Saturday, May 1, 2010

#84: Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

Session 9 is, happily, a modern anomaly. That is, a horror film relying on character, suspense, tension, dread, and avoidance of cliche instead of godawful, anonymous, 2000s-style quick cutting, personality-free adolescent and twentysomething voids as main characters, bland and/or stupid remakes, and extended rape and torture. American horror films had a pretty weak decade, so it's even more disappointing that a gem like Session 9 fell through the cracks.
The movie takes place at, and was filmed in, a real abandoned mental hospital, Danvers, outside of Boston. I'm not sure why the facility closed in our real world, but in the movie, Danvers has been abandoned and empty since the mid-1980s because of the double whammy of Reagan economics and lawsuits over repressed memory therapy. I like having the facility closed for these reasons because they were some of the most idiotic bullshit of the 1980s. State institutions were forced to close thanks to that cocksucking prick of a president Republicans still can't stop ejaculating over at every mention of his name and his failed economic policies (terrible actor, too) and lots of mentally ill people were forced onto the streets. Also, a bunch of dumbass therapists convinced a lot of patients that they had been raped by their incestuous, Satan-worshiping family members and/or witnessed a lot of baby sacrifices and had repressed the terrible memories for years. None of this shit ever happened, a lot of families were torn apart, and a lot of therapists and institutions were deservedly sued. But I'm meandering on my foul-mouthed soapbox.

Anyway, the abandoned institution is going to become an office building, so a Hazmat team is contracted to remove all the asbestos. The team's boss (actor/director Peter Mullan) and his second-in-command (David Caruso, not playing a cop, also delivering one of the best fuck yous in cinema history) place their super-competitive bid and win the contract. Mullan says they can finish in a week, but Caruso thinks it will take at least three weeks to do a thorough job. The $10,000 bonus if they complete the gig in a week is incentive enough for Caruso to silence his objections. The rest of the team includes Josh Leonard (Undertow), who's sleeping with Caruso's ex-girlfriend, Mullan's mulleted nephew Brendan Sexton III (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Boys Don't Cry) and law-school dropout Stephen Gevedon (also the film's co-writer). These guys all have their own stresses, conflicts, and problems, and the film does a good job of showing the dynamics of a small group of people who've worked together closely for years. They're all developed characters, and they each get their moments. Leonard has one overwrought monologue (one of the film's few missteps), but he also gets a couple of the best lines. (On finding an old coin: "1883? Fuck yeah!" On discussing Mullan's stress over having a newborn daughter: "It should be the joy of his life, dude.") Every character is sympathetic, flawed, and suspicious at different moments in the film.

Besides the creepiness of an abandoned mental hospital, things get creepier when Gevedon, who has been considering a return to law school, sneaks away from work at periodic intervals to listen to tapes of nine therapy sessions he found in the basement. These sessions are between a psychologist and a woman with multiple personalities, and the woman is being goaded into revealing what happened on a Christmas night 22 years ago. The voices of the various personalities are unsettling, and the movie handles these scenes well. They could have easily been ridiculous, over-the-top, and stupid, but nothing stupid happens. For example, the tapes don't make Gevedon go crazy. Things do start getting stranger once the tapes are played, but the connection is mostly left to the audience's discretion. Once the tension really gets cracking, everything seems ominous, including such benign items as photos of a christening and an empty jar of peanut butter (seriously).

Director Brad Anderson lets his characters and story dictate the filmmaking style, instead of the other way around. One of the first features to be shot in Hi-Def digital, Session 9 relies on natural light, naturalistic shot compositions, and organic effects (CGI was only used once). We also get a couple of excellent cameos from CSI's Paul Guilfoyle and director Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo). I haven't seen much of director Anderson's other work, but he directed the Christian Bale movie The Mechanic, which I've heard mostly negative things about, Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents, and Transsiberian. He's also directed a lot of television, including two episodes of The Wire. I just started watching that show, and recently watched the first Anderson episode, which was particularly strong. Anybody have any opinions about Anderson's other films?
I'm giving a strong recommendation for Session 9. We need more character-based, non-idiotic, non-torture-based horror movies in our modern era. And this movie is actually scary.


N L J K said...

Since you solicited opinions on Brad Anderson's other films, I will say that I disliked Transsiberian - the only work his that I have seen - mostly just because I can't stand torture flicks. I watched it around the same time that I watched the awful movie Hostel, and the two movies share a space in my brain due to both depicting eastern europeans as vile sub-humans and both using graphic, wanton torture to disgust and bore the audience.
On your recommendation, however, I will check out Session 9.

Dr. Mystery said...

Wow. I'm disappointed he jumped on the torture bandwagon.

J.D. said...

I enjoyed the film Anderson did with Christian Bale (Jennifer Jason Leigh is also in it and is her usual excellent self) and once you get past the shocking site of an emaciated Bale, the film is quite intriguing, well worth a look.

But SESSION 9 is still the best thing he's done to date. I love the slow burn of this film as we see the building gradually put the zap on these guys, driving them crazy. The atmosphere of this film is really well done and Anderson builds the tension over time.

joel said...

i had a real problem with "the machinist," in that it falls prey to that cliche where everything that happens after a traumatic experience *directly* mirrors it, so that the tramatized person can remember what happened. that, and the unpleasantness of christian bale weighing 2 pounds.

Lynell said...

I, too, thought this movie was a real gem. I was surprised when I overheard some coworkers talking about how bad they thought it was. Glad to hear you liked it.