Review by Joe X. Young
I approached this film with curiosity, why was what appeared to be a 'made for tv biopic' making its way across the tables of GNOH when we do Horror reviews? Well, there are many types of horror, and this film deals with one of the worst aspects of man's inhumanity towards it's fellow man, or in this case women, thousands of them.
Fortunately we live in a more enlightened age, still not truly egalitarian, but certainly taking steps in the right direction even though taking a hell of a long time to get there. This film is set in America in the late 1800s, a dangerous time to be female as women had no rights and could be put into an asylum for no better reason than disagreeing with a man. It was such a common practice that very few people took much notice of it going on. The potential to be incarcerated for the flimsiest of reasons was the tip of the iceberg as once within the institutions women were routinely drugged, starved and forced to endure physical and mental abuse from those meant to be caring for them.
Familiar tale so far, one that many of us will have had some distant memory that these things used to happen and an awareness that in some parts of the world similar things still do. It's an all too real horror. So, we're not talking a slasher pic, no demons et cetera, but instead a highly engrossing true story of a 23 year old female reporter Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, known by her pen-name as Nellie Bly whose assignment from Joseph Pulitzer was to go undercover for a week at the notorious Blackwell's Island insane asylum to expose the evils of the institutions. As you may gather by the title Nellie was actually there longer, which again was part of the problem with these institutions as once you were in there it was generally the case that one would die there.
The film itself appears to have fallen through the cracks, it's rather odd from various angles as there was obviously a serious attempt at authenticity. The outdoor street scenes look to be stock footage which are of a much better quality than the majority of scenes. There are some blatant CGI moments, but the majority of sets are tight, grotty and wholly believable. It still comes across as a 'made for tv' style, which is disheartening. This film, this subject and in particular the real-life character of Nellie Bly are deserving of a much 'bigger' film, one which should have a global cinema release as, to me at least, it's far too important a story for a 'straight to video' type of film. The budget, an apparently paltry by general standards $12M, seems to have been left in the bank to accrue interest as there's little evidence of money being spent on sound design, editing, lighting or indeed known actors, with the exceptions of Christopher Lambert and Kelly Le Brock.
There are, as one can imagine, several characters in the film, but only really two of any note, those being Nellie, and Dr Dent. Nellie Bly carries the weight of the movie on her shoulders, ably so. At first I was thinking that perhaps the actress in the role, Caroline Barry, was the wrong choice, she came across as a little too 'Jazz Hands', modern, all teeth and smiles, a stage-school darling if ever there was one. But then she started to make a lot of sense being that way. It takes a larger than life personality to accomplish what Miss Bly did, and although a little weak in places I believe Caroline Barry has proven herself in this film and could go on to land much more heavyweight role opportunities off the back of this.
Kelly Le Brock turns up for all of a couple of minutes in what is a tragic waste of time, she's on screen just long enough to be nasty to Nellie once, and then she's gone again. It is so sad to have seen someone once so enthralling become a bizarre cameo role, especially as Le Brock has the appearance of someone with one too many nips and tucks, which sticks out like a clown mask in a film in which most of the females wear no makeup.
Christopher Lambert. THE Christopher Lambert. The Highlander himself. As Dr Dent, the man in charge of the asylum, he is an oddity. The general feeling is that Dr Dent had a genuine interest in finding cures for his patients and advancing medical science, but did so with no regard for the subjects in his care, treating them as little more than inconvenient lab rats. Lambert could have phoned his performance in. This could have become a career-reviving vehicle, but with the low budget, poor production and limited distribution it kind of kills the chances, which is a shame as the character here is interesting enough to have done a lot more with and Lambert is sufficiently able to take it where it needed to go.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, many of whom come across as more parodies than people with enough wooden performances to build a shed. The acting is quite often reminiscent of 1970s exploitation movies it's just that bad.
Okay, so it sounds dreadful on most fronts, so is it worth bothering with? Yes.
Nellie Bly was a true pioneer, a most remarkable woman, and her continued real-life exploits would make for a thrilling TV series at the very least. She is historically important and wholly inspirational, and whilst this film may be a bit of a dud, it's still better to have seen it and got some sense of the woman than to know nothing about her. In all honesty though I think the majority of people would be much better served byreading the book instead.