USA 2001 : Brad Anderson : 97 mins
Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is a no-nonsense Scotsman in charge of a Massachusetts asbestos-removal firm. Desperate for cash after the birth of his baby daughter, he promises the local authorities that he can clean up a vast, dilapidated mental hospital within a week and sets to work along with four employees – fiery Phil (David Caruso), rich-kid Mike (Stephen Gevedon, who collaborated with Anderson on the script), cocky Hank (Josh Lucas) and stoner Jeff (Brendan Sexton III). But the hospital’s creepy atmosphere – and tales of its blood-soaked past – soon set the men’s nerves on edge, and they start to wonder whether the place is as empty and harmless as it first appears.
The vast, bat-shaped, Civil War-era institute is a a terrific set, and it’s a real place: the Danvers State Hospital. Even that name is perfect, evoking the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, who presided over the vast, possibly haunted mansion of Manderley. And Session 9 is, essentially, an old-fashioned haunted-house movie, with a few modern psychological tweaks that mean we’re never sure whether the phantoms are old-school spooks or the demons of psychotic dementia.
The technology involved is, however, decisively cutting-edge: director Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz make impressive use of the latest sophistical digital cameras, the peculiarities of DV actually adding to the impact. The colours are slightly faded, the sound is piercingly crisp, the images powerfully immediate, as we glide around this building with its endless sub-divisions of space. And there are some divertingly arty shots outside the institute: menacing close-ups of insects and spiders in the surrounding greenery; fleshy white clouds billowing over the institute like a vast shroud.
But the classy veneer can’t compensate for an under-developed script, fatally flawed by hinging on a ‘shock’ revelation which even the most inattentive viewer should be able to deduce very early on. While there are several sequences of claustrophobic, undeniably effective tension along the way, the fundamental problems prevent any accumulation of genuine suspense. We’re free to ponder on the countless gaps in the plot – starting with the fact that, in what is supposed to be a hugely time-pressured clean-up operation, the guys seem to do nothing but take breaks, allowing Mike to spend long periods listening to recordings of the therapy sessions of past inmates.
These tapes contain some very creepy voices, but it’s never clear why Mike becomes so obsessed with deciphering their message – just one of the countless questions and red herrings left hanging in the chaotic finale. “I’m a little confused here, man,” complains a late-arriving newcomer – and by this stage, we know exactly how he feels.
26th April 2002
(seen 11th April, De Balie, Amsterdam : 18th Fantastic Film Festival)
by Neil Young
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