Written and Directed by: Todd Sheets
Starring: Lori Hassel, Matthew Lewis and J.T. Taube
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďShe was almost dead meat, for sure she was!"
Itís not all that uncommon to see a filmmaker express a bit of disappointment in (or even completely disavow) a film theyíve made; however, when someone like Todd Sheets even admits that Nightmare Asylum was better suited for a dumpster, itís a little disconcerting. Sheets is one of maestros from the 80s and 90s shot-on-video scene, of course, and most viewers would probably have a similar attitude towards his films that are considered ďgood.Ē At any rate, itís easy to see how Nightmare Asylum might earn such disdain even from its creator--itís rather sloppy, even by Sheetsí standards, as the film takes its title rather literally by attempting to mirror the nightmares of someone who might be in the loony bin (this is the only explanation I can come up with, anyway).
Once again, Sheets proves that plot is arbitrary as long as youíve got a camcorder, some raw meat, and a pack of buddies that donít mind starring in AV club level productions. Instead, Nightmare Asylum has threads of what could be a plot in some alternate universe; most of the action takes place in some subterranean netherworld, where a girl named Lisa (Loris Hassel) finds herself wandering about. She befriends Spider (Matthew Lewis), the (apparently) youngest member of a family of chuds who has no concept of the outside world (or even the word ďoutside"--it's almost as if Sheets is dipping into some existentialist, Plato's Cave style musings here). They get separated, and Nightmare Asylum just spirals out of control from there, as this place is also populated by a demented family of psychopaths, a couple of young lovers (or something), and a horde of killer monsters, all of whom amble about with little direction.
Most Sheets films are brain-melting affairs, but this one goes nuclear on your grey matter and reduces it to some kind of primordial sludge; about a quarter of the way through, you have to make peace with the fact that none of it really makes much sense. In fact, itís so incoherent that I had to track down Sheets aficionado and madman Matt Hill (who challenged me to watch this after I survived Goblin) to assure me there wasnít some bizarre history behind the film to explain its disjointedness. As it turns out, itís a typical Sheets production that was filmed over different periods of time with a rotating cast with varying availability, and it all amounts to Sheets and his buddies pissing around in front of a camera before he attempted to weld it all together into some semblance of a movie. As such, the whole thing plays like a variety hour put on by a lunatic, so you really have to approach it more as a collection of scenes of varying quality.
The The Texas Chain Saw inspired scenes featuring Pops and Sonny Boy are particularly grating, though the latter is played by the always amusing Jerry Angell (a Sheets regular whose mullet is a SOV treasure). Nightmare Asylumís unscripted quality is most obvious here, as the two just sort of drone on and on, and it may be a testament to Sheetsís unique abilities that you donít even really need to know what theyíre talking about. Thereís a pervasive unpleasantness that grates throughout Nightmare Asylum, and it often feels like youíve been dropped into a rabbit hole thatís full of ineptness and lunacy. Maybe thatís why the thread with Spider and Lisa works the best since itís like a fucked up Alice in Wonderland by way of a local haunted house attraction. If that sounds like a slight, itís not--itís just truth since Sheets actually filmed it at The Devilís Dark Side in Kansas City. The setting is arguably the best thing about Nightmare Asylum since itís one of the few things that has a little bit of a budget behind it. Plus, it provides a bunch of cool horror touchstones in the form of masks (look out for Pinhead and possessed Linda Blair) and a graveyard whose tombstones carry some famous names. The cemetery also houses the filmís coolest gag, as the filmís killers pop out and drag people down into their lair, a spot that was probably yanked wholesale from the haunted houseís own show.
Nightmare Asylum often feels like a bunch of inmates running amok in the nuthouse. No one would ever question Sheetsís enthusiasm for the genre, and watching him and his crew run wild in such a setting is charming. Iím guessing most of us always wished we could stage an elaborate haunted house show, and Sheets actually did it and filmed it--for better or worse. Itís often worse, but Sheets at least isnít just content to take a camcorder and record his shenanigans, as he came equipped with cool lighting, fog machines, and inventive camerawork (thereís a dizzying shot early on that perfectly captures just how weird and disorienting the experience is going to be as you circle down this muddy drain). He also came loaded with an entire butcher shop, of course, as he slathers on heaps ground beef gore in some sick, raw sequences of torture. Iím guessing anyone who sells meat by the bulk in the Kansas City area has been disappointed in Sheetsís decade-long hiatus. Dana Cheney and Mike Hellman are the effects and make-up artists, respectively, and the two pull off work thatís as impressive as any other modestly budgeted gore showcases of the era. Bodies are buzz sawed, dime store masks are pummeled to a pulp, and faces are melted off (and even transformed into gooey demonic visages in one of the more impressive scenes) with some incredibly intricate displays that represent most of the filmís appeal.
Like any film of this ilk, you kind of have to grade Nightmare Asylum on a curve, especially since it was never meant to see the light of day anyway. Sheetsís pre-Zombie Bloodbath oeuvre mostly feels like a bunch of rough drafts, and this one might be the roughest. Iíd say the whole thing is guided by funhouse and nightmare logic, but that assumes thereís any logic at all to be found in a film thatís cock-eyed and distorted from the start, full of bizarre twists and fake-outs that render the whole thing a goopy cacophony of severed limbs, eviscerated intestines, and nonsense. Of the Sheets films Iíve seen, it ranks somewhere near the bottom, though itís hardly the worst; however, I can most definitely say it is a Todd Sheets film--like it or not, his filmsí distinctive style is one of the best to emerge from the SOV scene. Nightmare Asylum can be found with a bunch of his other films on Pendulumís Decrepit Crypt of Nightmares pack, where it looks like the original VHS release has been ported to DVD, so the pictureís a little roughshod. Some glitches pop up here and there, but itís hard to say if thatís a fault of the transfer or the actual film editing itself. Considering this 50 pack gives you access to a bunch of Sheets films, itís probably worth a purchase, but Nightmare Asylum probably isnít the best introduction to one of horror's more interesting auteurs. Rent it!
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