In James Franco’s new period film “The Institute,” a 19th-century woman named Isabel Porter (Allie Gallerani) voluntarily checks herself into a mental hospital after her parents’ untimely death.

Porter only wanted a temporary escape from reality as she tackled her grief, but she suddenly finds herself subjected to bizarre and increasingly violent mind-control experiments. 

A doctor tells his newest patient that his unorthodox methods will “free her” from her grief — but in actuality, he’s brainwashing the helpless victim.

That creepy doctor is played by none other than Franco himself.

James Franco The Institute
photo: Momentum Pictures

Franco takes on the role of Dr. Cairnes, who uses pain and psychological tactics to gain full control his patients' minds. 

The movie is set at an asylum called the Rosewood Institute, which is based on a real-life mental hospital outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

photo: Momentum Pictures

The real Rosewood institution was established in 1888 to serve mentally disturbed patients — but in 1937, a visiting psychiatrist discovered that Rosewood had been selling female patients to wealthy benefactors. Despite this huge human-trafficking scandal, Rosewood's doors shockingly stayed open until 2009. 

In the film, Franco plays an evil, Manson-like manipulator. But his co-director Pamela Romanowsky said the role actually mirrored his real-life temperament in an unexpected way.

Romanowsky previously worked with Franco on “The Adderall Diaries” and the short film “Tar," but she told Revelist that his role in "The Institute" was particularly interesting to witness because the brainwashing doctor is also kind of a “director.” 

"He’s getting a person to believe that they are [someone else], a fictional character. So there’s something very meta about watching a director play this 'extreme director,'" she explained.

Romanowsky said watching Franco become Cairnes was fascinating.

“There's a line where he says, ‘I don’t want you to act, I want you to be,'" she recalled. "So yeah, I thought that was very interesting to watch him explore this elevated horror-version of what directing means.”

photo: Momentum Pictures

Lead actress Allie Gallerani told Revelist that playing a master manipulator was probably Franco's "fantasy"

“It’s probably his fantasy," she laughed. "Like, ‘They do everything that I tell them. No actors talk back to me.’”

But if Franco's performance isn't enough to sell you on “The Institute,” the flick also has a star-studded cast.

Josh Duhamel, Pamela Anderson, and Topher Grace have roles in this psychological thriller.

Watch the trailer for "The Institute" in the video below:

The film hits theaters March 3.