Few things in one’s life inspire more joy and fear than childbirth and becoming a parent. Though probably not the fears that Marie (Victorya Brandart, When Women Rule the World, I Am Not for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking) faces at the start of The Institute. Snake-like arms and hands emerge from the walls of a cave and tear the fetus from her body.
It’s a nightmare born out of frustration. Marie and her husband Daniel (Ignacyo Matynia, The Grievance Group, Like Dogs) have been trying to become parents but with no luck and it’s affecting their marriage and her mental health. And then Daniel stumbles across Dr. Arthur Lands (Mark Lobene) and his secluded fertility clinic which claims to offer a radical solution to their problem.
The online ad for the clinic extols all of its virtues without offering any actual facts. And the disclaimers for such minor details as using procedures not approved by the FDA and that patients give up all rights to privacy are sped up to the point of being almost incomprehensible. Since it would be a very short film if they did the smart thing and looked elsewhere, they decide to go anyway.
Writer/director Hamza Zaman, here making his feature debut, follows a familiar path setting up the medical thriller elements of The Institute. Patients desperate for a cure to their problem, a brilliant doctor who claims to have it, and a remote and isolated medical facility with just a handful of other patients. Steve (Jarred Harper, The One), his wife Mel (Louisa Bradshaw, Trifling with Fate, Cupidity), and same-sex couple Izzy (Claire McClain) and Blu (Joy Donze, Purification).
Just as predictably they’re no sooner in their room than we find out that there’s a hidden camera in there as well. Which, we later find out, the doctor uses to watch them having sex and take notes on what he sees. These scenes aren’t quite explicit enough to be called softcore, but they’re closer than what I’m used to seeing in a film like The Institute.
Actually, it might be fair to call The Institute a Lifetime thriller with plenty of skin added in. Apart from the sex scenes, there are several exam scenes that feature the female cast naked in front of some weird machine the doctor has invented. It’s reminiscent of pseudoscientist/con artist Wilhelm Reich and his “orgone accumulator”. Director Zaman even turns up as a shirtless yoga instructor to give the ladies some eye candy as well.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only surprise The Institute manages to deliver. It soon becomes clear that Dr. Lands’ issues go well beyond voyeurism. One minute talking about nurturing life and literally the next paralyzing a deer with a dart gun so he can kill it “humanely” with an injection. Despite some nice work by cinematographer Aram Bauman (Dwellers: The Curse of Pastor Stokes, The Lake on Clinton Road) and composer Paco Periago (The Phantom of the Sauna) The Institute never manages to create any suspense. Even when Daniel’s suspicions get the better of him and he starts snooping around it’s all fairly dull.
Even when Daniel’s suspicions get the better of him and he starts snooping around and sending Lands into full-blown mad scientist mode the results are more comical due to a combination of Lobene’s overacting, some incredibly bad dialogue, and the last-minute introduction of a bizarre-looking mutant courtesy of effects woman Beatrice Sniper (Theresa & Allison, Devil’s Five). If the rest of The Institute was like this it would at least have been entertainingly bad. Instead, it’s a rather dreary attempt at a thriller with only the frequent nudity to keep you from falling asleep.
Gravitas Ventures will release The Institute on DVD and Blu-ray as well as VOD and Digital platforms on March 22nd. You can check their Facebook page for more details. And if you’re looking for something similar, Film Tagger has a few suggestions.