USA, 2001. Rated R. 100 minutes.
David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton
III, Paul Guilfoyle
|Grade: A||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
uilt in the 1870s and abandoned a century later, the red brick gothic estate sprawls like a massive winged beast on a huge property in Massachusetts. This was no playground for the privileged. This was a hospital, a dungeon for the insane, where patients were forced into electroshock therapy, immersed in water, tied into restraints, and given lobotomies, all in the name of "therapy." Designed to house 2,700, as many as 7,000 souls were at one time crammed into its rooms and subterranean passageways. Today, the floors sag, the asbestos-covered ceilings and pipes leak, and the walls are defiled with graffiti. But virtually everything--the hydrotherapy rooms, the solitary confinement cells, the morgue--is still intact. Patient records still lie scattered in its storage rooms. This is no movie set, no fictitious creation. This is the Danvers State Hospital. This is what actor David Caruso calls the "scariest building in North America."
Writer/director Brad Anderson (Next Stop, Wonderland) and writer Stephen Gevedon could not have chosen a better place to shoot their new horror movie, Session 9. Danvers has a presence and authenticity that cannot be faked, and Anderson and Gevedon take full advantage, having tailored their story to this specific location. Virtually everything in the building, they say, is as they found it, and the tales related by the characters about the place are largely true, with only names changed. Given their limited budget, Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz rely as much as possible on natural illumination, even indoors, having mapped out how light strikes the building at various times of the day prior to beginning principal photography. Be it by constraint or by design, their choice increases the naturalistic feel, as does the decision to shoot the movie on digital video.
In this era of post-modern teen slasher films and computer graphics-saturated genre pictures, Session 9 is an unusual film. It is a character study foremost, and the building is the dominant character in the film--not in the sense that there are morphing staircases and cherubs everywhere, like in The Haunting, or over-the-top flashback sequences like The House on Haunted Hill. Session 9 is far more subtle. As in The Shining, a building can have a personality without it literally being so, and the past can be present without it literally being so.
Session 9 focuses on the efforts of the ominously named Hazmat Elimination Company to rid the enormous edifice of asbestos. The owner of the company is Gordon (Peter Mullan from Trainspotting), a Scottish immigrant with a newborn baby. The pressure of supporting a growing family is beginning to get to him. Gordon's business is struggling, so he overbids the project, promising the town engineer (Paul Guilfoyle) the seemingly impossible: to get the three-week job done in just one, for which he and his crew will receive a ten-thousand-dollar bonus.
Gordon's project supervisor is Phil (David Caruso), who wants to run things like a military operation. In the beginning, Caruso is reminiscent of John Kelly, his character on NYPD Blue, particularly when he says sensitive things with a tough-guy attitude ("If you need anything, I'm here"), as only Caruso can do (thank goodness he's getting movie offers again). Pretty soon he's showing visible signs of strain himself and declaring that other members of the clean-up crew are "liabilities."
Gordon and Phil bring in a crew of three men. Mike (Stephen Gevedon from HBO's Oz) is a slumming law-school dropout. Uncertain of his direction in life, he enjoys manual labor. There's none-too-bright Jeff (Brendan Sexton III, from Boys Don't Cry), or "Mullethead," as Mike likes to call him because of his ugly haircut. He's basically a kid happy to have work, but his inexperience may get in the way of completing the project. Finally, there's Hank (Josh Lucas from American Psycho), the Number One Liability in Phil's eyes. This may be due to Hank's casual attitude toward his work, but more likely it has something to do with the fact that he stole Phil's girlfriend and likes to brag about it.
As anyone who has spent a lifetime, a year, or even just a summer doing manual labor will quickly recognize, these characters are authentically realized--they give the impression of being real working-class people rather than actors pretending to be. All of them would, of course, prefer to do something else, and one of them talks of the necessity of having an "exit plan." As you might guess, having an "exit plan" becomes a symbolic motif, and, of course, none of them has one.
The Danvers Hospital interacts with each character in a different way. It seems to welcome one character in particular, and to another it offers a tantalizing ticket out of his working-class existence. Yet another character is drawn irresistibly to Danvers' mysteries, discovering a box marked "EVIDENCE" in a storage room. In one of the "seclusion chambers," the characters discover newspaper cutouts covering the walls, including messages like, "Suddenly it's going to dawn on you," and "No one will leave feeling neutral." As the clean-up crew's mental state deteriorates, the past comments on the present, coloring the atmosphere and everything that transpires.
In addition to an impressionistic score that features Spartan single-note piano passages, Anderson uses sound throughout Session 9 to unsettle the audience, enhancing the sense that not all is as it should be. Intermittent droning and whirring sounds are prominent, like the rush of cars driving by or windshield wipers moving back and forth, never sounding quite right. Anderson's visual style is understated--wisely so, given the extraordinary location--except for the occasional use of rapid intercuts. For example, when the "EVIDENCE" box is opened, an unsettling sequence of images flashes as the knife cuts through the seal and the lid is opened.
Session 9 takes the time to work on the psychological level, taking you into the darkest recesses of the characters' minds as it takes you into the darkest recesses of the Danvers Hospital. That's true horror, because few things are more terrifying than what the human mind can conjure up, or what it's capable of under duress. As a result, even the stock genre devices Anderson employs--the character who wears headphones when he shouldn't; the generator running out of power at the wrong time--have their intended effect, because they seem genuine in the context of the story. The conclusion is confusing, but most of the pieces do fall into place upon reflection. It is unfortunately common in horror for the climax and resolution to fail to live up to expectations created by the buildup in tension, but Session 9 cashes in satisfactorily.
Session 9 is one the most horrifying movies you will see this year, and it's not even technically a horror film--at least, not as many people understand horror to be. In other words, there are no mask-wearing psychos or ghosts that jump out and yell "Boo!" Anderson and Gevedon's script doesn't rule out a supernatural dimension to the story, but it is not necessarily present. Everything in the movie has a plausible explanation. Whether something otherworldly is happening is left to the audience to decide, and that's part of the fun.
CONTINUE TO THE INTERVIEW: DAVID CARUSO AND BRAD ANDERSON ON SESSION 9
© August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.
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