The Institute

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“A girl has no name.”

Game of Thrones, this clearly isn’t. But both Chris and I were struck by the similarities between what befalls the main character here, and the re-programming which Anya Stark underwent at the hands of the Faceless Men. Because the first, and arguably key, step in both is to destroy the existing personality, so there is a blank slate – the phrase “tabula rasa” is explicitly used here – on which the new character can be drawn. In this case, the victim is Isabel Porter (Gallerani), a young woman who has sunk into depression after the death of her parents. She opts for a stay at the Rosewood Institute, a highly regard mental sanatorium in Baltimore.

It soon turns out those who run it have an extremely creepy agenda, sitting somewhere between local hero Edgar Allen Poe and the Illuminati. Through a mix of drugs and mind-control techniques, Isabel is being transformed from the somewhat rebellious but polite young woman who went in, into… Well, it’s kinda hard to say. But it turns out that her rebellious streak may be about the most robust aspect of her personality, and those in charge will perhaps end up wishing they had left well alone. For when you destroy all moral governors in someone, what’s left can potentially turn round and bite their purported master.

While certainly not for everyone, this is a horror/conspiracy combination which puts it right in our wheelhouse. And perhaps surprisingly, the “based on a true story” claim has more veracity than you might expect. Between the war, poor female patients were basically sold to upper-class families, and put to work by them, as little more than slaves, in what has been described as “a well-oiled human trafficking operation.” The bizarre ritual ceremonies depicted here, do appear to be the fruits of imagination – though I would say whoever was responsible has done their paranoid homework with some of the details.

There’s a strong feminist subtext, with the story set in a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard – Isabel describes her curiosity as a symptom of mental illness. It’s a joy when the tables are turned, though I’m not quite so sure about the final twist, which seems wholly unnecessary, to put it mildly.  I also enjoyed the more Gothic aspects, not least a sequence which is lifted wholesale from one of Poe’s most famous stories. Gallerani is excellent in the central role, and that’s probably a good thing, since some of the other performances aren’t, not least James Franco as Dr. Cairn, who appears to have strolled in from a fancy-dress party. And I’ve no clue at all, what Pamela Anderson is doing in this.

Taking this seriously, would likely be a mistake. Treat it as something inspired by, and in the lurid spirit of, a Victorian “penny dreadful” story, however – right down to the hunchback – and you’ll find plenty of fun here.

Dir: James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky
Star: Allie Gallerani, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Lori Singer

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