Friday, December 01, 2006
Movies: Location, location, location.
There are many flicks that get a qualitative upgrade from fair to great on the strength of strong casting choices. Though academic-fashion has often made it the norm to think of directors as owning a film, certainly the success of Casablanca is due more the top-notch work of a stellar cast – Boogie, Bergman, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre – than to the efficient but uninspired directorial skills of Michael Curtiz. The opposite is also true: talented directors can take indifferent material and fashion it into something truly amazing. Hitchcock, for example, had something like the cinematic equivalent of the Midas touch. Who still reads the book Psycho? (To be fair, Hitchcock’s casting was often perfect; but even on films were the stars were of a grade below Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, he managed to craft classics.) There are also films that rise above the limitations of director and cast on the strength of the story (and by story, I don’t necessarily mean a literary aspect of the script – a strong story might be a simple one that has a powerful emotional impact). These are less common, but I think they do exist. Often, they’re cult artifacts. For me, The Blair Witch Project is an example of this. There little direction to speak of and the acting is nothing to write home about. Instead, its power comes from the fact that the story itself taps into this primal fear of getting lost.
Considerably fewer films can claim to have been pushed over the fair/great divide on the strength of its setting. One of this rare breed is the excellent Session 9. Filmed on location at the abandoned Danvers State Insane Asylum in Massachusetts, Session 9 is rises above what would have been a perfectly fine ghost story and becomes one of the best flicks in “haunted” sub-genre.
The plot is fairly simple: a hazmat team has been called to Danvers (playing itself in the flick) to clean up the old pile in anticipation for its rejuvenation as the new town hall. The crew is packed with familiar blue-collar archetypes: the old boss who might be losing his touch, his trust right hand man, the new kid, the bookish guy, and the smart-ass. Since this is in Massachusetts, much of it is plaid with an Irish working man touch – but these characters could populate ranks of any crew doing thankless labor anywhere. The actors filling out these somewhat generic work boots do a fine job (including Caruso of NYPD Blue fame and the kid who played Warren in Empire Records), but their roles are fairly limited.
(As an aside, I realized how nice it is to see adults in a horror film. There’s something about the expectations of grown professionals that gives the horror extra punch. One can imagine an alternate universe where the characters of Session 9 were punk kids trespassing on the site to smokus the dopus and engage in criminal acts of vandalism as well as morally questionable pre-marital sex. They would, of course, getting in all manner supernatural shit and be dispatched. However, in that other universe, the famed slasher ethos makes the whole exercise laughable. Punk kids do stupid things and get whacked. That’s how things work in horror movies. There’s something creepier about adult men doing the job that they’re supposed to and, unwittingly, coming face to face with the monstrous.)
Over the course of the next week, the ominous hospital and its sinister past begin to close in our working class heroes. Their personalities begin to fray. In the tradition of movies like the The Haunting, it is unclear whether the characters are being haunted or whether they are simply falling apart. To parallel the general disintegration of the hospital and the team, Brainy discovers a series of nine audio-taped therapy sessions with a former asylum inmate. Over the course of the film, this patient’s bizarre history will intersect with the fate of our heroes. Things come to a head when one of the workers, Smartass (of course – it was gonna be him or New Kid), disappears.
In several ways, Session 9 is a fair film. The plot drags in the beginning, but eventually finds its groove and builds to a suitably taut climax. The dialogue is realistic, if prone to occasionally stalling out in the sort of working-stiff monologues that creative types think passes as the hard-won wisdom of the laboring classes. The acting, while not spectacular, is probably better than it needs to be. The real star, for me, of Session 9 is Danvers itself. Danvers is a place blessed with an awesome excess of personality. And, knowing they had a star on their hands, the filmmakers treat Danvers something like the way von Sternberg treated Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. The camera wallows on every beautifully squalid detail of the building, turning it into the greatest single horror set since Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Like the ancestral home of the Ushers, Danvers is practically the plot of the film writ large. Every detail of the place practically hums with dark menace and dread. From meat hooks in the kitchen to the broken windows throughout, it seems like it was built to scare. (After seeing the film, it is hard to imagine anybody actually being treated in the place.) Danvers takes a fair film and makes it a great one.
I really dug Session 9 and, using the highly experimental Commonwealth of Virginia Area Codes Film Ranking System, I’m giving it solid 703.