Escape From The Insane Asylum (1986)

Originally published in Bleeding Skull! A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey.

I once ate a slice of concession stand pizza before playing a little league game. This was third grade, maybe fourth. A few minutes later, the game started up and I managed to get a hit. On first base, waiting for my teammate to belt one out, my body tingled. Was it anticipation? Anxiety? Elation? Suddenly, I heard the crack of the bat. I was off! To second base! I ran! I slid!

And I shit my pants.

As expected, the rest of my afternoon, and the ensuing school year, were very uncomfortable. Renee Harmon knows how I felt.

At this point, you’re expecting something like,”Escape From The Insane Asylum — the pants-shitter of SOV!” But, no. That’s not it. Admittedly, this is a challenging film to interpret, let alone sit through. The final written-and-produced film from trash-deity Harmon in her lifetime, Escape is not fit for the eyes, ears, and mouths of the proletariat; it’s too aloof in its disconnection. But, for the few of us who derive pleasure from witnessing just how aloof that disconnection can get, this movie vies for the throne of The SOV Pits with Nick Millard’s Death Nurse. Because Escape isn’t about the act of pants-shitting itself — it’s about the uncomfortable emotions which result from that act. And that’s an odd circumstance, indeed.

Renee Harmon stares into a mirror and recites in her monosyllabic German accent, “You know, you’re homely. No wonder no one ever loved you.” This follows a ten minute onslaught of overlapping soundtracks, senior-citizen whining, and footage from Renee’s earlier benchmark, Frozen Scream. In other words, it’s hilarious. That’s what makes this sudden declaration so alarming. We know it’s part of the flimsy plot, which concerns people escaping an asylum, Renee’s haunted visions, and a group of partying teens. But in this scene, Renee is so direct. So candid. It’s as if we’re seeing her work through some genuine pain. And she’s choosing to do this within the context of an abstract gutter-slasher with mannerisms that are barely recognizable to human beings. Am I reaching too far? Possibly. But so what? Regardless of intent, this stuff is riveting. Uncomfortably riveting. And that’s why it’s important.

Throughout the film, Renee is constantly berating herself. She’s ugly. She fears abandonment. She can’t forget the past. She’s terrified of returning to “the loony bin.” All of these doleful observations which may or may not have a foothold in reality, were made all the more immediate by the aesthetic of video. But at the same time, we’ve got the ridiculous incidentals (Renee’s belongings upon leaving the asylum consist of a suitcase, a pair of roller-skates and two tennis rackets), the extremely foreign techniques (crescendos that lead to nothing, harsh edits that lop off dialogue), and the never-ending parade of totally sincere weirdos (the gawky poolside synth-pop band were a particular favorite). Laughs. Confusion. Empathy. Unease. It’s paradoxical affection.

Within this 90-minutes-that-feels-like-four-days, Renee Harmon has managed to capture a special electricity, one that’s unique among the SOV fringes. I mean, who else did this? Who was ballsy enough to even attempt to wade through their personal anxieties, however shallow, via the “art” of SOV horror? Chester Turner with Black Devil Doll and Tales From The Quadead Zone. Absolutely. The Polonia Brothers with Splatter Farm. Possibly, but they were too young to know it. Those films aside, Renee stands alone. That gall is what pushes Escape towards another, much more fascinating headspace.

Absorbed from a different angle, Escape From The Insane Asylum can be viewed as a tedious SOV fatality with a few laughs, some technical weirdness, and a series of uncomfortable performances. That’s fine. If you want to take it that way, you can — you’ll have a blast while drifting off to sleep. But life is a lot more rewarding when you shit your pants and learn from it, as opposed to not shitting your pants at all. Trust me. And trust Renee Harmon.

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