Jeff Buhler is showing the horror community a lot in a very short amount of time. He is responsible for the screenplay of The Midnight Meat Train, a movie already reviewed her on Midnight Showing by yours truly. Insanitarium marks his first time behind the camera, as well as being the stories scribe. All that time spent with Clive Barker and Kitamura working on Meat Train must be paying off, because he crafts himself quite the impressive little flick that isn’t perfect, but rises above the direct to DVD schlock it will undoubtedly be lumped in with.
After his sister is locked away in a local insane asylum, Jack is refused access to even speak to her. He decides that he must save her from what seems more like a prison than a mental facility, and fakes being crazy to be admitted in. He then learns that the head doctor, played by the incredible Peter Stormare, is doing some experimental tests on the patients, fooling around with a drug that warps those trapped inside into ravenous flesh eating cannibals.
Before you write this off as another shitty zombie movie hiding under the guise of a psycho thriller, please know that it isn’t. The word “zombie” is never even used in the movie, and Buhler’s “zombies” still retain all their higher brain functions, meaning they are essentially the same exact people they were before being introduced to the drug, they just become a little more ferocious and feral in some cases, and of course crave human blood and flesh. Buhler spends almost an entire hour setting all the personalities of those inhabiting the asylum up, and for a first time director, shows an amazing amount of patience before setting loose his demons to tear things up.
Jesse Metcalfe, who plays our hero Jack, deserves some credit for never slipping into complacency. Stormare is brilliant and fun as the evil doctor, Kevin Sussman is perfect as the comedic relief and aid to Jack throughout his journey to free his sister and escape the grips of the compound, and the rest of the cast never breaks your concentration or makes you cringe. That’s saying a lot considering most of the film is full of nobodies, and it’s apparent that even though the film has a slick, shiny, and professional look, it was obviously made on a fairly modest budget.
Buhler does show what a fan he is of movies through some obvious nods to previous mentally unstable killers and movies of days past. One of his characters is named Loomis, no doubt after Dr. Loomis, immortalized by Donald Pleasance in the Halloween series. There’s a guy in the maximum security room obviously modeled after Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter. Even timeless classics such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest get a well deserved wink. Buhler certainly seems to knows his movies.
And when Buhler does take the chains off for the finale, he also lets the blood fly with some effective gore and special effects. Highlights include a scalpel up through the jaw and into the mouth, a groovy slit throat with blood spraying all over the camera, and an icepick lobotomy. If your a gore hound though, you may be disappointed in how long it takes things to get going. Make no mistake, Buhler, as I mentioned before, takes his time here, getting everything he can out of his own script and his cast. The gore here is subtle, if gore can ever be subtle, and Buhler doesn’t glorify it or telegraph it much. His camera just kind of follows our heroes and when they make a kill, the camera looks at it just long enough to show you how awesome it was, and then gets back to the task at hand. It’s a nice approach and makes violence on display feel a little less staged.
Low-lights include way to many kills followed by horrible one liners. I am as big a fan of Ash and his goofy sayings as the next Evil Dead fan, but in a movie that is as dead serious in tone as Insanitarium, there just isn’t room for more than one or two one liners. It gets annoying after hearing so many, especially when they all take place in a 25 minute span. The dialogue also fails the scenes at times. Buhler tries to make his doctors and staff sound very medical and scientific, but it just comes out as pretentious and silly sounding more often than not. This isn’t the fault of the actors delivering the lines, but Buhler’s obvious unfamiliarity with medical and psychological scientific terms. It’s fine if you write and you don’t know exactly what your talking about, just don’t pretend like you do. The music also shows the limitations of the budget, but fortunately for us we don’t have to hear it much. My final complaint lies with the sequel-ready last few scenes. Can anyone write a movie and just fucking END it when it ends? I understand you want to leave things open, but this movie begged to have a climatic and assertive finish, and what we got was anything but. It’s a shame when even our main heavy never gets his comeuppance.
Gripes aside, Jeff Buhler should be gaining some momentum with his one-two punch in 2008 of The Midnight Meat Train and Insanitarium. For a first time director, and the only two official writing credits on imdb being these two movies, Buhler seems to have come out of nowhere and the man now has my full attention. If he can keep up the pace he’s set for himself, he may be able to breath some life back into a horror genre that has been up and down ever since the turn of the century saw every other studio cranking out remakes and teen screamers.
Recommended, as I’ve said before, to those with patience. Also keep a close eye on Jeff Buhler. My instincts tell me he is on to bigger and even better things…but hopefully not a goddamn remake.