From the mind of Kerry Valderrama comes Sanitarium, a compilation of short tales about mental illness as told by a doctor of the facility. It boasts a huge cast, including John Glover, Malcom McDowell, Lou Diamond Phillips, Lacey Chabert, and Robert freaking Englund, and its set pieces are similar to the television and comic book shorts that obviously inspired the film. Even the end credits purport that Sanitarium has also attempted a comic book adaptation of sorts, with covers and various pages for each story.
It all starts with a framing story featuring Dr. Stenson (McDowell), who takes the viewer through the actions of the sanitarium and begins to tell the most disturbing stories he can recall about his patients. McDowell’s character is the requisite creepy doctor; he’s in a position where he’s supposed to care for his patients, but he has that leery quality that feels like he really just wants to share all of the worst mental illnesses he’s encountered.
His presence works for the first and last story of Sanitarium, but the frame is oddly disconnected during the second tale. All of the introductions to the stories feel somewhat jumbled together, as though the directors, including Valderrama, Bryan Ortiz, and Bryan Ramirez, weren’t sure how exactly to piece everything together. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s certainly not as cohesive as Trick ‘r Treat or anthology comics like House of Mystery.
The tales themselves are both successes and failures at the same time. The actual plots of each story are interesting and unique, and that is due to the amount of leeway the writers have working with various inmates in the sanitarium. Their tales are as different as their personalities, allowing the film to explore various aspects of mental illness. The first tale features a man who becomes so attached to his artwork, a trio of very creepy dolls, that he allows himself to be persuaded by them. The second involves an abused child who is rescued by a monstrous being who could be considered a scary godfather. The third stars Lou Diamond Phillips as a survivalist locked in an underground shelter who is convinced that the world has ended.
These stories are fascinating, in a way, and there is definitely skill involved in telling them. The lighting is moody, there’s a tension within each as the viewer attempts to decide who the mentally unstable person is, and all three tales have their own brooding soundtrack. Yet the direction of each is slow and incredibly tedious; had these been three comics in an anthology, they would have worked as shorts with about ten to fifteen pages of material. But for long-running stories, at about 20 to 30 minutes apiece, there is too much inaction and a lot of scenes depicting normal lifestyle routines.
The first short about the dolls chooses to observe the artist in his natural setting as he converses with the inanimate objects; lingering shots of the dolls and John Glover with his hair askew are the majority of the tale. Likewise, the second short focuses on the day-to-day actions of its child protagonist rather than the monstrosities surrounding him.
Those tales are at least able to overcome the monotony at times, but Sanitarium‘s final installment, about a survivalist who takes his obsession a bit too far, simply loses itself in overdrawn characterization and an insistence on backtracking throughout past and present. It’s the most egregious use of time, and I’m not entirely sure how long the whole thing takes but it certainly seemed excessively longer than the other two shorts.
With two okay tales and one that flat-out does not work, Sanitarium isn’t recommendable even with its host of known actors and actresses – and they’re not even given much to do. There are some good possibilities here (and I would assume Valderrama is looking to fashion Sanitarium into a series, whether it be a comic or a second film) that could have sparked something better, but for the most part the film gets lost in its own mind, endlessly wandering labyrinths of ideas that go on forever.
Thanks to RLJ Entertainment for review screener.
Sanitarium on Rotten Tomatoes