STONEHEART ASYLUM. A Gothic thriller based on Poe’s story

“Stoneheart Asylum” is Brad Anderson’s 2014 psychological thriller.

Maciej Kaczmarski

27 May 2024

stoneheart asylum

Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, David Thewlis, Sinéad Cusack, and Brendan Gleeson star in “Stoneheart Asylum”, a very good adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story.

The year is 1899. Young doctor Edward Newgate arrives for an internship at the remote psychiatric hospital Stonehearst Asylum. The clinic is run by Silas Lamb, a doctor who uses unconventional treatment methods: instead of confining patients to isolation cells and drugging them, he indulges their delusions, allows them to dine at the same table with the hospital staff, and avoids pharmacotherapy. Lamb believes that a sense of freedom has greater therapeutic power than prison-like discipline. Newgate is intrigued by the conditions at Stonehearst; the young doctor soon falls in love with one of the patients, the beautiful and talented Eliza Graves, who suggests he should leave the hospital as soon as possible because nothing is as it seems. One night, Newgate discovers a group of emaciated people imprisoned in the boiler room, claiming to be the real staff of Stonehearst.

“Stonehearst Asylum” is a loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” It is an unusual work for this writer, being closer to satire than horror: “The System…” is laced with dark humor and has been seen as a critique of certain 19th-century medical practices burdened with prejudice and superstition. The story has seen numerous adaptations in film, theater, and television – including in Poland, where Janusz Majewski made the short film “System” in 1971. “Stonehearst Asylum” is not a faithful adaptation, taking from Poe’s work only the idea of a clinic with a liberal approach to patients and one quote: “Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see” [1]. The rest is the result of screenwriter Joseph Gangemi and director Brad Anderson’s imagination, who previously made “The Machinist” (2004).

stoneheart asylum

Regardless of the path taken by the creators of previous Poe adaptations – whether playing with convention on the border of horror and comedy (like Roger Corman in his excellent series from 1960-1964) or deadly seriousness (like Dario Argento and George A. Romero in “Two Evil Eyes”) – the approach to the literary originals was almost always quite loose. Filmmakers played with the source material but rarely did justice to the writer. With “Stonehearst Asylum,” it’s different: while the starting point is common to both works, Gangemi and Anderson managed to preserve the critical message of Poe’s story. For example, the film mentions that barely 100 years ago, hysteria was treated as an exclusively female affliction; that women were punished for what men were allowed to get away with; that homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Despite progress today in medicine (especially in psychiatry), similar harmful prejudices still persist.

The film’s production is impressive: set designers and costume designers meticulously recreated the realities of late 19th and early 20th century England, and the solid work of the cinematographer makes it easy to immerse in this world. The foggy landscape with the Stonehearst building, the dark hospital nooks, the grand administrator’s office contrasting with the boiler room turned into dungeons, barred corridors – all create a dense atmosphere reminiscent of Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” (2001) and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (2010). “Stonehearst Asylum” doesn’t rely on jump scares and gallons of blood but on slowly built tension and mystery. The plot is engaging, and the final plot twist is satisfying. It is an old-fashioned film, like a modern variation on the elegant horror films from Hammer Film Productions. So, a mainstream film without nudity, swearing, gore, and blood? It seems to be for retirees, and there are many of them.