Or, simply stated, the best answer to criticisms about one movie may be producing another movie.
In intriguing and careful fashion, Brad Anderson's Session 9 (2001) lives up to that notion because it's a very well-played, very atmospheric variation on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), but one that successfully skirts the line that The Shining, finally, tripped over.
I'm as devoted an admirer of The Shining as the next horror enthusiast, for a variety of reasons, and in Horror Films of the 1980s, I rated the film four stars out of four. But at a certain point in the film's narrative, Kubrick sacrifices the ability to play the drama of Jack Torrance and his family on two parallel tracks simultaneously.
The story is either about a haunted place, the Overlook Hotel, or about a man who has lost his marbles entirely under his own auspices, Jack Nicholson's Torrance. Ultimately, The Shining makes a choice that it is indeed ghosts who spur Torrance's mental degeneration and that the Overlook is actually "haunted." We know this, in part, because ghosts unlock old Jackie boy from a freezer where his wife, Wendy, has trapped him.
Freezers don't unlock themselves.
Lest I get fisked, I'm not stating categorically that ambiguity is the best way to present a cinematic ghost story. Only that with ambiguity comes uncertainty. And feeling "uncertain" during a movie fosters a sense of uneasiness and terror in audiences. Bluntly stated, those are always good vibrations for horror films to tap into.
Session 9 boasts many similarities to The Shining, right down to its formal structure. Like The Shining, Session 9 uses title cards on a black background to periodically interrupt the narrative and remind viewers of the passage of time. And also like The Shining, Session 9 occurs mostly at one, fearsome setting, in this case the abandoned, blighted Danvers State Mental Hospital. Session 9's tag-line, "Fear is a Place" could also advertise for The Shining in a pinch.
More importantly, Session 9 and The Shining both concern a man experiencing some trouble with his family, (Gordon [Peter Mullan]) in the former, and Nicholson's struggling writer in the latter. And, both films also feature first act "tours" of the landscape, of the imposing structure that quickly proves the fulcrum of the action. Furthermore, in both efforts, a tour guide -- Ullman in The Shining and Griggs (Paul Guilfoyle) in Session 9 -- relates the long, tortured history of the place.
And what a place we visit in Session 9. Built in 1871 and closed in 1985, Danvers State Hospital is a self-contained town of sorts, with a church, a movie theater and even a bowling alley. The patients rooms are called "seclusions" and the facility housed 24,000 mentally-deranged people at its height. The hospital is also known, not pleasantly, as the locale where the "pre-frontal lobotomy was perfected."
It is this empty, desolate castle where Gordon -- "The Zen Master of Calm" according to colleagues -- and his three co-workers (Phil [David Caruso], Hank [Josh Lucas] and Jeff [Brendan Sexton]) attempt an impossible job -- asbestos abatement -- in just one week's time. Hank and Phil don't like each other either, which makes the work all the more difficult. And Gordon's wife has just given birth to the couple's first baby, meaning that he isn't getting any sleep. He's on edge, he's exhausted, he's short-tempered...
On Gordon's first sojourn through the vast, abandoned hospital, something disturbing occurs. He hears a disembodied voice welcome him. "Hello, Gordon," it says. Later, the same voice seems to convince him, "You can hear me."
And worst of all, the creepy voice seems to match ecactly the voice heard on an old patient session tape; the voice of a person with multiple personalities, one who claims to live inside "the weak" and the "wounded."
As the days pass by in the storyline, the tension in the film mounts by degrees. To bring up another classic horror film, Session 9 reminded me a bit of The Amityville Horror (1979).
Stephen King very ably described in his book, Danse Macabre, how that film doesn't really concern ghosts so much as it does a fear of home ownership and financial ruin: the mortgage you can't pay, the heating bill you can't afford, and so on.
Session 9 generates much of its suspense from Gordon's impossible schedule, his desperate need for money, the dangerous nature of removing asbestos (and the necessary precautions to do it safely...) and his apparent estrangement from his wife at home. As Phil and Hank bicker, the clock ticks down, accidents occur, and an impossible job just becomes all the more impossible.
Director Brad Anderson also peppers his film with intimations of something far more sinister than human nature, or pending deadlines, however. Specifically, he suggests something evil creeping out of the very wood work at Danvers. There is a discussion, early on, of Satanic Ritual Abuse Syndrome, for instance. And a poster on a wall inside Danvers reads, "Suddenly, it's going to dawn on you," and sure enough, the audience begins to get the unshakable vibe (from those voices and other dark happenstances) that there is something far more monstrous, and even supernatural at work in this ruined place.
One scene, set in a dark basement at night, and featuring Hank quickly proves incredibly terrifying. Hank is alone, in a long dark, subterranean corridor...when he begins to hear noises somewhere behind him. And then a figure, a shadow appears in the distance, and trust me, your adrenalin will rocket. By this point, the movie has raised so much uncertainty and fear that little things like that carry tremendous impact.
When Gordon's team members begin to show up lobotomized...their eyes bleeding, your mind will really go into over-drive asking questions: which of these men boasts the knowledge to perform the act? Or -- even more alarmingly -- does that knowledge of the procedure come from the spirit of the edifice itself? Is one of the men possessed?
And that pondering inevitably brings me back to The Shining (1980).
Unlike that film, Anderson here draws out the ambiguity to almost unbearable, gut-wrenching lengths, so that, as viewers, we frantically ping-pong between explanations. Either the source of the evil is human frailty; or it is the Danvers' living, sentient Id, let loose to play. Commendably, Anderson never reveals his hand, and so even when the film ends, the images continue to linger in the imagination. This is one movie which will have you mentally replaying scenes for clues over a span of days.
Session 9 is a resourceful and careful film. It's masterpiece of mood too; a low-budget horror film that succeeds by suggesting, not showing the forces at work on the characters.
And the setting itself, -- especially the Psych Wing -- is utterly terrifying. Like House of the Devil (2008), this film has mastered the art of the anxiety-provoking build-up, the set-up that just keeps inching and inching along until it grabs you by the throat. In this case, Anderson doles out "session" tapes down in the records room, a little bit at a time. Every time these recordings answer a question in the larger puzzle, they raise another one.
In this review, I've compared Session 9 to The Shining (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979) and House of the Devil (2008), and frankly, it's a film that deserves to be considered in such rarefied company. The movie's structure is highly reminiscent of The Shining, but I appreciate how Anderson has extended his story's sense of ambiguity to almost torturous lengths as a differentiating quality.
What's actually amazing about Session 9 is that, without Kubrick's budget, studio sets and extensive shooting schedule, Anderson has managed to convey in Session 9 the substantive, inescapable, suffocating feeling of being trapped in a place that is truly evil.
That's no small accomplishment, and Session 9 will really rattle you, whether or not you are the "Zen Master of Calm," like Gordon.