2.5 Stars
Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
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It’s damn difficult to do horror right. The genre is a graveyard of exploitative ineptitude, with more than its share of bad writing and lousy acting. Even filmmakers who forego cheap shocks in favor of plumbing the depths of psychological disturbance often end up in a pretentious muddle.
Brad Anderson, whose romantic comedy “Next Stop Wonderland” was a Sundance hit a few years back, is the latest to try his hand at classing up the horror flick. “Session 9″ – not to be confused with last spring’s Series 7 – has creepy atmosphere to burn, mainly due to the incredible location where the whole thing was shot. The film works the right influences: from “Repulsion” and “Don’t Look Now” through “Alien” and “The Shining,” the signposts are all in view. In fact, Lars von Trier, mastermind of the nine-hour Danish creepathon “The Kingdom,” should be charging royalty fees.
But despite the efforts of a rough and ready cast, “Session 9″ never freezes the blood as only the best horror can. It also has stiff competition from “The Others,” which is certainly the best fright fest we’ll be seeing this year.
Peter Mullan, who was shown in The Claim to be a master of muted male pain, plays Gordon Fleming, head of a small hazardous waste removal company in Massachusetts. His business is failing and his wife has booted him out, owing to a hinted-at burst of domestic violence. Desperate, Gordon underbids and is awarded one hell of a gig: stripping asbestos out of the monstrous, abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital. (One hardly needs host Linda Blair to tell us Danvers is indeed the Scariest Place on Earth.)
Gordon ropes in his good-natured buddy Phil (David Caruso). Phil has girlfriend-theft issues with the arrogant Hank (Josh Lucas). Hank busts hard on Gordon’s dimwit nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III). And Mike (co-writer Stephen Gevedon) – well, Mike ends up messing with an old reel-to-reel tape machine that he really should have left alone, freeing unquiet spirits and all that that implies. When you hear a little girl’s voice floating down a clammy corridor, but you don’t see any girl. . .watch your back.
The real star of “Session 9,” however, is the gigantic edifice of the Danvers hospital (that’s the real name of the place; no relation to the Mrs. in Rebecca). It’s rare for a project to be written and designed so specifically to take place in one real-world location. But without it, there’s no movie. Only high ærial shots can convey the immensity of Danvers, which was built in the 1860s and left to rot a hundred years later, too beautiful to demolish, to massive to ever find a use for. In the film someone describes it as a “giant bat,” as the wings stretch out for what look like miles on either side. The mansion in The Haunting wouldn’t cut it as an outhouse to this place.
Into this seething labyrinth of dread plunge Gordon’s hapless team, and needless to say, few make it out alive.
DP Uta Briesewitz effectively captures the creepy vibes, though the use of Sony’s new 24P HD cameras doesn’t work as well here as it did for the recent Jackpot. The images look smeary and muddy and a bit blurred, which works fine, but overall lack the sickly hothouse death-drip of “The Kingdom.” (It remains to be seen how digi-director George Lucas will fare next year with his newest Fox special, “Star Wars: When Clones Attack.”)
For all its atmosphere, “Session 9″ rarely burrows under your skin. It’s never cheap, but it’s also never quite as scary as it thinks it is; the buildups invariably lead to letdowns. It tries hard, though – too hard, with aggressive music and sound effects that alternate between eerie and irritating. (Not to mention that the music supervisor is listed as one Carson Daly – now that is scary.)
Anderson has another romantic comedy, “Happy Accidents,” on the way soon. His heart appears to be in “Session 9″; it’s an intelligently made piece of work. But great horror needs to go all the way, not shrink from inflicting damage, not fear being cruel to the audience. The underrated Stir of Echoes almost went there, but a true classic like The Exorcist leaps headlong at your eyeballs.
“Session 9″ does administer a few hearty pinpricks. It’s just a pity that in the end it loses its nerve.

Posted on August 10, 2001 in Reviews by

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