Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Session 9

I avoided Session 9 for the same reason I avoid women: I really can't bear to fall in love again.

This is one of those flicks people talk about with wide, wary eyes. They tell you that Session 9 doesn't mess around. It doesn't do cheap jump scares and over-the-top gore effects and characters announcing their motivations in hackneyed screenwriter-exposition prose. It's a movie that's out to fuck you up and the kind of minds that would put something like this together lives somewhere deep in the dark.

The kind of movies I've been watching lately are popcorn. They play by the rules, they tell their little campfire tales, and you go home essentially unaffected. I can write about those because they're easy dates. I didn't want the emotional commitment of engaging in something really, really good.

The story is simple enough: A group of asbestos cleaners take a job cleaning the Danvers Mental Institution. As the week drags on the characters get bound up in despair and madness until shit goes down. The movie recalls Kubrick's interpretation of The Shining in its use of days as narrative framing devices, the long claustrophobic hallways, and the wide shots of cavernous rooms that dwarf the characters. Honestly, the location does half the work for the directors. Anyone who has ever gone urban spelunking knows how dreadfully silent abandoned institutions can be.

It's the characters that really make the movie sizzle. Without any jump scares or obvious gore, the horror has to come from the people trapped in the house. I'm a big believer that the best haunted house movies work because the characters are just as haunted as the places they visit. The four middle-aged men and young trainee who take the renovation job aren't wisecracking, beautiful post-teens off the assembly line, but real blue-collar men whose lives lead them into a dangerous line of work and who engage with each other in practical, honest terms. We rarely get to spend time with characters this rich and it's a rewarding experience. It passes my high bar for horror characterization, which is that you can remove the horror elements and tell these character's story as an engaging drama. Very few horror movies, even the classics, can stand up to that scrutiny.

After the movie was over, my brain was on fire. I wanted to make out with this movie. I wanted to awkwardly fumble around under its clothes, I wanted to push myself through its skin and be a part of it. I want to share it with my friends, if only to creep the hell out of them.

Session 9 is absolutely my kind of movie. It plays fair, it avoids any obvious genre cliches, it's shot with macabre artistry, it creates characters you fall in love with, and it descends into absolute, nihilistic horror without apologizing or cracking jokes. Do this one right. Watch it alone in the dark.

As for me, I'm gonna check out director Brad Anderson's contribution to the Masters of Horror series, Sounds Like. Also, if you're keen on asylum-based horror, read Shadows in the Asylum, which stands as one of my favorite horror books of all time. More on this one later.


dragonmanes said...

Glad you liked Session 9, I am a big fan of Anderson's, if you didnt see The Machinist it would be a good one to add to the list as well. Sounds Like was definitely one of the better episodes in season 2, and probably the most stylish. Enjoyed the review!

Creature said...

I'm happy you liked the review. Session 9 is definitely going to be in the must-see category I pass around to my friends, as it reminds me of the character-driven horror of May. The final line about the weak and the wounded was poetic. I'm totally in love. I'll definitely check out the Machinist. I've heard so much about it, and I'm completely on board with Anderson's style.