"Dan T. Hall has made his name as a local filmmaker with such family-friendly fare as L’il River Rats and EZ Money, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to see him working on something as darkly disturbing as this documentary about Central State Mental Institution, recently released on DVD. Central State was closed in 1994, and its remains still rest behind locked fences, within easy view of the downtown skyline. Hall has assembled an information-dense presentation, frequently displaying several levels of past and present in the same shot.

This is really two stories in one. The first is an examination of Central State’s history, supported by interviews with former patients and staff and a remarkable collection of archival footage, most of it never before seen. The second follows Hall, Marilene Isaacs and the Indiana Paranormal Investigators as they explore the site’s ancient tunnels and abandoned rooms in search of evidence of hauntings, ghosts and psychic imprints. And certainly if you believe at all in the hypernatural, few places would be more infused than this site, in the heart of the city, eating lives, bleeding souls.

Though the paranormal sequences are utterly enthralling — IPI’s cameras and equipment pick up, among other things, an inexplicable shadow flickering across the frame and a voice whispering, “Go, for god’s sake” — it’s the simple human tales that prove most compelling.

The interviews and archives speak with their own authoritative voices of hard experience. I’m not familiar enough with Central State’s history to judge their accuracy, but the tales from patients and staffers are equal parts heartbreaking and grotesque. Accounts of patients chained in dank rooms, or elderly patients reaching out for human contact, any contact, in the moments before death, all speak loudly enough on their own. Their voices are dispatches from the morgue of history, drawn together by enigmatic threads and Hall’s smoothly guiding hand.

For more information and to purchase the DVD: central-state.com.

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