and more manageable Silas believes it to be a more productive therapy than the alternatives used elsewhere in the medical profession.
One patient in particular catches the eye of Doctor Newgate, and he is quickly entranced in a most unprofessional way by Mrs Eliza Graves (Underworld‘s Kate Beckinsale), detained having attacked her husband, but giving the appearance of a sophisticated and intelligent lady of society as she entertains with her own piano compositions much to the delight of her over-excitable ever-present nurse Millie.
Adjusting to the oddness of the facility, exploring the basement late at night having heard a repeated banging conducted through the pipes of the ventilation system Newgate is horrified to find another group of patients held in cages, sickly and near starvation. Their leader claims that they are in fact the true staff of Stonehearst, Doctor Benjamin Salt (Interstellar‘s Michael Caine), chief medical officer Doctor Swawick (X-Men: First Class‘s Jason Flemyng) and Matron Mrs Pike (Wrath of the Titans‘ Sinéad Cusack), overthrown by the dangerously insane Silas Lamb who drugged them with chloral hydrate, resulting in the deaths of several colleagues from overdose.
From a script by Joseph Gangemi, director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) has crafted a version of Poe’s tale which is in many ways faithful in setting and structure to Poe’s original tale though is also a dramatic expansion. Crucially it wisely chooses to move the twist of the original tale to the first half hour, raising the doubts in Newgate’s mind of who is keeper and who is kept then providing a conclusive answer within minutes rather than playing the question out over the whole running time to an increasingly exasperated audience who are already fully cognisant of what is transpiring.
Instead, as the cards are placed on the table so the dilemma is laid on Newgate of what actions he should take; if he confronts Lamb he will be incarcerated, but if he attempts to escape and raise the alarm not only will he have no evidence but those in the oubliette will likely be slaughtered before his return.
Compounding this, Eliza refuses to cooperate, stating that if he leaves she will not join him, arguing that the facility under Doctor Salt was a far worse place to be, acts of barbarism practiced on daily basis for the supposed benefit of the patients, but with winter closing in and provisions and medical supplies dwindling, whatever Newgate chooses must be done quickly.
It is always appreciated to have a film which considers the intelligence of the audience rather than relying on their ignorance, and while the film occasionally drifts towards overwrought melodrama it is a radical departure from anything Anderson has created before, and the true horror of the film comes from the recreations of genuine historic treatments for mental illness, though in keeping with the format established in Roger Corman’s numerous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations it ends with flames.
With the languid pacing and appearance of the most expensive period drama supporting a faultless ensemble cast, Eliza Graves (originally released as Stonehearst Asylum in America) is beautiful to watch throughout, filmed by former Fringe director of photography Thomas Yatsko and with John Debney’s score enhanced by choice classical selections. Though the necessary sense of danger slips too easily taking with it any sense of urgency, the film is still more focused than Asylum, American Horror Story‘s equivalent second season.