Say what you will about director Brad Anderson, at least he’s consistent. I was interested in seeing his 2001 horror film Session 9 after being mostly impressed by the thriller he did later in the decade, Transsiberian. That film was a slow-building, nail-biting thrill ride – this movie matches that. In fact, when I went back to read my review of the later film, I found that my final paragraph could almost summarize this move just as well:
Transsiberian is a good film. I do have problems with it, problems that I believe are too clear to ignore. I don’t know if there’s necessarily more that’s done right than there is that is done wrong here, but the things that are done right are so right that they mostly overshadow the missteps. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s definitely a satisfying appetizer until a perfect movie comes along.
Session 9 is a good film. The reason that it’s good is entirely because of the atmosphere of the film. Where Transsiberian merited comparisons to Hitchcock, it’s not unfair to look at this as Kubrickian. The movie is about a group of men hired to rid the abandoned Danvers mental asylum of its asbestos so that the building can be remodeled and turned into something workable. The building is enormous, stretching over acres and acres, with all sorts of hidden rooms and secret tunnels and dark secrets bubbling underneath. Here, maybe some people were treated inhumanely. There’s a vast cemetery across a creek with upwards of 750 bodies buried there – certainly not all of them died of natural causes. So perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the building gives off an eerie vibe. There is so much darkness throughout the grounds, even in daylight, that it makes it easy to imagine that ghosts and ghouls must be haunting the place.
The building itself is what makes the movie. There’s no denying it. I like Peter Mullan, the man who plays our protagonist Gordon, from his previous work (especially Boy A), but he doesn’t provide much for the movie. David Caruso, a.k.a. that guy from “CSI”, acts his heart out – but it’s all for naught. The one thing that makes the movie successful is its terrifying environment. Imagine this: a long, dark hallway, cracks in the walls and ceiling, pools of water collected on the ground; in the distance, an empty chair – the kind with straps on the arms, the kind used to hold down the most violent of psychopaths imprisoned in this facility. It’s inexplicably frightening, just this hint of horror. Another example, yeah? One of the group finds his way down in an empty hallway, the light is dim. He begins finding very old coins on the floor, mid-nineteenth century. While following the trail, he begins to notice that they are falling out of a crack in the brick wall and starts tearing into the wall in order to get to the cache (pun clearly intended). The camera floats through the wall to show the terrible truth of what is on the other side: an empty room, with sliding drawers such as those found in a morgue. Scary?
Yes, very. I think it’s pretty much accepted as fact that horror movies tend to achieve much more when they suggest the evil at the fringes of their stories than by placing the monster up front and center. Session 9 barely has to suggest anything. All we need to know is “abandoned mental hospital” and suddenly it’s scary. The dripping water and dim lighting and cracked and peeling walls are only the icing on the cake. It’s in an environment like this where the mere sight of a man standing still can make you jump. No need for “boo”, no need for some scene of gory violence, just show an otherwise dark and empty corridor with one man standing dead still in the center. Yikes.
Of course, the movie doesn’t live up to its fantastic set. Roger Moore (seriously), of the Orlando Sentinel, sums it up as perfectly as possible when he refers to the film as featuring “a great setting in search of a decent horror film to fill it.” When it gets down to brass tacks, as the movie begins laying down clues to build toward a dramatic, searing climax… that’s when the movie begins to lose its flavor. It fails on two counts, first for becoming a whodunit where the viewer is forced to start deciding which one of the five main characters is the one behind the rising levels of disturbia, then by throwing up its hands and deciding that a mysterious supernatural finale might be just as good as a more reasoned one.
The real test here is whether the ending maintains the chills that the rest of the film had produced, and the answer is a resounding NO. As we hurtle toward the flashback revelations that will spell out the truth of what has transpired, the pieces come together and verge on laughable. It’s hard to stay “in the moment” when all you can think of is how disappointing a turn the movie you’re watching had made. The final narration tries to make sense of the happenings, but it’s too hard to bring back around after the jumbled pile of cliche that came just before.
I have nothing to say about the visual style of the film, although at times it seemed to have been shot on a home video camera. That low-budget sensibility worked wonders for The Blair Witch Project just two years prior to this film’s release, and though this movie was much more narratively structured it still works mostly in the movie’s favor. Or, at the least, the varying degrees of crispness in the picture is easy to overlook when the tension is wound so sickeningly tight.
Transsiberian was effective when it focused on the atmosphere, building paranoia and making everybody a suspect. Session 9 is equally powerful when Brad Anderson the writer steps back and lets Brad Anderson the director take control of the scene, allowing the action to billow out slowly into the room until there’s nothing left but to wait for some sort of explosion. But both times, Anderson’s films get plagued by odd turns in character growth that force them toward the story’s contrivances rather than letting the plot flow along with the characters. It makes for a strangely disjointed picture, at times marvelously wicked and other times despairingly plain.
I referred to Anderson’s other work as an appetizer; this is no different. I could fill up on appetizers – I’d be glad to – but I’d really rather get something more substantial.