Hell Asylum (2002) *
Once again, I face my ancient enemies, Charles Band and Full Moon Video. Let me begin by saying that, in principle, I respect and support what Band has been trying to do with Full Moon. I, too, miss the days when there were dedicated exploitation studios with more or less instantly recognizable brand identity— you always had some idea what you were getting yourself into when saw that AIP or Hammer or Tigon or New World graphic come up on the screen, and the movie-going experience was better for it in some tiny, intangible way. Those companies had personalities, and personality is all too rare in cinema these days. Unfortunately, the personality Band has established for Full Moon could best be described as “Horror Without Standards” or “The Empire of Unwarranted Sequels.” Hell Asylum certainly falls within the compass of Horror Without Standards, and considering that it started life as a sequel to the far superior, but still not that great Prison of the Dead, it only narrowly misses coming under the second heading as well. Even in comparison to the rest of Full Moon’s catalogue, Hell Asylum is a shockingly awful film, carrying with it all the entertainment value of a Home Colostomy Kit.
Wanting to establish their Know No Shame credentials early, the filmmakers immediately clue us in as to the first of several recent big-time horror movies they’ll be ripping off. An on-his-way-down TV producer named Max (Tim Muskatell) is pitching his new idea for a show to Stan, the head moneyman at his studio’s Pilots Department. (And if your first thought upon seeing Stan is, “They hired this guy because they couldn’t afford Martin Sheen,” there’s a very good reason. Stan is played by none other than Joe Estevez, whose resume— Beach Babes from Beyond, Slaves of the Vampire Werewolf, etc.— suggests that his acting career has not gone quite as well as his brother’s.) The new show will be called “Chill Challenge,” and it will be yet another reality program. They’ll hire five hot girls, bring them together in a supposedly haunted building, and make them perform stupid little stunts, with the winner to be paid $1,000,000. Every room in the building will be wired with low-light-level cameras, and each of the girls will have a miniature version that she’ll wear as a headset while performing her “challenges.” In other words, there’ll be a built-in excuse for lots of switching between external, “objective” camera angles, and “subjective” video monitor shots. In other other words, Hell Asylum is going to be ripping off Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 something fierce. Max’s final pitch— “fear equals goosebumps; goosebumps equal hard nipples; hard nipples and tight outfits equal ratings”— almost sells Stan, but there’s still one little problem. Studio policy limits the budget of any TV pilot to $500,000. Where’s the million-dollar prize money going to come from? Max tells him not to worry; it may be “reality TV,” but it’ll be Max’s reality.
So now it’s time to meet the Meat. Stacey Butler (Stacey Scowley, from The Brotherhood 2: The Young Warlocks) is very pretty, very blonde, and very hopeless. She says she’s afraid of just about everything, which makes it seem like such a good idea to sign up for a game show where the producers try to scare you. Ambrosia— but call her Amber— Bradford (Full Moon regular Tanya Dempsey, who was also in Shrieker and Witch House 3: Demon Fire) is also pretty and blonde, but she doesn’t seem like quite as much of a waste. She’s only afraid of “anything with more than four legs, anything with less than two legs,” and anything that might conceivably be described as in any way creepy or crawly. Rainbow (Sunny Lombardo)— whose parents were hippies— is pretty but not blonde, and is a bit of a goth. Basically, she’s Kim Diamond from Book of Shadows, but played by a much worse actress. She isn’t afraid of anything really— except maybe long, drawn out, intense torture. Yeah, come to think of it, she’s definitely afraid of that. Marti Williams (Olimpia Fernandez, of Killjoy 2: Deliverance from Evil) is the token black girl. Therefore, she’s obnoxious, loud, athletic, and confrontational— ‘cause, you know, it’s a new century and all, and we can’t have the old stereotypes hanging around anymore. She’s also claustrophobic. Finally, Paige (Debra Mayer, from Voodoo Academy and Prison of the Dead)— Paige Turner, no less— is the obnoxious rich bitch. She’s afraid of having a normal, pedestrian life, with children, mortgages, day-jobs, and the like. (And here I started to hear the dulcet voice of Edith Massie calling to me: “I worry that you’ll work in a office! Have children! Celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of heterosexual is a sick and boring life...”) All these people suck, and I can’t wait for them to die.
We get some indication of how that’s going to happen when the technicians who are installing the cameras throughout the “haunted” building are waylaid by somebody in a $5.00 grim reaper robe and gut-munched to death. You might expect a thing like that to attract some sort of notice back at the home office, but apparently not, because Max and his bimbos show up on schedule for the shooting. According to Max, the “house” (obviously really a disused church) was built by textile baron Phineas Mason. Mason was a bad, bad man, who worked his mostly immigrant employees to death, and didn’t mind one little bit when they did things like fall into the machinery; he’d just use the blood-stained threads to make red fabric. Mason wanted a wife, but women didn’t like him, so he spent the whole of the 1860’s mail-ordering brides from the third world. He’d get a new one every year, but nobody ever heard of the previous women leaving. Those of you who watched Jan De Bont’s version of The Haunting back in 1999 (and my condolences to every one of you) will recognize this as the story of Hugh Crane, that putrescent movie’s ghostly villain. Then, setting their rip-off sights a little higher, the filmmakers have Max explain that the Mason house was converted into an insane asylum shortly before the turn of the century, but that it was shut down when the inmates revolted and slaughtered the sadistic doctors who had been “treating” them. Anybody see the 1999 version of House on Haunted Hill? In that case, you’ll also recognize the rest of the setup when Max tells the girls they’ll be staying in the Mason House overnight (for a million dollars, remember), and that the only door out of the building will be locked at sunset. Ugh.
Marti ends up being the first contestant to be challenged. Max, communicating with the girls via closed-circuit TV, instructs her to get her “Marti Cam” headset, and go find the study, the room where Phineas Mason was said to have died; she will then await further instructions. After much Blair Witch-y prowling through the building’s ruined interior (this place doesn’t look like the Rustin house— no, not at all...), Marti finds the study, and is told to go into the closet, and pick up the object hidden in the hole in the far wall. Just when Marti— the claustrophobe— enters the closet, Max has his head tech, Spud (Charles Austin, another Killjoy 2 survivor), throw the switch that remotely closes the door behind her. Marti flips out, and after more screaming, whining, and pleading than should have been left in the final cut, she gives up and pushes the “let me the fuck off this TV show” button on her headset, forfeiting her chance at the prize money. The great irony: if she’d just looked in that hole like she was supposed to, she’d have found the key to the closet door. The enraged Marti refuses Max’s offer to send someone down to escort her out of the house, and thus nobody is any the wiser when that guy in the cheap grim reaper costume kills her— by holding her against an invisible, silent lawnmower strapped to his chest, to judge by the way she falls apart after he grabs her.
Paige’s turn comes next, and this is where we learn of the devious way Max has come up with to get around that $500,000 budget cap. Paige turns out to be Max’s own girlfriend, and her “challenge” is to make out with him in one of the hallways! The whole game is rigged so that she will win, and there really is no prize money at all— Paige is doing it for the exposure, as they say. Pretty sneaky, but not nearly as sneaky as that grim reaper guy, who pays a visit to the control room after Max has set up a combined challenge for Stacey and Amber. They’re supposed to meet up with a “ghost” played by Max’s halfwit brother, Ted (Matt Moffett), and Max initially thinks the grim reaper guy is Ted, wearing the wrong costume. He figures out his mistake when he, Spud, and the other technician (Julian Ott) get gut-munched. (Max is right about one thing though: Guys in cheap grim reaper robes? Not scary.)
And would you look at that— there’s more than one grim reaper guy, too! While the one in the control room uses Max’s corpse to give orders to the girls, ventriloquist style, the other reapers fan out through the building to get them. One of them separates Amber from Stacey by causing maggots and mealworms to rain from the ceiling onto them, then drags the latter girl up a chimney to gut-munch her. (What do you know? Stacey has four femurs!) Rainbow (who has by this point revealed her agenda of laying the spirits of Mason House to rest) encounters Ted, mistakes him for a real ghost, and breaks both her legs quite spectacularly falling down a marble staircase when he doesn’t back down in the face of her magic talisman. (Remember, she’s afraid of intense, drawn-out pain, and stuff.) Finally, Amber and Paige join forces when the weirdness gets so extreme that even Paige can’t deny it anymore, but bimbos are no match for grim reapers, and it’s gut-munches for all and sundry. As a parting shot, we get to see Stan and his fellow department heads at the TV studio watching Max’s film, and rejoicing over their reality show to end all reality shows. I, for one, agree with Rainbow: “Kill me... Please?”
I will open my case against Hell Asylum by reminding you that it brazenly rips off not only Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, but also a pair of big-ticket turkeys from the horror boom of ‘99, all while working an angle that was handled much better in Series 7: The Contenders or even The Running Man. And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even offer as coherent or compelling an excuse for the ensuing action as the films it steals from. For example, at no point is any explanation for the real haunting of the Mason House ever offered. Seeing as how our gut-munching ghosties are clearly not the grudge-holding shades of old Phineas’s put-upon employees, nor are they apparently the vengeful spirits of his mail-order brides (although the casting of direct-to-video über-scream-queen Brinke Stephens as their leader introduces the possibility that this is where the filmmakers were going, but just forgot to tell anyone), what possible reason could they have for hanging out in the old dump, yanking the karo-soaked linguine out of anyone with the temerity to step inside?!?! (And not since Criminally Insane poured orangish paint on department-store mannequins have I seen less convincing gore effects than these.) Then, into this snake-pit of laziness and pilfered ideas, Hell Asylum tosses five young actresses the whole of whose talent is cantilevered off of their pectoralis majors, yet fails to get even a single one of them naked. Why make a movie like this? What’s the fucking point?