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Asylum of Satan (1972)



Asylum of Satan poses a critical quandary. How much should directorial intent and fulfillment of that intent affect the rendered opinion? It's hard to argue that Asylum is not a bad film, but it maintains a curious sense of non sequitur horror that pokes through the dreck despite first-time director William Girdler's best efforts.

Lucina (Carla Borelli) wakes up in a strange bed in a strange place. A nurse informs her that she's a patient at Pleasant Hill Hospital, in the care of the sinister Dr. Specter (Charles Kissinger). Haunted by strange encounters and confusing visions, Lucina soon suspects that all is not as it seems in this place. If her lumpy fianceé (Nick Jolley) can't save her, she may become a fresh sacrifice for Satan himself!

Girdler's concerns himself primarily with the task of introducing horrifying elements to shock and/or unnerve the audience, while at the same time trying to keep a consistent "heroic" plot thread running in order to make sure he has an out at the end of the movie. The problem with his approach to justifying the two elements against one another is that he doesn't at all. The surreal/dream sequences too often play as Girdler's attempt to toss in scares without having to deal with the dramatic aftermath; he wants to have his gore and bleed it, too.

Also, the director never firmly commits to whether the events within the hospital are actually happening or whether it's part of a psychotic breakdown on Lucina's part. If Asylum is a freaked-out hallucination, then who requested Lucina's transfer to Pleasant Hill? Why do we witness three murders that she couldn't? However, if the film is firmly based in "reality," why does Lucina end the film in the same outfit she started in, even though she had been dressed in white robes just seconds before? What of her flashes to a more decrepit, abandoned version of the hospital?

The answer to all of those questions is "Shut up and watch," apparently. Nothing in Asylum of Satan parses. Losing that grounding in a consistent reality robs the film of its ability to scare us outright. However, the same lack of internal logic does boomerang back on the film and infuses it with an oddball creepiness. If we never know whose rules we're playing by, then what new deviation from the norm can we expect to crawl our way?

Certainly, the actors, despite an almost uniform stiltedness, lend what they can to the chaotic atmosphere. Kissinger, a Louisville horror host, smirks with aplomb as both Specter and freaky German nurse Martine. Borelli, alas, is too often reduced to banging against windows and crying, and the less said of devilishly unhandsome king of plaid Jolley, the better. Okay -- one thing: who on Earth thought that a doughy doofus like that could ever attract a haughty beauty like Borelli? Eegh.

Eventually, whatever creep factor Girdler stumbled upon is undone by the number of times he asks (okay, begs) us to accept blatantly poor effects work as scary. Plastic bugs are pulled over a dead body with fishing wire while fire extinguisher exhaust stands in for poison gas in the background. Rubber snakes bend their fangs over human flesh. A monster's teeth drop off as he opens his mouth. When Satan shows up (in a suit borrowed from -- and wisely edited around in -- Rosemary's Baby), he looks like a gorilla with a dragon's head.

So, back to my initial question: if a horror director fails to tell a coherent narrative -- which is obviously his intent on some level -- but still manages to create a semblance of unease, can he be considered a success, if only a minor one? Should we consider the film on the same scale as deliberately avant garde works such as Eraserhead or Dante Tomaselli's Horror, or should we rate it against other schlock? In the end, the decision is left up to the viewer. As avant garde, Asylum of Satan doesn't rate, but as schlock, it's a wacky experience to share with friends. Take that as you will...


The song that plays at the opening of the film is sung by star Nick Jolley.