Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Asylum of Satan (1971): or, The Devil Wore Plaid

It's been said again and again that sometimes a person has to kiss a lot of frogs before stumbling upon that one little unpromising amphibian that is in fact an exchanted prince, waiting only for the unconditional love of the appropriate princess to break the spell and discover his true, glorious, sexy nature. It's a cliche because it's true--in movies and in life generally, sometimes untold treasure can lie hidden behind a slimy, warty exterior. However, focusing on the flash of fairy magic and the happy ever after tends to discount the hard fact that most of the time all one is left with is a squirming, indifferent frog and a less-than-appetizing aftertaste.

I really wanted to like Asylum of Satan. The pieces all seemed to be there--directed by Kentucy-based indie filmmaker William B. Girdler, the man behind the now-legendary Native American Neck-Fetus flick The Manitou as well as the MMMMMovies approved Cannibal/Slasher Three on a Meathook, Asylum of Satan boasts atrocious 70s fashion choices, low-rent spookhouse dream sequences, a Curse of the Demon-inspired devil, and the advisory involvement of the honest-to-Lucifer Church of Satan in its climactic Black Mass sequence. Add over-earnest high-school level acting, some of the more hilarious kill scenes I've seen in a while, and a typical stellar DVD treatment by Something Weird Video, and it should be 100% trash-movie WIN, right?

Somehow, though, Asylum of Satan doesn't quite get there. I guess another cliché also applies here: they can't all be gems.

The story here is quickly told: beautiful young concert pianist Lucina Martin (70s soap-opera star Carla Borelli) wakes up to find herself a prisoner at the Pleasant Hill Asylum, under the care of the enigmatic Dr. Spectre (Charles Kissinger). Unable to determine why she's there and furthermore unable to escape, Lucina is subjected to intrusive examinations and uncomfortable massage therapy while also suffering surreal waking nightmares in which the asylum is an uninhabited, cobweb-strewn wreck and strange creatures stalk and attack her from the shadows.

"The last thing I remember is the Duke asking me if I'd ever experienced the Himalayan Humdinger..."

Also incarcerated at Pleasant Hill are three characters listed in the end credits simply as "Blind Girl," "Cripple," and "Mute." None of these patients know anything about Dr. Spectre either (or maybe the Mute guy does, but he ain't talkin'), but all have complete confidence that he will cure whatever ails them in short order, so it's best not to ask too many questions. The asylum is tenanted by dozens of other inmates, all of them silent, unmoving figures dressed in white hooded robes and confined to wheelchairs. Nobody, not even Lucina, seems to find this strange.

Meanwhile, Lucina's fiancé Chris Duncan (the kind of amazing Nick Jolley--more on him later) is desperate to track down his missing girlfriend, which he does by questioning her family doctor and then getting surly with the local police force. He finally follows her trail to Pleasant Hill, where it doesn't take him long to figure out something evil is afoot. He can't imagine quite HOW evil, though, as the fact is Lucina has been kidnapped by a Satanic cult who plan to sacrifice her in a ritual designed to bring His Infernal Majesty to earth and bestow limitless power on the not-so-good Doctor! Can Chris save her in time? Is there in fact anything to save her FROM? And what's the deal with Martine, the Frau Blücher-esque nurse who is also a painfully obvious tranny? Time will tell!

Beautiful Plumage

Or not, as the case may be. In his first film, Girdler takes all these elements and mashes them up so free-wheelingly and haphazardly that it's almost impossible not to get lost. And though he gives the viewer occasional treats such as some nice dream sequences and an interesting shot or two, he gets bogged down in talky static scenes and narrative incoherence to the point that it's difficult to muster enough interest to care.

I'm not a negative person by nature, though, so let's focus on some of the goodies to be gleaned that ARE there.

First of all, there's some fun to be had with the acting. Despite or perhaps because of her extensive TV acting resume (which includes such notable entries as Ironside, One Day at a Time, Days of Our Lives, Quincy M. E. and Scarecrow and Mrs. King), Carla Borelli's performance as Lucinda smacks of nothing so much as your high school's homecoming queen emoting her heart out in the Senior class's production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Her lines are delivered with diaphragm-projected precision, whether she's pleading to be let out of her room or agreeing to brush her hair for dinner. And every facial expression she pulls seems to have been executed in expectation of an episode-ending freeze-frame. It's not good, but it *is* periodically entertaining.

An altogether better performance is turned in by Charles Kissinger, who also did some dramatic heavy lifting as Paw in Girdler's superior Three on a Meathook. Hampered by one of the worst spirit-gum goatees it has ever been my pleasure to witness (on the DVD commentary Girdler biographer Patty Breen calls it a "Muppet-fur beard"), Kissinger nonetheless imparts Dr. Spectre with a quiet melodramatic menace--and by the time he gets to chew a little scenery in the Black Mass finale, you're ready to believe he's in league with Old Scratch.

"Actually, it's a stray. I think it was attracted by my frilly collar, and now I can't get rid of the damned thing."

Another Girdler Players alumnus turning in a memorable performance is Sherry Steiner as "Blind Girl." Though her role here is not nearly as meaty and awesome as when she played Sherri The World's Most Understanding Barmaid in Three on a Meathook, Steiner brings the same dental-hygienist enunciation to her role as Dr. Spectre's visually impaired patient, and the level to which she commits to her perpetual thousand-yard stare can only be admired by thespians and fans alike. Her death scene here--left alone in a swimming pool and engulfed by a crowd of venomous aquatic snakes!--is also a highlight.

But for sheer entertainment value, the star of the show is definitely Nick Jolley as Lucina's finace Chris. From the moment he appears on an unseen people-mover at the airport, everything about him screams class: the page-boy bob, the gorgeous 70s porn-stache, the Danzig-level muttonchops, the striped polyester tie and frankly astounding plaid jacket. You'd think that no performance could live up to such an appearance, but you'd be wrong--Jolley plays Chris as a hot-headed, short-fused, quick-cursing man's man, just as likely to insult the cop he's begging for help as to punch out a caretaker at the drop of a smoldering Winchester cigarillo. And in his flashback love-scenes with Lucina, you just can't take your eyes off him...as desperate as you might be to do so.

Girdler the director gives us a few neat shots in between static mid-rangers and long talks in two-camera coverage. The silent, hooded inmates of the asylum are actually weird enough to be slightly unsettling, particularly in an early scene where Lucina spies a circle of them outside on the lawn. (A later dinner scene where each hooded patient sits motionless in front of a place bearing exactly one hardboiled egg also has a pleasant touch of the surreal.) And even when the low-budget seams are showing, Girdler often manages to pull something entertaining out of it--as in the aforementioned rubber snake death, a fire-extinguisher-fogged spookhouse segment in which The Cripple is attacked by insect-shaped fishing lures, and a totally nonsensical scene in which a gruesomely decaying monster attacks our heroine and then disappears.

Blink and you'll miss it.

Much has been made of the movie's last-act Black Mass segment (by people who make much of such things, anyway) because of the involvement of the Church of Satan as "technical consultants." Apparently Michael Aquino of the CoS (now of the schism-formed Temple of Set, for those of you keeping score) even flew out to Kentucky at his own expense, supplied the occultish props used in the final scene, and gave Girdler an actual Satanic ritual to use, making Asylum of Satan's finale one of the few accurate portrayals of an actual CoS ceremony on film.

The Devil does make his appearance, with a face more than a little reminiscent of the fire demon from Jacque Tourneur's Curse (or Night) of the Demon, and according to legend wearing the same hairy green suit used in Roman Polanski's gold-standard Satan flick Rosemary's Baby. But thanks to some of Nick Jolley's hot plaid lovin', Lucina is not quite as fit for sacrifice as Dr. Specter thought, leading to a less-than-ideal ending of the ceremony.

So there are a lot of nice pieces and things that are interesting to think about even if undeveloped (there's a minor Wizard of Oz parallel that is mentioned a couple of times but never seriously, which might have been thought provoking if pursued), but somehow the movie never quite crosses that line that separates the merely inept from the ineptly inspired. Too much talk, too little action, and not enough method to the batshittery to pull it all together.

"My name is Lucifer, and I approve this message."

The Something Weird Video presentation of the film is a good one, though, and the entertaining commentary by Girdler biographer/fanatic Patty Breen almost changed my mind about the movie's greatness--almost, but not quite. Still, it's fun to listen to her geek out about it (her inexplicable crush on Nick Jolley is the stuff of nerd-glee legend), and she's got a lot of interesting trivia to share, with Jeffrey C. Hogue of Majestic International Pictures along for the ride.

Breen quotes Girdler as saying "You never see Spielberg's mistakes up on the big screen--me, I was learning as I went along, and all my mistakes went right up there." So taken with that grain of salt, it's interesting to see the development from here to Three on a Meathook--a better (and 50% cheaper) film. And depending on your tolerance for low-budget trash, you might find something more to like than I did--Breen herself is proof of that. But it didn't melt my butter, so I give Asylum of Satan 1.5 thumbs. It won't kill you to watch it, but then niether will Vern Troyer's sex tape.

So I've heard.

For an alarmingly thorough and altogether more charitable appreciation of Asylum of Satan as well as all Girdler's other efforts, click on over to Patty Breen's encyclopedic WilliamGirdler.com.


Tenebrous Kate said...

You know what--as a Vicar-Flickr-flipbook, this movie looks pretty splendid! It's all rubber monsters and exciting facial hair of the real and faux varieties. I guess this is another check against that "if it has SATAN, it MUST be good" theory I've been working on. Back to the drawing board...

I love movies with Church of Satan consulting services. Seriously--that's like having the Pope weigh in on "The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine." Amazing....

Rev. Fred Phantom said...

Hmmm, I have this on my Netflix queue...maybe I'll just move it down the list...still looks worth a peek.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Empress--it definitely has a few good visuals, not least of which is Nick Jolley and his AMAZING wardrobe. I didn't even get to the checkerboard pants/turtleneck ensemble he rocks later in the film...

BTW--according to the commentary, the tales about Anton LaVey doing consulting work on Rosemary's Baby were a myth--perpetrated by LaVey himself. Consider the source, I guess...

Rev. Phantom: as with any matters of taste, YMMV. And Patty Breen would definitely tell you to go for it.

Bonus--the SWV disc has another feature, "Satan's Children," that some sources say is better than the main title. Also an interesting short film of a burlesque girl dancing with the Devil. So there might be SOMETHING there for you to enjoy. ;)

Fred said...

"Bonus--the SWV disc has another feature, "Satan's Children," that some sources say is better than the main title. Also an interesting short film of a burlesque girl dancing with the Devil. So there might be SOMETHING there for you to enjoy."

It's good to see SWV is still offering quantity with their DVDs if not always quality.

The scary thing is, looking at Nick Jolley's wardrobe, I'm old enough to remember friends and relatives wearing those garish plaids, with weird hairdos (or is that hair-don'ts?) and odd facial hair. My cousin recently grew a fu manchu and I didn't have the heart to tell him he was more Harry Reems than Broadway Joe. I also love Charles Kissinger's faux goatee. As a goatee wearer myself, I can't believe they justed didn't kick him a few extra bucks to grow a real one, which would have taken about a week of non-shaving. Me thinks the faux-tee was an artistic decision on the part of Girdler, but I could be wrong.

Karswell said...

Satan's Children is watchable but no way is it better than Asylum. They're both equally okay / watchable, with a mix of meh.

Word Verification is TRIBRONS! Kind of a cool name for some alien invaders or something.

Attack of the Tribrons!

Karswell said...

Also, about LaVey: I had always heard he was the close-up eyes of the Devil in Rosemary's Baby, but I'm sure that ain't true either. He did Satano Consulting on The Car and Devil's Rain as well.

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