Monday, October 27, 2008

Session 9 (2001)

Crazy people in ghost stories are a horror staple as old as horror itself. Edgar Allan Poe nearly created the sub-genre singlehandedly with stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart and Stephen King honed it to a razor's edge with the 1977 novel, The Shining.

Brad Anderson's 2001 neo-gothic film, Session 9, is an interesting piece of work because it seems to want to be both a psychological thriller as well as a supernatural one, but ultimately leaves that final decision up to the viewer.

The film centers around the day to day interaction between the members of a freelance hazmat team that has taken on the daunting task of clearing out an old insane asylum of all traces of asbestos. The team consists of:

- Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), a down-on-his-luck Irish American small businessman and the boss of the company who is currently suffering from pressures in both his professional and private life.
- Phil (David Caruso), Gordon’s second-in-command and all around hard ass
- Jeff (Brandon Sexton III), Gordon’s mullet-clad nephew who isn’t the exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.
- Hank (Josh Lucas), a get rich quick artist currently sleeping with Phil’s old girlfriend
- Mike (Steve Gevedon), a would-be attorney frightened by success and currently slumming it by working for Gordon

Over the course of the next seven days of the story, a virtual cornucopia of sub-plots emerges. Not only are we privy to the less than perfect social dynamic of the team, but we also learn about the rather strange history of the asylum and most importantly, the history of one of its rather intriguing patients.

Despite the obvious parallels to Kubrick's film adoptation of The Shining (insanity, big spooky building, the threat from the unknown that is never really confirmed or denied to be supernatural in origin), if I had to pick a film that most resembles Session 9 in tone, it’d have to be the 2003 K-Horror movie Janghwa, Hongryeon, better known in North America as A Tale of Two Sisters.

Like Janghwa, Hongryeon, Session 9 is a very busy film.

The plot entertains asides ranging from the animosity between Hank and Phil to the mounting pressure on Gordon to provide for his family and keep his team on schedule, Mike’s professional curiosity getting the better of him upon the discovery of old records from the asylum, hints of the macabre, and so forth.

All of this action encapsulated in one of the eeriest set pieces in recent memory.

Fact being stranger than fiction, that set piece is the (now demolished) Danvers State Hospital for the Clinically Insane in Danvers, Massachusettes.

Also like Janghwa, Hongryeon, Session 9 is a very slow burn. It takes quite some time to digest the events as they unfold but once things spiral out of control, all hell breaks loose and then quickly coalesces into a bloodchilling epilogue.

One thing that struck me about this movie (and one of the things I found most disturbing about Kubrick's film version of The Shining) is that it isn’t the inevitable reveal that is the most frightening thing about the ending; it is the realization of just how long that things have been dysfunctional.

Brad Anderson admirably keeps from throwing the finale away via a constant blending of character development, red herrings, and a brief tease (or injection depending on your interpretation) of the possible existence of an otherworldly force.

The final curtain is heart wrenching and terrifying all at once.

The length of time it takes Session 9 to get going will no doubt scare off fans of immediate gratification, but if your idea of fun is scaring yourself witless with the premier entries of the psychological horror catalogue complete with subtle, occult overtones (Don’t Look Now, The Living & The Dead), then this is the movie for you.

1 comment:

Doug Tilley said...

On the recommendation of friends, i've attempted to rent SESSION 9 and instead brought home SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS twice now.

SERIES 7 is a fine film, but I want to see SESSION 9, damn it!

It's interesting that you mention the pace of the film. I'm actually a big fan of the deliberate pace of Asian horror as long as we get a suitably messy climax.