Someday, someone will make a movie about all the warm and wonderful things that could happen on the site of a former insane asylum. Until that day, however, we will no doubt get a lot more like “Eloise,” in which absolutely nothing nice happens in such a place. The things that do happen all seem routinely reprised from prior horror movies, nearly all of them better than this one, a slick but thoroughly uninspired helming debut for veteran visual effects supervisor and second-unit director Robert Legato. Starring Chase Crawford and Eliza Dushku as the chief unfortunates trapped in a long-shuttered looney bin that malevolently “comes alive again,” this scare-deprived frightfest will primarily be watched and forgotten by genre fans in home formats after an eye-blink run in theaters.
The Eloise of the title isn’t a children’s-book heroine, but the name of an actual eastern Michigan mental institution that existed for 150 years, and was for a time the country’s largest — comprising 78 buildings on more than 900 acres. That much is true, although an opening text crawl goes on to spin some fictive hooey about rumored “inhumane testing and treatment” overseen by psychiatric chief Dr. H.H. Greiss (Robert Patrick), as well as a “devastating fire” that shuttered the facility in 1982.
Decades later, cash-strapped garage owner Jacob (Crawford) is nonplussed to hear his long-estranged father has died, though happy to discover he’ll be inheriting a considerable sum. There’s a problem, however: A maiden aunt who was committed to Eloise in the 1960s remains unaccounted for, and there must be proof of her presumed demise for Jacob to access his father’s fortune. A little digging reveals that her death certificate is likely stored in the long-shuttered institution, which itself can’t be accessed without a long red-tape wait.
Jacob and old friend Dell (Brandon T. Jackson), who has his own monetary woes as motivation, decide they’ll simply break in to locate and grab the needed paperwork. Online they find Scott (P.J. Byrne), an Eloise history/conspiracy-theory/ghost-hunting enthusiast who can guide them to the correct office. The latter’s sexy bartender sister Kia (Dushku) insists on coming along too, because her “special needs” brother is a bit daft and needs chaperoning.
It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, when the quartet enter the facility. It doesn’t take long for fleeting visions of the past — in which the bad doc practiced “confrontation therapy,” i.e. torturing inmates with their worst fears — to begin haunting the protagonists. After some meet with unpleasant (but also un-frightening) fates, that sepia-toned past re-materializes whole. It traps our remaining heroes in a familiar screen bedlam of strong-arm staff, sadistic “experiments,” and victimized and/or creepy patients (which here seems to mean a lot of cross-dressing men).
One doesn’t expect elaborate fantasy logic in such movies, but the script by Christopher Borfelli (of equally generic possession/exorcism exercise “The Vatican Tapes”) barely tries: The only apparent reason the past returns, or that Dr. Greiss practices his evil “science,” is because … well, that’s just the way things work in stories like this. “Eloise” grows more ineffectual the more hectic it gets, with torments right out of “Fear Factor” (eww! snakes! spiders! rats!). Legato evinces no flair for violence or suspense setpieces at all. Shot on the grounds of Eloise itself, the film does have some visual atmosphere helped by production designer Bill Boes and DP Antonio Riestra’s capable work. But it dissipates these and any other virtues in action and plot revelations that feel increasingly routine.
There’s not much for the performers to dig into here. Patrick resists camp villainy in favor of steely restraint, while on the other extreme Bryne exhibits no restraint whatsoever as an all-too-palpably annoying character. The other principals punch the clock somewhere between. Reasonably slick but empty, “Eloise” is no “Session 9” as far as haunted-former-mental-hospital horrors go. Heck, it’s not even a “Grave Encounters 2.”