Friday, June 11, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Inland Empire (2006)

"I can't seem to remember if it's today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I'd think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn't even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet, there is the magic. If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there..."

- A strange Gypsy woman (Grace Zabriskie) discusses the vicissitudes of time (and "dream" time) with actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) in David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006).

This is an entirely personal assessment, but Inland Empire is the David Lynch movie that appears to make the least amount of "concrete," conventional sense and the most amount of "dream sense," if that is no paradox.

Inland Empire is a film in which logical, conscious connections between scenes are negligible and therefore almost fruitless to discuss or assess. Instead, the logic of dreams holds sway (powerful sway...) and Lynch's dream sense sweeps viewers from one emotional and terrifying moment to the next. For nearly three hours...

Like many of the artist's previous films, this is a "story" we can understand on emotional terms almost instantly, but not always on a clear, intellectual and practical level.

To truly comprehend Inland Empire we are required once more to undertake the process of "dream distillation." We must open ourselves up to Lynch's visual representations (dreams translated to images, via Freud's Interpretation of Dreams), and symbols, which in dreams replace action, persons and ideas.

Before we get that far, a pseudo synopsis of what "appears" to occur in the film may prove helpful.

You Have a New Role to Play, I've Heard. Or Where Stars Make Dreams and Dreams Make Stars...

In Inland Empire's first scene (after a scratchy record on a gramophone announces the introduction of history's "longest-running radio show, "AXXoNN,") two figures are depicted in expressionist, film-noirish black-and-white photography. They speak Polish.

Both personalities are "blurred" out so that viewers can't make out their faces (or even, in fact, that they have faces). This disquieting blurring effect cloaks their identities but also grants these mystery figures a strange timeless quality, as though their identities have been smudged and stretched (bled actually...) beyond the boundaries of the immediate context (a dark, seedy hotel at night).

Very soon, the man broaches sex with the woman ("do you know what whores do?") and the duo engages in it. During the act -- which is obscured by the blurry faces -- the woman asks fearfully "where am I?" and admits that she is "afraid."

Following this sequence Lynch cuts to shots of a crying woman in close-up, trapped in another hotel room and watching a banal TV sitcom replete with laugh track. The actors in this TV program are horribly creepy, humanoid bunnies. "What time is it?" asks one of the nicely-dressed bunnies.


"I have a secret
..." says another ominously.


Next, in modern Los Angeles, we meet Nikki Grace (Dern) an actress up for a leading role in a new Hollywood film called "On High in Blue Tomorrows." A strange, foreign (Polish...) neighbor, a Gypsy played by Grace Zabriskie, shows up and introduces herself . She reports that Nikki will get the coveted movie part, specifically that she has a "new role to play." In sinister fashion, she also informs Nikki that the new role involves a "brutal murder" and that it has something to do with marriage.

The strange gypsy then tells Nikki a story, an "old tale" about a little girl, and it carries faintly diabolical overtones: "A little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace, as if half-born. Then, not through the marketplace - you see that, don't you? - but through the alley behind the marketplace. This is the way to the palace. But it isn't something you remember," she says.

Nikki is appropriately disturbed by her neighbor's creepy demeanor, but the woman continues to chatter. She informs Nikki that actions have consequences, that there is "magic," and that if it were "tomorrow" Nikki would be sitting on her sofa...over there.

Cut to Nikki, already seated on the sofa, as though time has indeed bent to the neighbor's will. It is tomorrow.

Promptly, NIkki learns that she got the part and that she will be starring in the film with an actor named Devon (Justin Theroux). Disturbingly, Nikki and Devon also learn from the film's director, Halsey (Jeremy Irons), that "On High in Blue Tomorrows" is actually a remake of a film that was never completed, a Polish film called "47." Like the current screenplay, it was the tale of two illicit lovers ,and one based on an old Folk Tale. "Something happened before it was finished" says Halsey enigmatically, and the implication is that the story itself is cursed.

Before long, Nikki and Devon begin to unwittingly take on the characteristics of their characters, Sue and Billy, respectively. They become illicit lovers despite the fact that Nikki's husband is exceedingly jealous. He warns Devon/Billy that his wife "is not a free agent" and that the bonds of marriage will be "enforced.

And then Nikki seems to slip between realities, inhabiting other lives. And this is where the movie really gets complicated. The San Francisco's Chronicle Walter Addiego explains: "Dern seems to be two other characters as well: a housewife living in a white-trash environment (possibly the Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles) and also a hardened young woman who vents her anger at length about being abused by men (in this guise she delivers an extended and quite powerful monologue to a mysterious fellow with crooked glasses).

As we eventually suss out, Nikki's journey is part film making illusion and part reality. But the final destination is frightening and sinister. She ends up at a hotel room labeled 47, where must pass a malevolent "Shadow" to free the woman we saw earlier -- perhaps the real Sue -- trapped in that hotel room (and still watching TV bunnies...).


Got it?


"There's a Vast Network, An Ocean of Possibilities" Opening the Gates to Other Lives in Inland Empire

A close watching of Inland Empire reveals several familiar David Lynch obsessions, including sexual violence against women (an important factor in Blue Velvet [1986], Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [1992], and Lost Highway [1997], an excavation of Hollywood illusion (Mulholland Drive [2001]), and Evil as a symbol contained in one possibly supernatural individual (Bob of Twin Peaks; Robert Blake's bi locating videographer in Lost Highway).

Also, the 2006 film showcases the "gateway" to other worlds, other realities, like the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks or the world-opening/changing "box" of Mulholland Drive. Here, there's a gateway tagged with the legend AXXoNN that transports the protagonist, Nikki Grace, from one reality to another; from one state of being to another. On the surface it's just a door, with those letters scrawled roughly in chalk on it.

However, if we interpret the nonsense word "AXXoNN
," we come up with a close approximation in science: the word "axon."

And, biologically-speaking, an axon is a crucial part of our mental landscape. It is (
by Wikipedia) "a long, slender projection of a nerve cell, or neuron, that conducts electrical impulses away from the neuron's cell body or soma."

The diagram from Wikipedia (left) actually proves quite helpful here: it diagrams "axons" linking sections of the brain, closing the gulf between synapses and carrying "thoughts" from one point to another.


The AXXoNN gate in Inland Empire fulfills much the same function. In the film, it links realities, identities, dreams and even disparate time periods together. Nikki navigates this gate and taps not into something personal (the "day residue" of dreams described Freud) but something much more Jungian in concept: an unconscious idea hidden in the conscious mind of the race itself; something about the "genetic" memory of women; of womanhood/sisterhood itself.

I discussed in my review of Lynch's Dune how Paul Atreides' dreams seemed to originate with the Divine, one important school of dream interpretation. In Inland Empire, the dream sense of David Lynch suggests supernatural communication instead; the magical linking of at least two women (Sue and Nikki), and perhaps more, across time and space.

The magical AXXoNN gate is a symbol for the human mind. The "longest running show" in human history is the human collective memory, in this case the female of the species' collective memory of sexual violence and abuse through the ages, across the globe.

The perpetrators of such violence are symbolized in Inland Empire as one male uber-being or presence, the "Shadow," a recurring monster figure. The Shadow is the Blurry Man in the film's opening scene who demands sex, and also an unseen killer on the prowl in Poland. Finally, he is monstrous man "guarding" room 47 and keeping a woman locked up there.

When Nikki shoots this Shadow, he changes shape. First he is a horrible female thing (an amalgam of many female faces; pictured above), but then he shows his true visage and it is both monstrous and terrifying.

The Gypsy (Zabriskie) has prepared us for the presence of this thing in her first scene: "A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born. Evil was born, and followed the boy."

The Evil that has followed thus "little boy" is the mistreatment of women; the "dark side" (or reflection) of manhood.

But by taking on the role of "Sue" in the movie, by becoming the receptacle for the remake's "curse," Nikki has crossed the gate and become aware of the collective memory of abuse in the "sisterhood" of women, and it is up to her to free the woman in the hotel (again, perhaps Sue herself...) who has been trapped there, unable to return to her husband and son because of the "box" (of sexuality?) where the Shadow has locked her up.

In very simple, horror movie terms, Nikki "exorcises" the ghost of Sue/the trapped spirit from the haunted tale of "On High in Blue Tomorrows." That "old tale" is about how men treat women poorly, like Billy treats Sue, or like Nikki's husband threatens her. In much the same fashion that Nancy Thompson takes away Freddy's power in a Nightmare on Elm Street, Nikki takes away the Shadow's power in Inland Empire.

"It Had Something to Do with the Telling of Time" Time is But a Dream in Inland Empire

One of the most significant aspects of Inland Empire is Lynch's complete negation -- nay annihilation -- of any coherent "timeline" of events. The film's dialogue constantly refers to time as meaningless or, at the very least, circular. Examples:

"In the future, you'll be dreaming,"

"I figured one day I'd just wake up and and find out what the hell yesterday was all about. I'm not too keen on thinkin' about tomorrow. And today's slipping by."

"This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it's tomorrow."

"I'll show you light now. It burns bright forever. No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love."

And, one of the creepiest incidents in the film involves Nikki passing through the first AXXoNN gate and coming upon...herself. Early in the film, Halsey, Devon and Nicki rehearse a scene from the movie on a darkened, apparently empty sound stage. But a noise is heard in the shadowy distance, and Devon investigates. The film later reveals Nikki herself is the source of that noise, observing herself, Halsey and Devon from a distance. Has she time traveled, or is all but we see or seem but a dream within a dream?

Once more, we must delve into dream interpretation or dream distillation to afford ourselves an understanding of what's happening in a Lynch film. Consider that, as dreamers, we do not experience time. In dreams, there is no past and no future, just the eternal moment of now (to coin a phrase). Time moves differently in the world of dreams, if it moves at all. More likely we -- the dreamers -- are the ones that "move;" from one vision or idea to another; from one phantasm to the next. But we don't "drive" or "fly or otherwise travel to new ideas in any conventional fashion On the contrary, we miraculously, seamlessly transition from things that happened, to things that might happen, to things that will happen. And they all seem to be happening NOW.

This is the dream sense of David Lynch, translated to film. We jump from one reality to another without conventional physical travel. The connections forged in the film are the connections of the mind, the subway path of the axons, the AXXoNN gate. A thought triggers another thought and we witness this progression of ideas played out. Only here, an idea in a scene (like the abuse of women) triggers another scene that's a variation on that theme, and on and on. The connections are the light-speed connections of cognition itself, of thought. David Lynch is an artist who knows his own mind, and Inland Empire is his mind's eye brought to the surface...dreaming on film for us.

"This Sounds Like Dialogue from our Script," or "Look at Me and Tell me if You've Known Me Before"

Inland Empire also gazes specifically at Hollywood, the land where dreams come true for some and manifestly don't for others. This is the surface/underneath dichotomy that David Lynch often utilizes in his films.

Inland Empire
cuts between the wealth and opulence of a movie star's life (Nikki) and life on the streets for several Los Angeles hookers. Importantly, the streetwalkers ply their trade on mean streets decorated with Walk of Fame "stars," a startling conjunction of wealth and desperation.

It's more than that, too. The film very much concerns the way that Hollywood (and film making in general) can take a horrifying, upsetting tale (like Sue's) and put a shiny gloss over it; "remaking it" as a palatable entertainment that pleases the masses. The underneath -- the darkness -- is buried beneath the mainstream, MPAA-authorized surface.

So, hookers -- preparing to meet their "johns" -- burst into a musical number featuring Carole King's 1962 hit "The Loco-Motion." Something seedy and demeaning has been turned into entertainment, a cavalcade of "tits and ass" as one hooker notes (after showing off her artificially augmented bosom).

As Inland Empire also notes, actors in Hollywood become buried in their parts, lost in other lives (the way Nikki becomes lost in other lives.) Accordingly, the film is literally packed with incidents wherein characters state "I'm not who you think I am." This could be a reference to many things. Like the fact that, as viewers, we often mistake actors for the roles they play (in other words assuming that Shatner is actually Captain Kirk-like; or that Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones-esque).


On a deeper level, this notation that "I'm not who you think I am" could refer to any number of important dualities in human nature The conscious/subconscious mind, the waking/dreaming state, or the idea of the AXXoNN gate again: that our brains can hold both our contemporary "identity" and the collective or genetic memory of those who came before, which we can access.

Two characters -- in two time periods and two different cities in Inland Empire -- also say "Look at me and tell me if you've known me before." It's a desperate kind of demand; one designed to foster understanding of who you are and moreso, get an exterior verification that can anchor you in the present, in your identity. Dreams are like tides...they can carry you away and sometimes you need to know what others see.

David Lynch shoots Inland Empire in standard definition video, a controversial decision which seems to highlight the seedy, lurid aspects of theis particulartale. Unlike most Lynch pictures, this is not a beautiful one in terms of color and crispness. The typical greens and reds we associate with Lynch are here in spades, but they bleed all over into human faces...and faces often look haggard and worn out, suffused with ugliness. The underlying notion seems to be of a "now" (a presenttime) exhausted by the cumulative weight of the past, of the collective unconscious. There can't be beauty here when the past is so often ugly.

Laura Dern is literally the anchor of the film -- the only person we can really hold onto while we're unstuck in time, as it were -- and she gives a courageous performance. By the end of the film, all artifice and notions even of technique are stripped away and we are looking at a person exposed, raw. It's a great achievement in terms of screen acting and actually one of the finest performances I've witnessed in some time.

Although I am looking back at Inland Empire after my review of Dune (1984) last week, I bear a deep and abiding sense that this movie is actually the mountain that David Lynch has been climbing for some time. From Blue Velvet through Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, from Lost Highway to Mulholland Drive, the artist has been ascending towards a film that speaks entirely in the language of dreams, towards a pinnacle of formalistic, expressionistic film making that can't be understood in any traditional, "conscious" fashion.

Some viewers Lynch will likely lose on the twisting mountain path leading up to Inland Empire. For instance, It has been called (by the Village Voice) "
Lynch's most experimental film since Eraserhead."

But for other fellow travelers, however, this movie represents the apex of a long and intriguing journey; the summation of a career and a world view. You're on high now. Or, as one of the characters in the film notes, this movie is really a "mind fuck."

My advice to you, the prospective audience, is make it a consensual one.

Nightmare in Red, White and Blue Gets Theatrical Distribution

Followers of this blog will recall that about a year ago I participated in Joseph Maddrey's documentary, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film along with John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, George Romero and other genre greats.

Now the doc, narrated by the inestimable Lance Henriksen, has gotten theatrical distribution here in the States after a successful initial run on the domestic and international film festival circuit.

Here are the details:

The films “American Grindhouse” and “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue,” profiles of two film genres in America (exploitation and horror, respectively), will get a theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada through Lorber Films. The company plans to release “American Grindhouse” to more fests, theaters, and college venues beginning in June, and will do the same for “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” starting in July. The two films will get DVD releases later this year (“Grindhouse”) and early 2011 (“Nightmares”).

Elijah Drenner’s “American Grindhouse” brings together directors like John Landis, Jack Hill, and William Lustig and film historians Eddie Muller and Eric Schaefer to speak about the history of the exploitation genre. The film also includes clips of some of the most outrageous scenes from the American exploitation canon. Andrew Monument’s “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue,” based on Joseph Maddrey’s book of the same name provides a history of American horror that situates films in their historical context from the mid-1920s to the present. The film includes interviews with George A. Romero, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, amongst other horror directors. Fangoria editor Tony Timpone and the film historian John Kenneth Muir are also interviewed in the film."


More details on the whens and whats (like cities and playdates...) when I get 'em. More info: I just learned from Joe Maddrey, the film's producer and writer, that there's a "street" date for the Nightmares DVD: September 28, 2010.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Planet of the Apes Week at Secure Immaturity!

My friend and fellow blogger Will over at Secure Immaturity is making this the week to "go ape" at his site, with reviews of all the Planet of The Apes films. It's a look back at five genre classics...and the Tim Burton remake too.

Today he's on Escape from the Planet of The Apes. Check it out.

(And while you're there, also check out his review of the 1966 Batman, which happens to be my three-year old son's favorite movie....),

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Shutter Island (2010)

By a strange coincidence, my latest post on this blog involved Session 9 (2001), a horror film from last decade concerning a mental hospital and pre-frontal lobotomies. Then last night, I watched Shutter Island (2010), and it features some of the very same plot elements, though they are arranged differently here.

If Session 9 is a film that, in terrifying terms, locates horror in an external sense of place; then Martin Scorsese's effort is a film that explicitly concerns the mind. Here, horror is located inside the human psychology, both in terms of the film's lead character, Federal Marshal Ted Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), and also in terms of the American culture of the 1950s, the film's setting. Even more than that, however, there is a sub-textual message about America in the last decade.


Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is a film noir set in the decade of Eisenhower on a small island in Boston Harbor. The island houses an asylum called Ashecliffe, which is home to sixty-six criminally insane mental patients. The facility features three wards. Ward A houses males. Ward B houses females. And Ward C -- a Civil War Era fortress -- is home to the "most dangerous" patients in the country.

Daniels and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) take a ferry to Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an Ashecliffe patient, Rachel Solando, a war widow who, for reasons unknown, drowned all three of her children. Rachel escaped from a locked room and left behind just one clue, a cryptic note reading: "The Law of 4. Who is 67?"

During the course of his investigation on Shutter Island, Ted encounters three authority figures of some importance.

The first is Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a doctor who declares that Shutter Island's facility represents a "moral fusion" of "law and order" and "clinical care," and who shuns both the pharmacological and surgical approaches towards mental health treatment.

Then there's Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), a man who takes a hard line towards the prisoners/patients of Ashecliffe and prefers surgery -- lobotomies -- to any such "moral fusion." With his German accent and draconian belief system, there's something faintly Nazi-like about Naehring, and Daniels picks up on it quickly.

And finally, there's the warden played by Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs [1991]), a man who is convinced that Ted is a "man of violence." Let's just say that this warden is in touch with his darker side.

As is the case in all good noir stories, Ted indeed carries some personal baggage with him on his "case" at Ashecliffe. In particular, his beautiful wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) died in an apartment fire set by the mysterious Andrew Laeddis, a criminally insane man that Teddy suspects is now incarcerated in the mysterious Ward C.

In one beautifully-rendered scene, Ted dreams of tragic Dolores, and airborne ashes -- her earthly remains -- suffuse the atmosphere around the couple like falling snow.

Ted is also perpetually troubled by his World War II experience, particularly the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau, where he arrived too late to stop the massacre of many innocent women and children. In gruesome clarity, the film cuts to views of train cars literally overflowing with piles of corpses. Ted notes that "there were too many corpses to count" there...too many even "to imagine." In particular, Ted seems haunted by a little girl who protests, specifically, that he was "too late" to save her.

Just like Ted was too late to save Dolores...

The film lingers on Ted's intense feelings of guilt about his failure to save those in his life that needed rescuing, and also about a strange turn that his life has taken which -- he subconsciously fears -- makes him a "monster."

This personal sense of guilt is reflected in Scorsese's film by America's sense of cultural guilt over the past. In particular, its guilt about the direction that our nation has taken. One character in the film, a physician, specifically notes that "fifty years from now, people will say it started here, on Shutter Island."

Fifty years forward from the 1954 events of Shutter Island is...2004. That's the year of the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatment/torture scandal in Iraq. This is, at least, implicitly, the subtext of the film: a forecast of the time when America will undercut its own ideals and value system and engage in human atrocities like those Daniels witnessed in World War II.


Appropriately, as Daniels uncovers what he believes to be a conspiracy at Ashecliffe, he comes to fear that America's future may have more to do with the Nazi past than liberty and the ideals of freedom. Ted notes, for instance, that Ashecliff is funded by HUAC (The House Committee on Un-American Activities), and that the staff is conducting illegal experiments on the criminally insane. Crazy people, he notes, are the perfect subjects: no one ever believes their stories (kind of like people we are told are terrorists...). Ted also notes that "we fought a war" to stop atrocities like this from occurring, but now it's "happening on our soil." If you consider Guantanamo Bay "our soil," there's another metaphor for the last decade.

Twice in Shutter Island, the H-Bomb is mentioned, and twice television is mentioned too. This is important. In 1953, the year before the events of the film, President Truman announced the development of the Hydrogen Bomb in January, and by February of that year, over seventy percent of American households owned television sets. If you look below the surface, the implication is that one "invention" (television) distracts attention from the other (the H-Bomb). That America was delving into violent, monstrous territory, perhaps unknowingly, as its people were enjoying the bread and circuses of a new venue for mass entertainment. And that all of this "death making" only led, eventually, to events like Abu Ghraib...a gross misuse of American power that had had been attained in previous decades.

Not incidentally, the year of this film's action, 1954, is also the year that Huxley's The Doors of Perception was published, and Scorsese's film very clearly involves those doors of perception; and the swinging open of those doors for Ted. If you look at the title of the film, Shutter Island, it also contains a secret message about the nature of the narrative. A "shutter" is defined as a "person or thing that shuts" and an island, of course, is a realm of isolation and alone-ness; surrounded by water (or some other barrier, if the definition is generalized). An important character in Shutter Island is both closed or shut (like a shutter) and has made himself an island, separated from mankind and reality itself by self-made psychological barriers.

Some viewers have complained about Shutter Island's "trick" ending, but a careful viewing reveals that everything is planned and accounted for; everything is encoded, right down to the film's title (as dissected above). Now, certainly, one can argue coherently about the plausibility of the film's final twist (and actually, I had some problems with it, myself...) but the movie largely plays fair with how it prepares the audience for the film's resolution.

I probably shouldn't go into more detail about this twist ending so as to preserve the surprise for those who haven't watched the film yet, but let's just say that the revelation, as it is played, requires a total commitment to conspiracy from the entire staff (literally) of Ashecliffe...down to the orderlies, plus acceptance of the fact that a dangerous man would be permitted, for several days, free run of the facility, thereby endangering staff and other patients. Again, the issue here is plausibility, not validity. Mileage may indeed vary. For me, DiCaprio's absolutely committed performance, Robbie Robertson's interesting and unconventional selections for the soundtrack, and Scorsese's rock-solid (but not overtly flashy) visual approach in the end made up for some (valid) questions regarding plausibility

Finally, the film's valedictory twist is a worthwhile avenue to explore because it asks an important question of one character. Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man, as a hero?

If you apply that question to America in the 2000s (a span when our former President has now proudly acknowledged authorizing torture) then this Scorsese movie boasts a deeper, more instructive purpose.

How do we get over our cultural guilt? By continuing to live as a monster? Or by dying as a hero? Watch that last scene in Shutter Island and determine for yourself how much the character in question knows or is actually aware of. Is he playing a "role" that the doctors expect him to play, because he can no longer live as a monster? Or he is marching forward into a dark future with no awareness and no acknowledgment of the things he has done?

It appears that many viewers and critics have gotten hung up here on process: the "how" of Shutter Island's narrative resolution. The aspect of the film that sticks with me, however, is the "why." The answer to that question of "why" may rest, stylistically, in the form of the film noir itself, which at its absolute best, always asks questions concerning the hero's hidden identity (Blade Runner [1982], Angel Heart [1987], The Ninth Gate [1999]),

But contextually, the "why" behind Shutter Island rests in the "guilt" of one man and the guilt of a nation. Guilt has to be exorcised one way or another, the movie tells us. With either continued denial, or acceptance of responsibility for our actions.

Which is it going to be?

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.