James Franco stars in, and co-directs (with Pamela Romanowsky) The Institute, a very odd tale of intrigue set in a 19th Century Baltimore asylum. Part horror movie, part over-the-top drama, the story follows a woman checking herself into a sanitarium for some healing after a traumatic life event. Her brother leaves her reluctantly in the care of the head of the Rosewood Institute, Dr. Cairn (Franco), who’s obviously hiding something behind his mesmerizing eyes. And thus begins a study of a descent into madness – and a whole lot more. There are indeed misdeeds occurring in this otherwise fine establishment, and our protagonist (played Allie Gallerani) is either being driven insane, happening upon a dark conspiracy, or maybe even more than that.
Without spoiling the specifics of the plot – it builds to a very weird place, indeed – this film has many a solid cinematic trope to chew on for horror and mystery fans. For example, just about every scene is virtually dripping with Victorian melodrama, like you might find in Dark Shadows or maybe Crimson Peak. But there’s also that isolated facility feel that can creep a viewer out (Session 9 comes to mind as does the TV series American Horror Story: Asylum). In all these cases and more, the over-the-top atmosphere is always thick and pregnant with expectation. Some sequences even have a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feel to it, offering yet another level of experience to the piece.
Franco and company are always working overtime in this film to crank up the weirdness and chase some cultish themes, a la Wicker Man. But there’s also some segues into some unexpected territory, such as the constant misogyny which was so much a part of “normal life” in that those days. It becomes just another way that our heroine is powerless in this strange world she’s trapped in, which is absolutely run by men. In the end, The Institute has all the cultural refinery of a Masterpiece Theater production, delivers on the sometimes very repulsive horror, and hits many a high note for fans of the aforementioned genres. And as if to put a cherry on top of the whole concoction, the climax and conclusion of the film was most unexpected – and pretty freaky. Only enter The Institute if you dare!
The Institute opens in theaters and digital/VOD on Friday, March 3.