Sanitarium presents an anthology of three short stories, each segment uncovering the disturbing past events that have led to the crazed mental state of a particular inmate at a mental asylum. Following the Creepshow and The Twilight Zone-esque structure, each tale is framed by the interrupting narration of the three patients’ sinister psychiatrist Dr Stenson (Malcom McDowell) from within the walls of the sanatorium. As he examines the mental health of each one, the stories venture back into the patients’ history to demonstrate how excessive grief, guilt, obsession or abuse can turn you insane.
The directorial trio examines multiple psychological and situational human crises that lead to trauma-induced psychosis, and each of the three independent tales is delivered with contrasting tones. Providing an eclectic mix of realism and fantasy, Sanitarium thrives on blurring the line between the two, taking us on a voyage into the initial stages of a messed up mind where we encounter hallucinations, alternate realities and mystical beings. In the introductory words of Dr Stenson himself, “The mind is unbelievably resilient. It can create whole entire fantasies to protect us from reality and blind us from the truth.”
From monsters under the bed to disastrous obsessions with an extra terrestrial apocalypse, to a world of mind-bending talking puppets, there’s a fair amount of mayhem to keep you watching. One could take this title and delve deep into the staggering complexity of the psychological state of the mind, stringing questions that have no answers and attacking the screen with futuristic imagery that has no coherence or definite meaning- in other words, create a mental head fuck. This approach has proven to have its narrative and artistic value - when done well - especially in literature that now often uses cross generic sci-fi and horror forms. But here, Ortiz, Ramirez and Valderrama present a refreshingly simple and plainly enthralling anthology that throws up little in the way to baffle or confuse. It presents some stimulating misdirection, a few quizzical ‘whos’ or ‘hows’ into the paranormal, and succeeds in tugging at the heart strings. At most it’s overly imaginative. But doesn’t go out of its way to leave you scratching your head in a state of infuriating frustration.
The third and final chapter of this film is its talking point and sees Lou Diamond Phillips continue his sporadic contributions to the genre in what is largely a solo performance as James, a man warped in a blinding delusion that there is an extra terrestrial presence taking over the world, amidst which causes him to murder his family. Convinced of an outer world control and unaware of his family’s misfortune, James traps himself in an underground lair in his garden, struggling with his commitment to understand what has happened to the world and his fear of confronting the truth that his mind is denying him. Undeniably the strongest and most memorable segment of the three, we too adopt James’ heart-wrenching pain at the bereavement, as well as temporarily experiencing an uncertainty at the events that have occurred.
The movie ends back in the sanatorium with Dr Stenson talking to James as a patient somewhat months or years later. I expect something clever, probably reflective, ambiguous or philosophical, ends the movie. It is Malcolm McDowell after all. But as the copy I watched was a hair-lined scratched screener disc, I couldn’t quite make out Doctor Stenson’s last line.
VERDICT: Sanitarium is a worthy contribution to horror’s revival of short stories and anthological works from three hopeful newbies to the genre, and largely stands alone in its ability to balance mental instability and human monstrosity against a sympathetic disposition towards the victims who are too the proprietors.