Saturday, October 4, 2008

Night 4: Session 9

Well, folks, my little psych experiment is underway in earnest now. I spent most of last night too creeped out to get much sleep and I have a very underrated film from 2001 called Session 9 to thank for it. [•REC] was a scary thrill ride that left me breathless and tense. Session 9, on the other hand, creates a slow building dread for which it provides no adequate release, leaving its effects to linger long after the credits have rolled.

This was my second viewing of the film, but it had been years since my first and I was curious to see whether my initial impressions would hold up. In fact, the "haunting" effect was substantially more dramatic this time around because I did not have to focus on figuring out exactly what is going on in the film's second half.

Session 9 derives much of its power and oppressive atmosphere from its fantastic setting--the very real, and very spooky Danvers State Insane Asylum. Long abandoned, and finally torn down in 2006, Danvers gave director Brad Anderson a ready-made nightmare location and he makes very good use of it.

As with [•REC] I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, other than to say it involves a hazmat crew attempting to render safe a place better left alone. Given the asylum's size and history, it might have been tempting for Anderson to populate it with hundreds of spooks and hobgoblins, but instead he wisely focuses on a single "presence," somehow connected to the case history of a little girl with multiple personality disorder. One of the crew members, a failed law student named Mike (played by Steve Gevedon, who also wrote the screenplay), finds a box of tapes documenting the girl's increasingly more disassociative psychotherapy sessions with an unnamed shrink, and he periodically sneaks away from his work to listen in. With each session, Anderson and Gevedon give another turn of the screw to parallel events within the film, until we reach, at last, the catastrophic "Session 9."

On the suface, Session 9 is not particularly frightening. Nobody is going to be jumping out of their seat, or hiding their eyes at any point in the film. The gore is minimal, and even the suspense level never strays above a low simmer. At first viewing, the end seems rather anti-climactic and contrived, even nonsensical. If you watch this film and find yourself confused or frustrated, a post on the imdb message boards by someone calling themselves infernus006 should clear everything up for you (although his explanation of the "presence" is only one of several possible interpretations). But the plot is almost beside the point. By using a restraint that is rare in American filmmaking, Anderson allows his evocative images and sounds and scenarios to mostly speak for themselves, trusting that they will haunt viewers inclined to be haunted. I certainly was.

Of course, it didn't help that after I finished watching Session 9, long after everyone else in my house had gone to bed, I got online and started perusing pictures of Danvers. Apparently, there is a whole network of people who explore and document abandoned structures. You can tour through the cemetery, with its ominous markers bearing nothing but numbers; you can creep through the crumbling hallways, and even view some of the inmate artwork that people found there. Beneath Danvers is a warren a tunnels waiting for the truly intrepid. Anderson made effective use of these tunnels in his movie; a better tangible metaphor for the subconscious I have never encountered and though I survived the night and type this now in the bright light of morning, somehow I can't shake the feeling that a part me walks there still.

Danvers also provides a nice seque for tonight's film, The Call of Cthulu. This 2005 film is based on a 1928 short story by H.P. Lovecraft, the grandfather of "weird fiction" and an author who just happened to feature Danvers in several of his other stories ("Pickman's Model," "Herbert West Reanimator" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"). Lovecraft also almost certainly used Danvers as the model for "Arkham Asylum," one of his signature settings and, in turn, the inspiration for the Arkham Asylum in the Batman comics.

Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
Scare Factor:

My psychological status:
tired, disturbed, but ready for more.

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