Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Blair Witch anomaly excepted, intelligent low-budget independent and foreign horror films are the orphans of the theatrical market, too obscure for the multiplex and largely dismissed by the arthouse crowd, which has a knee-jerk disdain for cheap genre films. Last year brought a surfeit of riches for horror fans, including a pair of knotty psychological thrillers from Japan (Audition and Cure), a witty coming-of-age allegory from Canada (Ginger Snaps), and two exemplary American haunted-house movies, one (The Others) that flourished with studio backing and another (Session 9) that barely found a projector. Most of these films have to wait for a cult audience on video, which doesn't segregate the market so severely and allows enough time for word of mouth to take hold. Lovingly produced, with insightful commentary, a restored subplot, a storyboard-to-screen comparison, and a documentary about its eerie asylum setting, the DVD of Brad Anderson's Session 9 seems to anticipate a second chance. Plundering liberally from Don't Look Now and The Shining, Anderson and co-writer/star Stephen Gevedon incorporate the troubled history of a real abandoned mental hospital into a psychological space akin to The Shining's Overlook Hotel. In the Jack Nicholson role, Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe) mingles gentleness with coiled menace as the head of an asbestos-abatement crew that wins a low bid to clean out the Danvers Hospital, a labyrinthine institution built in 1871 and shut down during the Reagan era. Like the infectious dust particles that drift through the air, the place slowly takes root in the workers' systems and leads to increasingly erratic behavior. As Mullan's second-in-charge conspires to undermine his authority, one man finds a stash of mysterious old coins, and another neglects a mullet-haired trainee while listening to disturbing old session tapes involving a woman with multiple personalities. In homage to Don't Look Now, Anderson fractures a key portion of the narrative into jagged shards, dropping clues to a dark secret through unsettling bits of image and sound. Session 9 takes too much time to get going—like The Shining, it dawdles in expository lore—and the various subplots don't fit together as snugly as they should. But Anderson and his first-rate cast make the most of their location. The hospital seems to dictate every aspect of the production by emitting a sense of dread that creeps into the detailed soundtrack, the languid camera movements, and the disquieting performances. Like many great haunted-house movies, Session 9 animates a maze of back rooms and corridors using nothing more than the fearful imagination of the characters and the audience.

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