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California Literary Review

Halloween Home Video #4: Alexandre Courtès’ Asylum Blackout

Asylum Blackout promotional poster


Halloween Home Video #4: Alexandre Courtès’ Asylum Blackout

Welcome to Halloween Home Video (2012 edition), a special series of home video reviews for this year’s scary season. We are dying to tuck you in with the latest in B-horror, for your Halloween enjoyment.

Promotional poster for horror thriller The Incident aka Asylum Blackout

© 2012 IFC Films

For The Night Of The Big Storm

Asylum Blackout is a fine example of what can be achieved with a small budget and a simple idea. Good fundamentals and steady pace allow the makers of this film to economize on complexity, and the result is a satisfying no-frills thriller.

It is 1989 in the Pacific Northwest, and George (Rupert Evans) is the lead guitarist for a struggling rock band (though the movie never states it, I secretly hope that Asylum Blackout is also the name of the band). To keep themselves in food and shelter between gigs and recording sessions, he and his mates work as the kitchen staff of an asylum for the criminally insane. Despite the bleak institutional environment, George takes care to prepare nice meals for the inmates and treat them with personal respect as far as his job allows. While not exactly a futile ministry, this only seems to have positive effects as long as nothing else agitates them. At least it shows that George is basically a good guy trying to live well in a thankless and dangerous position.

The asylum guards keep a tight lid on even the most benign troublemakers, but times are hard and the facility is ominously understaffed these days. So much depends on an uninterrupted routine. George begins to notice an inmate named Harry Green (Richard Brake) giving him the eye, and possibly urging other inmates off their daily sedatives. Before he can voice his suspicions (perhaps stalled by wanting to spare his charges undue punishment), a massive thunderstorm knocks out the power in the asylum. In a mildly underwritten chance catastrophe – the script’s main weak point – the auxiliary power supply fries itself in a power surge, leaving the asylum in darkness with a whole ward of psychos out of their cells for feeding. For the rest of the film, George and his pals try desperately to escape the increasingly violent uprising that ensues. Once the inmates take down their first guard, they acquire things like keys and weapons, and the kitchen becomes quite a fearsome arsenal indeed.

Asylum Blackout relies on the simplicity of its narrative for strength, and does not overanalyze the pathology of Harry Green and the more villainous prisoners leading the charge. This is no Shutter Island, in other words. When George finally does have the opportunity to ask “Why?” he receives a clear and extremely disturbing answer.

The moral ambiguity of this movie may frustrate some, but pessimists will relish it. Conditions at the asylum are harsh, but the exact level of cruelty going on in private at the hands of the guards is unknown. Clearly they do not treat the prisoners as gently as George does, but whether or not they were asking for an uprising, or could have prevented it, remains a subject for dark speculation. To be sure, Harry Green is a pure force of evil. He has the look of a bloodthirsty hoodlum straight out of Brighton Rock, with a dash of the Joker for good measure.

Director Alex Courtès paints the background of Asylum Blackout nicely, with spare production design and dreary exteriors of Washington in the rain. The venues where the band records and plays are as nondescript and forbidding as the asylum where they work by day. Being trapped against all reason and hope is of symbolic importance to all these characters long before it takes on material significance. An escape plan is something that George and his buddies should have thought about a long time before now.

Dan Fields is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Film. He has written for the California Literary Review since 2010. He is also co-founder and animator for Fields Point Pictures, and the frontman of Houston-based folk band Polecat Rodeo. Google+, Twitter

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