Fantasia Fest 2011: 'The Sanitarium'


You may be sick of the "found footage" approach to horror films, lord knows it's been used frequently enough, but if you spend a lot of time digging through genre flicks of all shapes and sizes, budgets and nationalities, you're bound to it a bunch of 'em. Perhaps the "Blair Witch" storytelling framework is appealing to filmmakers working with limited budgets -- because it doesn't cost a lot of money. All you really need is a half-decent hook and something slightly novel to add to the mix, and you're halfway to producing a solid horror indie.

El Sanotorio / The Sanitarium is a good, recent example: yes, it's about a group of ill-prepared young documentarians who decide to go  poking around in a dilapidated and abandoned lunatic asylum, so it's not like we're delving into some new territory, plot-wise -- but writer/director Miguel Alejandro Gomez does a very astute job on the number one rule of "found footage horror films." And that rule is this: don't be boring.

Given the narrative structure of these kinds of movies, we're not going to get a lot of shocks and jolts during the first half of The Sanitarium, which means it's up to the actors to keep us interested until such time as scary shit starts hitting the fan. Mr. Gomez accomplishes this by delivering his flick as half a satire; that's not to say that The Sanitarium is a comedy, but it does have a good time poking a little fun at the more obvious conventions of the sub-genre. Subplots involving a smug producer and a failed romance, for example, manage to keep the movie amusing before it gets creepy.

A Costa Rican import that shows clear evidence of filmmakers who are willing to both admire and mock the Handheld Horror style of filmmaking, The Sanitarium is a sharp, cool little indie that offers strong performances, some well-timed wit, and a solid handful of legitimately spooky moments. The next five "found footage" horror flicks may be duds across the board; this one isn't.