“Go in and deal with your drapes and leave me to my art.”
Co-directed by James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky, The Institute (Momentum Pictures, 2017) was shot in two weeks from 5:00pm to 5:00am — and looks it (maybe even with a GoPro). This horror-thriller had a strong thematic plot in the first 30 minutes, unfortunately by the end, the exceedingly contemporary themes of misogyny, gender roles, human trafficking, sin and the fundamentals of humanity are forgotten by the end credits. Writers Adam and Matt Rager seem to only write scripts for Franco and Romanowsky was convinced to co-direct as a favor. Any big credit actors are cameos at best; Franco himself gives an interesting performance, as always. It is a nice try at period film but the resources and acting strength were not on par with the story trying to be told. In an interview with Daily Dead, Romanowsky said that the plot was originally fitted for television — The Institute could have made a strong and satisfying mini-series.
I once attended an IFC screening of Franco’s My Own Private River, which re-contextualizes My Own Private Idaho in tribute to River Phoenix. Franco has the director’s eye but I don’t see that same fervor here.
The Institute is set in 1890s Baltimore, Maryland and begins with a woman named Isabel (Allie Gallerani) who is suffering from, admittedly unseen, grief and anxiety after her parents’ sudden deaths. Her brother (Joe Pease) offers to keep her home to recover but Isabel and her male psychiatrist (Eric Roberts) insist that she checks into the Rosewood Institute. Many Victorian women of the “immoral age” were institutionalized for being overly curious, independent, strong-willed, or other character traits that were “unbecoming of a lady,” as Isabel says. On her first night at the institute, Isabel is awakened by her physician, Dr. Cairn (James Franco), who creepily introduces himself and then departs. Oh, and she suffers from insomnia, she says, but is sleeping in a half dozen scenes. The timeline of the film is pretty hard to follow but some days after Isabel arrives, Dr. Cairn tells her nothing is wrong with her and that she can be “free” to be whomever she wants to be. Like me, most viewers would then grin and say “down with the patriarchy,” but sadly this moment doesn’t come. Instead of sending her home, he promises her liberation from the sad, weak soul she currently is. With poison induced trips and weird, confusing experiments with Dr. Cairn, we soon find out that the institute is just a holding cell for a sinister cult’s victims; the “Acanite Society” is made up of all of the area’s wealthy aristocrats. Based on the real Rosewood Institute, the line between fact and fiction become extremely blurred.
The contrasting moods are well represented in the lighting and with select shots. Griping for the techniques of psychological horror films past, the cinematography itself attempts to slowly slip into insanity. There are what I affectionately call “peeking” shots as well as shadow shots, along with singular light sources in jump-scares or disturbing scenes (like people in masks skipping around a maypole). Many of the Dogme 95 elements of the cinematography are glaring which is why I credit them as elements and not as poor technique. There are only two locations shown throughout the film and the broad panning shots of the institute make it look like a backdrop panel built for a theatrical production.
Overall, The Institute was an unexpected and decent ride. I only wish that the themes previously mentioned were better fleshed out. The film offers more than a few shocks and plot-changes (and is sort of mostly sometimes “based on true events,” the not-so-magic horror words). James Franco. Curly moustaches. Confusing plot. The Institute.