The main achievement of "The Institute" is that its cast kept straight faces long enough to shoot this risible gothic chiller. Although the film's lurid story is said to be based on true events, the telling here feels less than authentic.
In 1893 Baltimore, wealthy young Isabel Porter (Allie Gallerani), plagued by "maladies" since her parents' unexpected deaths, checks into the recuperative Rosewood Institute at the suggestion of her family physician (Eric Roberts). But once ensconced in the formidable sanitarium, under the care of the shadowy Dr. Cairn (the ubiquitous James Franco, who co-directed with Pamela Romanowsky) and surrounded by equally sinister patients and attendants, Isabel starts to unravel, unable to distinguish bad dreams from horrific waking episodes.
An ugly, convoluted plot unfolds involving low-dose poisoning, violent experiments, mind control, brutal rituals, human trafficking, and a secret, elite society called the Aconites behind it all. The mishmash of a script by Adam Rager and Matt Rager is filled with arch attempts at period dialogue and much psychobabble. Franco and Romanowsky's unsubtle direction doesn't help.
Gallerani proves a watchable heroine, but the supporting players, including Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Duhamel, Joe Pease, Lori Singer as the institute's answer to "Frau Blücher," and Scott Haze as the resident hunchback, do their careers no favors.
Rating: R, for disturbing content/bloody violence, and graphic nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Playing: Arena Cinelounge at the Montalban, Hollywood; also on VOD