In a futuristic insane asylum, the inmates fight to stay inside because the outside world has become so crazy. Welcome to the dark, Gilliam-esque world of Rania Ajami's Asylum Seekers.
"What do you call a monkey that has developed neurosis?"
"A human being."
Welcome to the asylum, where your doctor will be an enormous beard, sporting a loudspeaker at its centre. Your nurse may remind you of the cruel ballet instructor from Suspiria, and her assistants Mickey and Mini are always on hand. The twisting corridors lead to all kinds of bizarre chambers and freaky quarters, as The Beard says himself, "Our architect was also an inmate." The only problem is that the world on the outside is now so crazy, that space on the inside is limited. Anyone hoping to stay will have to convince Doctor Beard and Nurse Milly that they're the real deal. "May the best lunatic win."
Enter six hopefuls: First there's Dr. Raby who we meet at a dinner party in the first scene. A former child prodigy and ‘virgin nymphomaniac', he's twitching like crazy and can't take his eyes off the cleavage of the pretty kindergarten teacher sat opposite. Bombarded by inane chatter he snaps and screams, "I don't like small talk!" Next up it's a "Trophy Mouse-Wife" called Maud, who has delusions of pregnancy and an obsession with hygiene. Paul makes an impressive entrance as a gun toting survivalist family man with a short fuse. Sexy but paranoid vamp Miranda swishes in with an air of anxious fashion, convinced that she's being watched by hidden cameras and that, "they know about the cappuccino with the spoon stirred anti-clockwise." A techno-savvy teenage "Lolita" called Alice is in constant communication with her internet friends and wants all the knowledge in the world for herself – she runs on electricity by the way. Finally it's hip-hop loving homo Alan rounding off our collection of misfits; he's perhaps the most unusual of the bunch as he's convinced that he is in fact… ah, I can't spoil it. Let's just say he wears an enormous pink fur coat and talks like a sassy, wise-cracking black chick.
Right from the word go the focus is on the Weird with Asylum Seekers. I remember reading an interview with Richard Elfman about his film The Forbidden Zone, where he explained that the intention was not merely to showcase the talents of his musical friends, but to make a really freaky movie that would become a cult hit. I felt a little bit betrayed reading that. Aren't cult films made in earnest and ‘discovered' by the fans and then treasured? I mean, can you make a cult film, or are they created by the fans? It's an interesting question and one I kept asking myself during Asylum Seekers. Everything with this film is designed to be slightly wacky; the sets, costumes, script, camera work and music are all offbeat, colourful and surreal. There are obvious nods to Rocky Horror, Phantom of the Paradise, The Holy Mountain and many other ‘cult' films that Asylum Seekers seems to be inspired by.
Thankfully, it all works surprisingly well. After a slightly shaky start in which the potential inmates are introduced with MTV style graphics and montages, they're sat in a waiting room for observation. Each character has unique quirks which we learn about through their inner voice, and as Doctor Beard explains, he's not there to judge them, but he is there to diagnose them. Frau Nursey and her bickering assistants sweep into the room and take them on a tour of the hospital, where we meet more unusual characters including a seductive Voodoo lady who carries out more tests on the hapless lot.
The film skips along breezily with frequent musical numbers, fantasy set-pieces, the occasional fight or explosion and plenty of funny dialogue to keep it going. While I was terrified it might take a turn for the self-indulgent, or worse, self-important, director Rania Ajami has kept in mind that she has an audience and that we want to be entertained, which I was throughout. The last act takes a turn for the truly surreal and quite disturbing as the inmates begin to lose control of their minds in a mannequin strewn hallway sequence that would make Kubrick grin. A love story develops, a private army is formed, everyone takes ecstasy, Nurse Milly begins to think about retirement in that way we all do after a hard day, and finally, the true identity of that wily old Beard is revealed. Did I mention that the asylum literally runs on fruit, with a heavy emphasis on the lack of bananas?
Doctor Beard: "What's the situation? Blackberry? Redcurrant?"
Nurse Milly: "Just peachy, sir."
As much as I enjoyed Asylum Seekers it remains to be said that this isn't a film for everyone. Fans of all the films I mentioned above will dig it's whacked out visuals, dizzy musical numbers, colourful characters and self-aware, tongue-in-cheek dialogue; but if you prefer your films as serious character study or weighty drama then arm yourself with a few glasses of alcohol (or whatever your preference, this one looks 4.20 friendly) before checking-in to this ward.
For fans of post-apocalyptic films, though, I see this as a real treat and one hell of a rollercoaster ride. I can't wait to see what the talented Ajami gets up to next - Sequel?
This post by projectcyclops originally appeared at Quiet Earth.