Monday, June 07, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Session 9 (2001)

There's a school of thought regarding movies that goes along these lines: If you don't like a film-- or think you could do it better -- then, go ahead and make one in response.

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.

S
ession 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.

11 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:50 PM

    tdraicer:

    I have a different problem with The Shining. Imo Kubrick badly botched (or perhaps intentionally botched-I don't really care which) the editing of the final chase, so that the instant where the audience should feel an explosive release at the escape of mother and child becomes instead a belated, "That's it?"

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  2. I daresay SESSION 9 is, hands down, one of THE best horror films to come out in the last 10 years. Incredible stuff. The slow burn of this film is hypnotic as the way Anderson shoots the vacant (or is it?) building slowly puts the zap just not on the characters but the viewer. You certainly get the feeling that something very wrong, very evil went down in that place years ago and a residual of that still lingers, still haunts the place.

    For me, the most chilling moment comes when we finally get the full reveal of Gordon's horrifying backstory. What he did and how that revelation then affects everything we've just seen!

    It's a shame that Anderson has not yet realized the potential he showed with this film. I liked THE MACHINIST but it certainly isn't in the same league as SESSION 9.

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  3. I'm in total agreement with J.D. on this. Though I didn't see it when it first came out, I remember it got decent (but not exemplary reviews), and possessed one of the better looking movie posters of the genre. Since then, it has a growing army of fans, which forced me to take it in. Still, I think it's underrated for what it delivers.

    JKM, I remember reading Danse Macabre when it came out in hardcover, and that section on THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (heck, I'd read that novel, too), and had a gut level reaction to King's analysis (probably even more now). How I wish that some of the current filmmakers (especially those related to some of the remakes studios keep delivering) would learn from what Brad Anderson brought here (without much of a budget, either).

    Another of your fine Cult Movie Reviews, John. Thanks for this.

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  4. Excellent movie and a great review.

    Sadly they tore down the Danvers building in 2006 to put up condominiums..!!

    I don't usually link to my own blog in a comments section, but you may find it of interest: http://lubbert-das.blogspot.com/2009/12/session-9.html

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  5. If you haven't checked out the deleted scenes yet, one of the things cut from the film is an entire character: a former inmate who is still lurking around the place, leave signs and weirdness for the abatement team. Given your take on the film, it might be interesting to watch those scenes and think on how drastically the presence of an unambiguious agent for some of the weirdness in the film would change the movie.

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  6. Hey everyone! Thanks for the great comments.

    tdraicer: I love The Shining, and yet, at the same time, have about a dozen problems with the film. You bring up an interesting one, and I would need to watch it again to see how I feel about it; but I think I know what you mean. The movie is icy and glacial, and doesn't encourage the emotional responses we often want to glean from it, it seems.

    J.D.: I agree with your assessment, particularly regarding the film's "slow burn." This is a magnificent and effective horror film that leaves you thinking on it for a long time after a viewing. I agree with you that it's one of the best of the last decade.

    Le0pard13: Absolutely, Anderson showed really meticulous attention to detail and mood here, and that's something that can be done without a big budget. It's a lesson, as you say, that other filmmakers (of all genres) could learn to emulate.

    Lubbert Das: Thanks for that link. I just checked out your great blog, and those atmospheric pictures of the Danvers facility. The place just "oozes" creepiness, doesn't it? What a bummer that it's been destroyed. It seems like, at the very least, it's a horror history landmark...

    CRwM: Now that's some fascinating information, there. I didn't watch the deleted scenes, so I had no idea, really. But yeah, it seems that an additional character -- making mischief as you describe -- might certainly change the tenor of the film; and alter my feeling about it (though how, precisely, it's impossible to say). Maybe the addition of that character would only add to the ambiguity? Or would it subtract? Not sure...

    Best to all,
    JKM

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  7. Anonymous:

    Hmm. Have to say I disagree about the ending of Kubrick's THE SHINING. To me, the fate of Danny and Wendy is secondary to what's going on with Jack, so their eventual escape from the hedge maze and hotel aren't really ripe for an 'explosive' or emotional release. The movie's not that interested in them. The horror of the story, I think, lies in Jack's descent into uncontrolled madness and the fact that, though Wendy and Danny get away, the Overlook still wins. Jack is who it wanted anyway...

    Going to have to rewatch SESSION 9 again soon. Haven't seen it in years but I remember being impressed by it. I'm a sucker for a good 'haunted house' story!

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  8. Anonymous4:22 PM

    In the deleted scenes, it's made very clear that everything that has occurred doesn't necessarily have a supernatural angle - it's mainly due to this additional character who's hiding in the building.

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  9. miked7:00 PM

    @CRwM -

    Thanks for the deleted scenes info. Now one thing that was bugging me makes sense -- "going to check the breakers" invariably involved plugging things back in, and never once did anyone comment that things had been unplugged. I've never seen a breaker that spits plugs out of sockets before!

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  10. The idea of a heretofore unmentioned additional character lurking around the building is interesting, but the finished product does not lead the viewer down this path and therefore, though interesting, is irrelevant. I, too, believed that this movie was devoid of any supernatural going-ons, up until the very end when 'the voice' is speaking on the aerial fly-by. That does indeed lead the viewer to believe that this was supernatural.

    Furthermore, who, in this day in age, knows how to perform a lobotomy? Prior knowledge is extremely unlikely, so one would have to assume that the Gordy character was indeed possessed.

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  11. I’m glad I stopped by because I never would’ve thought to compare Session 9 with the movies mentioned here. I streamed it just a few minutes ago through the Blockbuster @Home app on the Hopper I got from DISH, and I thought of a couple other movies while watching it. I thought of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and High Tension for the same reason of who the unsuspected killer is at the end of the movie. I’m glad that I didn’t have to drive to pick this up since I felt like it was so close to being good, but it didn’t have any gore or freaky crazy monsters. One of my coworkers at DISH warned me that it was a different type of horror movie than I normally like watching, but I guess I was still holding on to the hope that I was going to be terrified out of my mind.

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