The Institute makes claim to be based on the true-life story of the Rosewood Center. This was originally established as the Asylum and Training School for the Feeble-Minded on the outskirts of Baltimore in 1888 with the intent of housing indigent children and training them for reintegration back into society. It was brought to public attention in 1937 by Leo Kanner, the discoverer of autism, that the wealthy of Baltimore had created a legal arrangement where the inmates would be turned over into their custody. Thereafter they were treated as unpaid domestic help, essentially slave labour, and frequently subject to abuse. Over 166 of these girls had been released to society families by obliging judges.
When it comes to The Institute, these details have been considerably embellished. Rather than a school for indigent children, Rosewood is now an asylum catering to upper class clientele and lavishly dressed (although the poor are kept hidden in the basements). It is presided over by Dr Cairn who is obsessed with a form of brainwashing that involves BDSM and the administering of drugs to cause the girls to lose their identity and assume roles in plays he puts on for society patrons. (There is no historical record of any Dr Cairn or the use of any such treatments). Clearly, Franco and Romanosky found the idea of the inmates being sold as slaves too mundane and have conflated the story of the Rosewood Center into more something more akin to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Exactly what is going on in the rituals is a puzzle somewhere between an orgy and a restaging of Nathaniel Hawthornes short story Young Goodman Brown (1835), while a later set-up seems to be a restaging of Edgar Allan Poes The Pit and the Pendulum (1850) using a live victim. (Which one suspects is something that has more to do with James Franco trying to shoehorn his pretensions to high literary ambitions onto a film than anything else).
I was heavily disappointed with The Institute. An historical film is left with a certain onus when it comes to credibility and this simply fails to create an inherent suspension of disbelief in its depiction. Some of the actors look uncomfortable when it comes to stepping into period costume and dialogue. More so though, the film has been shot in a way that desaturates and renders everything in a dim and dusky dun colour that looks like it is taking place in a grayscale monochrome.
The one thing you do have to complement Franco and Romanowsky for is a completely wild cast list. Aside from well known faces like Tim Blake Nelson and Eric Roberts in substantial roles and James Franco himself as the sinister psychiatrist, we also have a now middle-aged Lori Singer as a fierce and authoritarian nurse; heartthrob Josh Duhamel as a detective; Carmen Argenziano in a single scene appearance as a pharmacist; and even apparently former Baywatch (1989-2001) star and Playboy Playmate Pamela Anderson in there somewhere unrecognisable as one of the society ladies.