No-Budget Nightmares: Nightmare Asylum (1992)



No-Budget Nightmares: Nightmare Asylum (1992)

If you have any interest in no-budget film-making, you really must be aware of Todd Sheets – one of the godfathers of the entire shot-on-video genre. In just 15 short years (between 1985 and 2000) Sheets directed over 30 films, almost entirely horror films with excessive gore, grade-school play acting and a generally weak grasp of editing, shot composition and Mise en scène. Yeah, his films range from despicable to watchable, but they are also absolutely unique and fascinating specimens. The missing link in the evolution of the films you find littering the bottom shelves of your local video store (or, the outer reaches of Netflix). One of his earlier, less polished works, NIGHTMARE ASYLUM is a nearly entirely unpleasant viewing experience, strongly resembles a particularly violent high school play being performed in a haunted house, but with little of the entertainment value that might suggest. Every line is shouted, punches miss by a foot, and generally everyone just seems confused (though enthused) by their participation. Sheets has spoken of his affection for Italian horror directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, but this effort is artless and sadly tedious despite its hour running time.


Now, I want to preface by mentioning that the lack of plot in NIGHTMARE ASYLUM actually seems to be a conscious, though awfully misguided, choice. Seeing as it’s filmed in an actual funhouse, Sheets decided to justify the various rubbery set-pieces by simply having the whole thing seem dreamlike and episodic. We follow Lisa (Lori Hassel) as she wanders from room to room in a demented alternate universe (with bonus wax museum!), occasionally being pestered by a creepy family (particularly their son Spider) or terrorized by a group of killers who are intent on dispatching the residents in the messiest way possible. There’s plenty of corn syrup and organ meat on display, and it frankly gets to be a tad nauseating. Eventually, the big baddies (think a really talkative Leatherface with long blond hair – played by the director – and his mulleted zombie sidekick who looks suspiciously like Jeff Foxworthy) drag everyone to the zombie pit (not as fun as it sounds) before we’re treated to not one, but two shitty fake-out endings.



According to the credits, NIGHTMARE ASYLUM was filmed at The Devil’s Dark Side Haunted House in Kansas City. Of course, the constant stream of “exit” signs littered all over the background is sort of a dead (ha!) giveaway. It includes a wax museum – watch out for brief cuts to a bizarro Pinhead from HELLRAISER and Linda Blair from THE EXORCIST whenever someone screws up a line – a creepy morgue, and all sorts of gory fun for the whole family. However, it is not a movie set, and while Sheets gets plenty of mileage out of colored lights and fog machines, it doesn’t make the rest of the production look any less muddled. Even worse the dialogue is almost entirely drowned out by the music, which is composed entirely of Sheets’ band Enochian Key’s main theme along with the (wholly inappropriate) inclusion of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War”. Yes, one of the main inspirations for John Williams’ STAR WARS score is slapped over most scenes of horror, to bizarre effect.


Now, if gore is your thing – and if it is, you need to get out more – NIGHTMARE ASYLUM does deliver, though strictly of the rubber limb and organ meat variety. You get a severed tongue, guts being strewn about, and a stick being shoved up an ass and out a mouth, but it’s all ineptly filmed or sabotaged by choppy editing. A brief rendition of “The South’s Gonna Rise Again” by Sheets’ character suggests homage to H.G. Lewis’ 2000 MANIACS, but this production is below even the meager pleasures of those classics. It’s violent, but there’s no sense of fun to any of the gore.



The acting is terrible, though Matthew Lewis as Spider at least seems to be trying, even if what he’s trying to do is severely irritating with his constant banshee howls. The nastiest of the baddies (Sheets and his Mullet friend) have intolerably long scenes together, and the rare occasions when you can understand what’s being said (“Oh, your aching banana! Well, my aching cumquat you piece of dookie!”), may make you long for the times that it’s incomprehensible. To be more specific about acting quality is, unfortunately, impossible as while everyone is obviously putting a lot of energy in, and they seem to be having a lot of fun, but only about 10% of their dialogue is even intelligible, making the already weak plot nearly impossible to understand.


Oh, did I mention that this was shot on videotape, and that either the transfer – or the original video quality – is washed out, glitchy and terrible to look at? The video even drops out entirely for several seconds, giving me quickly dashed hope that the whole thing may have ended prematurely. Even compared to some of the other Todd Sheets productions I’ve seen – PREHISTORIC BIMBOS IN ARMAGEDDON CITY, MADHOUSE, ZOMBIE RAMPAGE – the general quality of video and sound is particularly poor. And this is coming from someone used to iffy production at the best of times. It’s probably comparable to your home movies from 1987, but doesn’t quite cut it as a (almost) feature length movie.



I do love Todd Sheets, and think that his influence on low budget film-making has been almost entirely positive. There’s a punk philosophy to his work – a “let’s put on a show” attitude – that is infectious, and the very fact that he was able to create so many films, and amass a still dedicated cult following, is a testament to the enthusiasm that he brought to these projects. Of course, that’s all rather cold comfort when you actually sit down to watch them. NIGHTMARE ASYLUM is a complete mess, saved only by its sheer gall and an excess of sloppy gore. If you know Sheets, you probably know what you’re in for. If not.. this is not the place to start.


Four Nightmares out of Five – NOT MUCH FUN


One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me


Join us this week for the latest DAILY GRINDHOUSE PRESENTS: NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES PODCAST where Moe and Myself will have a chat about NIGHTMARE ASYLUM.




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