Anthology horror has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the last couple of years with films like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death but it’s a notoriously tricky format to get right. The portmanteau approach was traditionally a low-budget goldmine as pricey actors would only have to be paid for a few days’ work and there would be less time to dwell on any obvious limitations. With that in mind, a film like Sanitarium should be a winner.
Interestingly, Sanitarium confounds expectations by aiming for melancholy chills, rather than the cheap thrills you’d assume a low-budget anthology horror starring Robert Englund would offer. Unfortunately, it’s a little light on thrills in general.
Malcolm McDowell (who seems to have filmed his entire part in an afternoon) introduces the film with a monologue about the human mind delivered in the way only Malcolm McDowell can, before giving us three stories. An eccentric model maker (John Glover) starts to think his puppets are telling him to kill his greedy agent (Robert Englund). A kind teacher (Mean Girls‘ Lacey Chabert) notices that one of the children in her care is being abused, but a supernatural figure might come to the boy’s aid before she does. Finally, a college professor (Lou Diamond Phillips) puts his belief that the end of the world is coming above the needs of his family.
Although the film’s aspirations towards soulfulness are quite refreshing, Sanitarium is a decidedly gloomy affair. The general air of the film is melancholy, as if the filmmakers had studied Spanish ghost stories like The Orphanage in preparation. However, each of the stories is at least ten minutes too long and any emotion that the film manages to mine is compromised by the fact that it drags. What Sanitarium needs is a jolt of energy or a better script, as there’s just not enough meat on its bones to justify its 100-odd minute running time.
The first segment threatens to tip into hysteria but never quite does so, which leaves Glover’s (Batman and Robin, Smallville) twitchy performance feeling out of place. The second story is effective in places, and is generally well-played by the cast, but it’s far too long for a pay-off you know is coming. The same is true of the final segment, which does have a suprisingly affecting performance from Diamond Phillips but offers absolutely no surprises.
The biggest problem with Sanitarium is that each of its segments feels like a ten minute short that’s been stretched to thirty minutes without any consideration as to whether it should be. It has its moments and the melancholy air grows on you as it progresses, but it moves at such a punishingly slow pace that the rewards aren’t equal to the effort you put in.