I should first state for the record that I have been to Waverly Hills Sanitarium, the setting for Philip Adrian Booth’s frightening film, “Death Tunnel”, and it is every bit as creepy and unnerving as the film presents it. If you have ever seen Brad Anderson’s “Session 9” then you have some idea of what Waverly Hills is like although Waverly is nowhere on the monstrous scale of Danvers State Mental Institution. Although both institutions were designed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the unusual “bat-wing” design, Danvers was strictly for housing the mentally ill while Waverly mainly housed those suffering from tuberculosis or “the white plaque”.
The plot of “Death Tunnel” is somewhat reminiscent of the old Linda Blair horror movie, “Hell Night”, in that the 5 girls who must spend 5 hours at the 5-story Vanguard Sanitarium (Waverly Hills’ “movie name”) with its 5 ghosts are part of some sort of college freshman initiation. They are “kidnapped” from the club (Phoenix Hill Tavern for you Louisvillians) where everyone has gathered as part of the “Truth or Scare Night” party (Grammy-award winning Nappy Roots puts in an appearance). Then their heads are covered with some sort of bizarre-looking bags with locks (shades of “Saw”?) and the five of them are left on four of the five floors of the sanitarium. What they don’t know is that several of the guys at the party have rigged up parts of the sanitarium in order to scare the girls. But what those guys don’t know is that the ghosts of the sanitarium have other plans.
The girls are either part of an “elite” clique made up of the rich bitch Ashley (Kristin Novak) and her two friends, Devon (Melanie Lewis) and Elizabeth (Yolando Pecoraro) or are the “newbie” outsiders Heather (Steffany Huckaby) and Tori (Annie Burgstede). Check out the first letter of each girl’s name and see if you get the “joke”. And as the invitation to the “Truth or Scare Night” party required the women to dress in provocative sleepwear, you have five scared, scantily dressed and freezing women locked in The Vanguard Sanitarium, “The Scariest Place on Earth”, with five hours to find their way out. Almost immediately, things start going terribly wrong, as the ghosts “override” the scare tactics the guys have set up and start their own. And they are scary. There are apparently 5 ghosts at the sanitarium: The Girl with No Eyes, The Hanged Nurse, The Body Collector, The Twins and The Shadow People. But I would say there were quite a few more. And many of these ghosts were definitely frightening. The Body Collector reminded me a lot of “The Professor” in Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses”. The Twins (for lack of a better name for them) were a twisted version of Kubrick’s twins in “The Shining” and The Girl with No Eyes was just damned scary. There is also the fact that all five girls have some sort of tie to the sanitarium that seems to be bringing all these ghosts back but you’ll have to watch the film to see how the modern-day girls fit into the early 20th century sanitarium’s history.
The film opens with some wonderful archival footage of the sanitarium, intercut with vintage photographs of patients, some quite creepy. The cinematography made use of quite a few tricks – slow motion, fast cuts, kinetic camera action, flash cuts, use of archival film footage, flashbacks – that are amazing to watch. And even some of the footage that looked archival was actually just shot and processed with that sepia, damaged-film effect. The sound track was also great, using everything from industrial-sounding rock to songs from the early 30s – playing over the sanitarium’s loud speaker system. Spooky. And the sound design also added an extra element to the film with creepy noises coming from seemingly all around, footsteps, whisperings, the creaking of a gurney’s wheels – all a bit unnerving. And let’s not forget the MANY disturbing images that quickly flash throughout the film.
There are actually only three girls who have any sort of part in this film as two are merely there as “sacrificial lambs” early on. But the three remaining actors do a pretty good job with their parts. There is some brief nudity courtesy of a rather bizarre shower scene (in a haunted sanitarium?) but the blood and gore are kept to a minimum. We do see the aftereffects but for those looking for hardcore blood and guts, you won’t find it here. It’s more the sense of foreboding and menace and “what’s around the corner?” in this movie that makes it so creepy. There were no sets built for this film – it was filmed entirely at Waverly Hills and apparently the cast and crew had some weird experiences as they also made a documentary about the filming of “Death Tunnel” called “Spooked”.
The ending of the film had an interesting twist and for those wondering what the “Death Tunnel” actually IS, it is an existing tunnel (quite eerie) built to bring supplies up the hill to the sanitarium and to take the dead down to waiting hearses. It was built so those still convalescing wouldn’t see the enormous number of dead being brought out on a daily basis and lose hope. An easy thing to do when over 63,000 people die over the course of just a few years.
All in all, I thought this was quite a well-done film for having such a low budget (reportedly around $1 million) but then again, you just can’t beat a film set in a haunted, abandoned asylum.