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Insaniac   B+

Sub Rosa Studios

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Specht
Writer: Robin Garrels
Cast: Robin Garrels, Chris Grega, John Specht, Derek Simmons, Chris Martin, Eric Whitman, David Burnett, Dennis Garrels.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

I fear that Insaniac may become the victim of misguided marketing. Sub Rosa Studios has released it through their Sub Rosa Extreme division, which is said to focus on disturbing exploitation films that are heavy on gore and violence, like the repulsive I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss on Your Grave. While Insaniac does contain some truly unsettling violence, it's not an exploitation film but rather a haunting psychological shocker about a woman in a mental hospital exploring repressed memories. It's a beautiful love story, too, despite the lurid DVD box art.

We first see Autumn (played by writer Robin Garrels) with her boyfriend Hart (Chris Grega) at a party that manages to be dreary even with two girls making out passionately on the couch ("Well, somebody's having a good time," Hart says, bored). At the party, Autumn's hoodrat friend (Derek Simmons) asks her if she can make a delivery to a couple of mobsters to whom he's selling fake narcotics. If she does this, he'll let her keep the two grand they promised for the goods -- all while he skips town so they won't be able to find him when they realize they got screwed. Two grand would be enough for Autumn and her boyfriend to finally move to California, so she's tempted. She doesn't tell her boyfriend.

Eschewing a linear plotline, the film is comprised mostly of Autumn's memories, dreams, and hallucinations as she sits in an institution trying to piece together her recent past with the help of her therapist (played by director John Specht). Insaniac careens from surreal, nightmarish scenes that would mystify even David Lynch to the gritty reality of Autumn's past, while a layered, atmospheric soundtrack and skillful editing hold all the pieces together. Yeah, it's a great big mess, but the dramatic intensity and wicked imagination on display make it spellbinding.

What contributes most to making it all work, though, is the outstanding performance by Robin Garrels. Her role runs the emotional gamut -- from the humorously touching scenes that display the beginnings of her relationship with her boyfriend to the heartbreaking emotional turmoil and insanity that develops later on -- and she hits every note dead-on. Watch her as she's about to read a poem to her boyfriend -- the way she looks deep into his eyes, smiling, quickly looks away, mildly embarrassed, and giggles. The way she just glows is wonderful. As with the best actors, it's like she's not "acting" at all. It's the kind of honest, emotionally resonant performance that's all too rare in low-budget horror films.

But, then again, this is no ordinary low-budget horror movie. As it weaves its nightmarish imagery and plot threads together, Insaniac erupts in a brutal climax that asserts what the movie has been about all along: the agony of regret and living with mistakes that can't be undone. By the end, I was close to tears. Sure, the shoestring budget impedes its ambition at times, but it's still a dazzling psychological nightmare and a moving love story that packs quite a punch. I hope it finds its audience.

Review published 10.17.2002.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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