From the look of the asylum-set period piece The Institute, directors James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky appear to have taken their visual cues and dramatic beats more from 2012’s The Raven than, say, The Innocents or The Blood Beast Terror, as every scene has been directed with seeming anonymity. The “based on a true story” handicap that continually afflicts the horror genre strikes again here as the filmmakers construct an opening-credits montage of real photographs taken in the 1890s at the actual Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, Maryland. This suggestion of a proximity to reality ends up being the film’s only possible source of terror, as its establishing events lack both formal distinction and intriguing character dynamics.
The Institute’s attempted severity is constantly undermined by its inability to convincingly up the stakes through meaningful articulations of place or purpose—and it doesn’t help that characters speak in faux-period syntax throughout. When Isabel (Allie Gallerani), who’s voluntarily checked herself into Rosewood following her parents’ death, finally meets the institute’s obviously deceitful figurehead, Dr. Cairn (Franco), the insidious potential of the pair’s exchange is minimized in favor a dour swapping of philosophies that sounds tin-eared in its reliance on empty platitudes and one-liners.
As the story’s material horrors become clearer (that the institute specializes in brainwashing its patients), The Institute introduces a host of supporting characters whose roles seem strangely devised as distractions from the potential questions about institutional power at the film’s core. Actors such as Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Duhamel, and Dominic Rains are curiously restricted by the film’s incoherent structure; their characters are then nearly ditched entirely by The Institute’s back half, which morphs into a slasher film with shades of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
The film seems constantly on the verge of dipping into spoof, though of what exactly is difficult to say. Clearly, given their opening and closing drumbeat for the frightful reality of unchecked, pseudo-scientific inquiry, the filmmakers position Isabel as a final girl retaliating against her almost exclusively male oppressors, with the notable exception of Madame Werner (Lori Singer). The filmmaking, though, just as its politics, remains ossified following the initial setup and ceases to accumulate any momentum as it deals in the raw materials of horror with its turn to witches and strange brews but without any sustained passages of clear-eyed commentary or substantive revisions.