Dr. DeWalt flips through his patient's chart. "We started you off with the Percosan," he explains. "But one of the common side effects of Percosan is hysterical delirium. So we were forced to take that down with the Silozan, which unfortunately made you too relaxed. So we had to crank you up a notch with the Demerolstyrate, which raised your heart rate to an almost lethal level and your body temperature to...135 degrees! Wow, thank God for ice chips, huh? That Demerolstyrate really is a wonder drug. In any event, we were forced to pump massive doses of sodium lescola into your system, which wiped the slate clean and brought you back to square one--reluctant and angry." The doctor approaches his patient, who's tied to an operating table with a rubber ball strapped into his mouth. "Since you refuse to respond to your medication, and due to certain budgetary and time restraints, we have decided to move on to"--he brandishes a huge electric drill--"cranial drill therapy."
Welcome to the Association of Psycho-Manipulation, the nightmarish mental hospital in Dan and Paul Dinello's 12-minute, black-and-white comedy short, Shock Asylum. Made for $6,000, with a cast and crew drawn from Columbia College and local improv theaters, the film plays like a dramatization of The Bell Jar starring the Three Stooges. Mr. Gaxton (Paul Dinello) reports to the hospital for a routine psychiatric evaluation; after failing an oblique question-and-answer session with the crisp Dr. DeWalt (Stephen Colbert), he's strapped into a bathtub and an orderly drops a portable radio into the water. When that fails to cure him, Gaxton is covered with tinfoil and plugged into an electrical outlet; his scalp bursts into flames. Yet for all the film's gruesome slapstick, the dialogue hews uncomfortably close to the self-serving rhetoric of the mental health industry: "We're just trying to help you, Mr. Gaxton!"
Dan Dinello has been making short films since 1972, at the rate of about one a year; he now teaches at Columbia, where he cobbled together the resources to produce Shock Asylum. The school awarded him a faculty development grant and offered him free film stock and processing if he'd test edit the short using a new computer program it had recently acquired; the crew worked for low fees, and Dan and his nephew Paul shelled out for the rest of the film's budget. The interior scenes were shot over a three-day weekend at the West Side VA Hospital, at Taylor and Damen, where the filmmakers were lucky enough to get the run of an empty floor that had just been renovated. Gaxton's climactic escape from the hospital--a sequence that leads the film from satire into surrealism--was shot out in the woods in Oak Park.
The film recalls Samuel Fuller's paranoid classic Shock Corridor (1963), but Dan says his primary inspiration was a local graphic artist who remarked to his psychiatrist that he was going to shoot himself in front of his estranged girlfriend; he says he was joking, but the next thing he knew the doctor was trying to get him committed to Northwestern's mental hospital. (Dan wrote about him for New City in October 1995.) "I thought that was like 50s stuff," Dan marvels. "I didn't realize you could still do that." The artist collected memorabilia of shock therapy and Nazi medical experiments; Psycho Surgery, an old book that he gave to Dan, added another dimension to the movie. "It was a history of brain surgery written by these two insane doctors who went around the country performing lobotomies and cranial drill surgery, almost like a vaudeville act. It had before-and-after pictures, and that was really hilarious. We blew up some of the pictures and put them in frames in the psychiatrist's office."
Shock Asylum is also reminiscent of Second City improv (Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert, both Second City veterans, now appear on the Comedy Central program Exit 57). Colbert and the Dinellos wrote the script during a four-day bull session, acting out scenes and seizing on any idea that made them laugh. But the last minutes of the film take a left turn into Bu–uel territory: out in the woods, the fleeing Gaxton encounters a woman in an evening dress who's set up a little living room with a phonograph; they share a dance together before the woman spins out of the frame and is replaced by Dr. DeWalt, drill in hand. "We wanted to have some moment of relief and lightness and pleasure, and a little joy," says Dan. "We didn't really define what it was. In one of our heads it was a hallucination, but the woman is actually in the insane asylum earlier. At another point we had her actually having escaped and created a sort of camp out there, but ideas got fused. We always have problems with endings. Often we don't decide until the very last moment before we shoot, or we shoot multiple endings."
The short was screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year, an honor Dan attributes to its laugh quotient. "A lot of people that had previously worked at Sundance got films in, and a lot of celebrities got films in. But they also took chances when things were funny. If your movie was weird but disturbing, then you might have less of a chance than if your movie was weird but funny." As a result of the festival, the short was picked up by the cable channel Bravo; it will also open the first of two programs at the Chicago Short Comedy Video and Film Festival. The comedy two-reeler may have died with the double feature, but Dan believes in keeping the tradition alive. "Our movies are like the old silent movies: they were made for the lower classes, and they always poke fun at the upper classes. We like to have the butt of our jokes be priests and doctors and scientists and policemen and psychologists. That's where we get our comic inspiration."
Shock Asylum will be screened this Thursday at 7:30 at the Ivanhoe Theater, 750 W. Wellington, as part of the Chicago Short Comedy Video and Film Festival. Dan and Paul Dinello will introduce the film and talk about their experience at Sundance. Tickets are $10; for more information call 773-975-7171. --J.R. Jones
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Dinello photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; "Shock Asylum" film still; film logo.