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Session Obsession 

Brad Anderson reinvents the haunted-house movie to great effect with Session 9

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
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OK, are you sitting down? Here's the pitch: We're going to make a horror movie, but there aren't going to be any kids from the WB network in it. Hell, there won't be anyone under 30 in it -- except for that one Welcome to the Dollhouse kid, but don't worry, he's not photogenic in the least. Not only will there be no cute girls, there won't be any women at all save for voice-overs and very tiny roles, and we'll ensure that their brief screen time is not sexy in the least. Rob Zombie and the Foo Fighters will not be allowed anywhere near the soundtrack, and did we mention yet that the movie's about asbestos removal? Oh yeah, here's the kicker: It's going to star David Caruso.

It's hard to believe that such a pitch ever made it past the script girl at USA Films, let alone into any executive's office, but horror fans and those who just plain enjoy a well-told story should thank the cinematic gods that it did. Session 9 is not only the scariest movie of the year, but it may also be the easiest to believe since the first Blair Witch (to which it's a truer spiritual sequel than Joe Berlinger's botch job of last year). It reinvents the haunted-house movie for an audience jaded by digital trickery, stripped as it is of special effects yet blessed with a remarkable location in the abandoned Danvers Mental Hospital outside Boston (for which the script was specifically written).

With a set like Danvers, the production values create themselves. Laid out, as one character describes it, like a giant bat, the hospital is full of dripping ceilings, cracked tiles, archaic restraining devices gone rusty, long, dark corridors, and even some stupid "Ozzy" and "Satan rules" graffiti for added character. Like the Polish brothers' Jackpot and Lucasfilm's forthcoming Episode II, Session 9 was shot on the Sony 24P high-definition digital video camera, which allows for extreme portability while making film-quality pictures. As a result, you go inside the dark corners of the old place in a manner that would scarcely have been possible previously without a larger budget. At times, Session 9 feels like an extended version of the final stretch of Blair Witch, at that mysterious cabin in the woods (it even wrings scares once again from a missing person seen standing in the corner). But for all you Blair Witch detractors, there's good news: The two most derided elements of that film -- shaky camerawork and Heather Donahue's whininess -- are nowhere to be found.

The setup is basic in the extreme. With a new baby in his life, macho Scottish asbestos remover Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is so desperate to get the job of clearing out the Danvers Hospital that he pledges his crew will do the job in a week, despite the objections of his partner, Phil (David Caruso). Phil thinks it's a two- to three-week job (obviously, he hasn't watched enough Star Trek to know that Scots always get engineering jobs done in half the time, or at least claim they can). Joining Phil and Gordon on the crew are Mike (co-screenwriter Stephen Gevedon), a lapsed law student; Hank (Josh Lucas), who has a goatee to indicate his status as a bad dude, and who also happens to have stolen Phil's woman, a fact he reminds everyone of constantly; and Jeff (Brendan Sex- ton III), Gordon's young, white-trash American nephew, addressed by the rest of the crew as "it" and "mullethead."

It takes a full 45 minutes before the first legitimate scare, but the pacing is a treat for fans of good dialogue. This may be the first time in years that characters in a suspense film have been allowed to talk, in the manner that guys working for a living do. And no, their conversations aren't laden with profanity or references to old TV shows. There are, however, some digs at the Reagan administration's attitudes toward mental health, in which they cite the budget cuts of the '80s and one too many false recovered memories as the reasons for Danvers' shutdown. The conversations also set the stage for conflicts to come, without any one phrase sticking out as obvious foreshadowing. A second viewing of the film rewards with numerous details that may go unnoticed the first time, before their true significance is revealed. Meanwhile, in the extreme foreground, spiders weave their webs menacingly (such shots are ultimately pointless, but pretty cool nonetheless).

Eventually, however, things start to go wrong. Character conflicts escalate. Hank discovers a secret about the place that puts him in jeopardy. Phil plots to get Hank kicked off the team. Gordon's wife appears to have left him, and a leg injury places the taciturn Scot under further stress. And Mike, during the lunch breaks, becomes obsessed with a series of therapy-session recordings he finds in the basement involving a young woman with multiple personality disorder. The final tape in the chronological series is labeled "Session 9," giving the film its title and hinting at a greater significance than just some random patient's ramblings.

Director Brad Anderson, known primarily for romantic comedies (1998's Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents, opening next Friday), has never made a horror movie before (unless you count the short Frankenstein's Planet of Monsters), but let's hope he does one again. Though the film appears to be heading toward a shocking revelation (one that initially comes off as rather lackluster, only to be turned on its head again), it doesn't depend upon that revelation; in fact, it's more effective when you know where it's going. The last spoken words of the film will be on the lips of horror fans for a long time to come.

With this film following on the heels of this spring's Series 7 and last year's Pitch Black, USA Films has staked a major claim in the production of quality genre material. It's good to see that the increasing availability of cheap digital cameras isn't just for pretentious Dogmetists, but that the cameras can also find their way into the hands of skilled frightmongers. And if you want to hear something really scary, how about the name Carson Daly showing up in the credits? Yes, that one, the MTV guy your favorite teenage girl undoubtedly has a crush on. Officially billed as "executive music producer," his role is -- whew! -- almost superfluous: There's very little noticeable music in the film, and what is there sounds nothing like the latest boy band or teen Madonna-whore.

About The Author

Luke Y. Thompson

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