Return to Death Row aka Dark Asylum
Rated 15 (UK)
Copyright 2001 Lions Gate Films/Shoreline Entertainment/MediaPro Pictures.
Dr Maggie – Idiocy abounds in this movie and she is the crown princess of it. She is a cosmic singularity of stupidity and it is a travesty of natural justice that she survives the film.
Quitz – Judd Nelson! Janitor, inmate and the best thing we have that could be called a hero. His fate is unknown, but he’s presumably barbequed.
Dr Fallon – Jurgen Prochnow! Spends the time he has in the film doing a very bad impression of Tommy Lee-Jones. Strangled.
Connolly – Streetwise cop, and one of the few characters to have his head screwed on relatively straight. I tell a lie, he’s the only character to have his head screwed on relatively straight.
Anderson – The jumpiest cop I’ve ever seen. I didn’t like the way he held his gun either. I think he’s in the wrong career.
Swaggert – Head of security. Boneheaded of security more like. Probably strangled, although his head was making some strange noises as it was being pressed against the bars.
Grandma Peg – Badly dubbed. That’s all you need to know. Fate unknown, but last seen asleep on her couch in front of a television whilst being stalked by a madman, so make your own minds up.
Sarah – Evil child. I’m serious. Her face gave me more chills than the murderous lunatic we were supposed to be frightened of.
The Trasher – Larry Drake! Think Tor Johnson’s tag team partner and you’re on the right lines. Treats doors with contempt. Barbequed.
Assorted also rans – Extras, Trasher fodder, and a cop who gets a knee in the groin. I mean, it’s bad enough that you’re in the film in the first place, but when your only scene involves bone against scrotum…
I will admit that I bought this film for three very clear and distinct reasons. Firstly, I found it in a pawn shop and it cost less than a can of coke to buy. Secondly, it features Jurgen Prochnow! as top billing and Jurgen Prochnow is a poor man’s Rutger Hauer (think of that…) Thirdly, I was intrigued by the title. Return to Death Row? Why in God’s name would anyone return to Death Row? Recaptured to Death Row perhaps, but returned? Is the wife nagging you that badly that you feel you need to book an evening with Ol’ Sparky? Do you really miss those cold iron bars and lunatic guards that much?
Are you really in love with Big Stanley from the shower room…?
Anyway, to the plot. The film starts with a nod towards The Texas Chain Saw Massacre whilst a series of informal radio broadcasts inform us of the story so far. Someone, who has been designated The Trasher, is murdering people near trash cans and down dark alleyways. This is largely conjecture on the part of the radio broadcasters because in every single case a body isn’t found – just a bloodstain and no weapons of murderous intent. Also, the news report gives no mention to specific names of missing people. So we have to believe that the police are launching a serial killer hunt based around puddles of blood. I’ve walked around parts of London before and found puddles of blood. Soon afterwards, I usually found the bleeder in question. One time it was someone having a nosebleed and on another occasion it was a gentleman who had been having a mild disagreement with another gentleman which ended up being settled with fists against noses and jaws.
These aren’t murders. You can’t assume a murder when you haven’t found the body yet? Fortunately, the radio broadcast is on the case. Don’t go down any dark alleyways, it forewarns, lest you become another puff of smoke in the air… I mean another anonymous murder victim. Because dark alleyways are usually full of little old ladies and small children aren’t they? When a serial killer isn’t prowling around, some of the back street alleys in London are jam packed with tourists and church goers, all safely going about their business.
Before we continue, and whilst we are on the subject of these murders, I just want to point something out. Almost everyone that Trasher will subsequently meet in this film, he strangles. Most of the time he doesn’t even need a reason to do so; it just seems to be an involuntary reaction. If he saw his reflection in a mirror, he’d probably try to strangle it. So we can reasonably assume that strangling is his modus operandi. Quite where the enormous puddles of blood are coming from, I have no idea.
We cut to a police chase of an errant driver, which turns out to be two children behind the wheel. Connolly, played here by a very bad version of Pete Postlethwaite’s character in Jurassic Park II, and Anderson (whoa! What was that? Jesus! A noise! Oh hell! Did you see that?) are in the process of booking the troublesome adolescents when an unearthly scream fills the air. As backup arrives Connolly, Anderson (augh! I’m scared!) and a female cop descend into the sewers. Inside the tunnels, they stumble across a hidden lair featuring a library robbed straight from Ted Nugent’s house. Whilst Anderson has a nervous breakdown over a body floating in the water, Trasher grabs hold of the female cop and drags her down. Connolly and Anderson barely escape with Trasher on their tail. As C and A are yelling for back-up it arrives in dramatic fashion, running Trasher over. Anderson points a limp wrist with a gun on the end at Trash who gives him the eyes and makes him flinch. The bullet pounds into his shoulder and Connolly immediately chews out his jumpy colleague. Now that he has a flesh wound (as opposed to the broken bones he should’ve received when he rolled over the car) it means that he will have to go to hospital, rather than to prison.
Trasher is sent to an asylum where he is placed under the stewardship of Dr Fallon to be assessed by Dr Maggie who will decide whether he should go into a mental ward or to Gruesome Gertie to join Tor Johnson in tag team wrestling heaven. For some reason that is never explained fully, Trasher is not taken to an existing secure unit, but rather to an asylum that is in the middle of being closed down and therefore is running on a skeleton staff and with many of its functions and appliances broken. Connolly, the cop whom I previously heralded as having his head nearly screwed on straight loses big points here for leaving Anderson (argh! A bee! Gedditaway!) in charge, having just berated him for being jumpy under pressure. Dr Maggie arrives, having left behind her evil child at home who would give Linda Blair a run for her money, and (with Dr Fallon looking on) tries to communicate with Trasher who gives them nothing. In the first of many moments of stupidity on the part of our lead character, she takes in a sob story by Fallon about the closing of the asylum and wanting one last chance to get into the head of a nutcase and allows him to go into the room with Trasher; unarmed and with no guard. She then proceeds to turn her back on the window that looks into the room where Trasher is currently sitting. Unfortunately for Fallon, whilst he was crying on Maggie’s shoulder, Trasher was in the process of freeing himself from his strait jacket. The witless Dr Fallon is strangled to death whilst Maggie chats merrily on the phone, looks through files and generally turns a blind eye to the enormous struggle going on just a few feet from her.
With Dr Fallon now dead, Trasher goes after Maggie who manages to escape by virtue of being pushed through a wall into a duct. As Trasher starts to unleash merry hell on all the cops still present, Head of Security Swaggert attempts to contain the beast by initiating the lockdown. This he does, thereby locking everyone inside the asylum, before he is himself bumped off in a truly stupid scene where the moron creeps up to a door where Trasher is hiding, but then turns his back on it and pumps a round into the shotgun that he is carrying. Somehow in the struggle, The Key goes missing. I put this in capitals, because The Key becomes fundamental to the plot, rather like a mythical gem or weapon is in all those terrible sword and sorcery movies of the eighties. The Key equals freedom and everyone wants it.
So now all the basic elements are in place. The FBI are due to arrive at the asylum at midnight to transfer Trasher either to the loony bin (presumably one with more security and more professional staff than this one) or to ride the lightning. Maggie and a janitor-cum-inmate called Quitz, who escapes the onslaught of his colleagues and discovers Maggie wandering alone, are now locked in with Trasher until then. Maggie and Quitz form a double team in which the running joke involves Maggie doing or saying something utterly stupid and Quitz responding with “Don’t be crazy!” See? Because Quitz actually is crazy, but the trained doctor is the one losing her head. See? Geddit?
Essentially what happens now is a game of cat and mouse, with Maggie not helping her cause by obtaining a walkie-talkie and yelling into it, then being suckered by Trasher (who has found one himself, not to mention the name badges of all the strangled cops) into believing that he is a police officer and thereby giving away their hiding place. Maggie and Quitz, aware that they are now being hunted, run through several plans with varying degrees of intelligence. Quitz suggests setting off the sprinkler system to alert the fire department but sadly the sprinklers are broken. On the flip side, Maggie decides to unload most of the clip of their only gun into a pane of bullet proof security glass. Quitz suggests that they hide in the fragile ceiling ducts and wait for the FBI to arrive. Maggie thinks that, whilst effectively hidden, this is a good time to taunt the Trasher, particularly when he is standing right below them. That hiding place is soon found out.
Makes you wonder why Anne Frank never thought to moon out of the window at passing German troops really…
Having exhausted (or ruined) all of the safest and best ways to survive in a locked building with a sociopath, Maggie and Quitz continue to run blindly through the facility. There is a running theme of the duo getting away, sitting for a breather to make small talk and then being ambushed. After much back and forth action (including a brief foray on the roof where they find themselves having to break back INTO the asylum) Quitz finally stops listening to Maggie and presumably settles for the more rational voices in his head. He plots a trap to kill Trasher and to allow Maggie to escape by luring him away with a key. This is not The Key, but Trasher will think that it is.
Quitz leaves Maggie with his device, which appears to be a few petrol cans linked to a car battery and a mousetrap. The mind boggles. Unfortunately, she is ambushed and the device is ruined, spilling petrol everywhere. Quitz settles for plan B, which is to wrestle Trasher whilst Maggie runs off with the Real Key. In the struggle, he lights the spilled petrol and is last seen being dragged into the smoke by Trasher – presumed dead. She unlocks the facility (with The Key) and runs outside. Its midnight, but the police haven’t arrived. Maggie is now faced with three choices of action.
Option 1 - Getting into her car and driving for help.
Option 2 - Waiting another five minutes for the FBI to finish their coffee and donuts and get their arses in gear.
Option 3 - Returning to the asylum.
Take a wild guess at what she does. Go on. Guess. I’m not continuing this review until you give me an answer.
Of course she walks back in. This woman has never heard of the survival instinct, much less felt it.
Maggie returns to the asylum and locks the doors again, despite the FBI presumably being only minutes away from arriving. I can’t even be bothered to argue with her at this point. Just go and kill yourself already! Save Trasher the bother. From somewhere, she finds a grenade and several nitrous canisters. Also, in her one shining moment of intelligence, she has found a couple of loose electrical leads and several water coolers nearby. Leaving the keys in the middle of an electrically charged puddle, she allows Trasher to pick them up. Unfortunately, Trasher shrugs off electricity in the same way that he has so far shrugged off fire, gunshots and being run over. He taunts Maggie over her daughter (having found her address and details after strangling Dr Fallon) and informs her that he doesn’t even need The Key. He plans to head back into his native sewers via a hitherto unmentioned basement and murder Maggie’s daughter.
How dare you disrespect The Key! Everyone should want The Key! It’s… it’s The Key!
As Trasher is making his way towards the nearest drain, the FBI finally arrive. Now, considering that they have no prior knowledge of what has been going on, their behaviour is a tad… heavy-handed. They line up the cars and begin firing through the main doors into the entrance room nearly killing Maggie (so close guys, so so close) and then capture her believing her to be a patient. I find it hard to disagree with that logic. She manages to escape the FBI, and with the best of the best in law enforcement now walking around an empty asylum and Trasher jogging through the underground pipes towards her home, she decides to go it alone to save her daughter. There are two options immediately open to her now, and to be fair to the stupid woman she’s on a roll after the electrocuted keys stunt that probably should’ve killed Trasher except for the plot not allowing it. With this in mind, let’s see how she does…
Option 1 – Get into her car and drive home, beating Trasher to her house, removing her daughter and Grandma safely and then driving them to a police station whilst simultaneously informing the police of his whereabouts.
Option 2 – Walk back into the asylum, go down to the basement, into the unfamiliar sewers and try and follow Trasher who, lest we forget, already has a substantial head start and home advantage, etc.
You have thirty seconds to place your bets. Come on. Bet, bet, bet. What is she going to do? What would YOU do? Got an answer? Happy with it? Good.
So anyway, Maggie spits on your face, laughs at your gumption and is trawling through the sewer tunnels trying to hunt Trasher who is making his way towards her home. As she is trying to find her house (and nearly getting her head run over in the process when she picks the wrong man-hole to look out of), Trasher has already kidnapped the evil child and presumably left thumb-prints all over Grandma’s throat as well. He takes the child back to his lair and puts her in a cage, which is where Maggie finally finds him. He plots to blow up his old bachelor pad with a pipe bomb, but Maggie has other ideas. There is a struggle, during which Maggie handcuffs the pipe bomb to Trasher who then slices his own hand off with a nearby axe. In the pulse-pounding climax, Trasher ends up being blown up by his own bomb anyway, hand or no hand, and Maggie escapes to cuddle her daughter in the street whilst those donut chewing coffee drinkers that pass for law enforcement in this film scratch their heads at the flames erupting from the nearby sewer duct.
Return to Death Row is one of the most idiotic films I have ever seen, and besides shouting at the characters decision-making carries no redeemable comedy moments whatsoever. Not only that, but in contrast to my hopes before I watched this, the film has nothing to do with Death Row either. (It should be noted that it is more popularly known as Dark Asylum which is a much more dull and uninspiring title. But then, it is an asylum and it does get quite dark in places, so it wins points for accuracy if nothing else.) Even the box-art on the DVD that I bought seems to be related to a completely different film. On the DVD I have there is a picture of a heavily muscled man sitting in an electric chair that you will never see. I’m not even sure if I know who the man is?
So what are you left with then? Well, it’s not particularly scary or gory. It isn’t very chilling. Several characters’ endings are left unresolved. The plot has more ghastly and glaring holes than a poor man’s brothel. The acting, particularly of the actress playing Maggie, is so wooden you can almost smell the varnish. And throughout the entire film there is an undercurrent of a clumsy message – that all the ‘crazy’ characters (Trasher and Quitz) behave in a rational, calm and calculating way whereas all the ‘normal’ characters behave recklessly, unintelligently and without forethought or reason. I can’t disagree that it achieved this aim with flying colours, but it didn’t have to insult me as well. I’m perfectly normal in mind (although that may have changed after ninety-two minutes of this), and I’m also capable of rational thought and calm decision making.
Basically, if I found myself as an extra in this film and I had a choice between whom I wanted to side with, give me the crazies every time, even the bad guy. Approach with caution; common sense receptors turned down to a minimum (so low that nailing your feet to planks of wood seems like a reasonably cheap alternative to buying skis) and with plenty of hard liquor.
Things I Learned From This Movie:
- The FBI responds to every situation with covering fire. “Hi honey, I’m home from work.” ‘I know dear. But did you have to put five bullet holes in the dog as it ran to greet you…?’
- Trees are better than ladders for scaling buildings.
- One of the stranger side effects of mental illness is immunity to bullet wounds, broken bones and third degree burns (this does not extend to explosions though – be warned).
- Jurgen Prochnow has never washed his hair.
- Strangulation causes intense, external bleeding.
- Never leave a policeman who is scared of his own shadow in charge of dangerous sociopaths.
- Tor Johnson has an heir to his unique throne.
- Women are incapable of rational thought processes. (Right, fellas?)
Stuff To Watch Out For:
3mins – Why do you keep closing your eyes as you are talking? I’m pretty bored of your dialogue as well, but that’s your own fault.
30mins – That is not going to keep him in. You’d struggle to contain a few chickens in that flimsy cage.
43mins – You’re right, there is another way of getting out. There are windows behind you and I can see the canopies of trees. So you’re not more than a storey or so high.
46mins – Good job you share a shoe size…
61mins – That’s a long drop. You don’t have shattered ankles? Crushed vertebrae?
67mins – Why is he pulling trees down when there are rungs stuck in the wall?
74mins – Who left a grenade lying around?
89mins – Where’s the blood? There are a lot of important veins in the wrist you know.