Although aimed at restoring the psychological horror movie to full life after years of dormancy, “Session 9” is little more than an overworked exercise in jostling red herrings, and not particularly fresh herrings at that. In his fourth feature (third released), writer-director-editor Brad Anderson courageously strikes out here into a field far from the well-observed human comedy that characterized his breakthrough pic, “Next Stop, Wonderland.” Anderson’s soon-to-be-released comedy, “Happy Accidents,” made before “Session 9” (and which premiered at last year’s Sundance), may wipe away all memory of this bummer, destined for a brutally short theatrical existence before it comes back to life in the friendlier confines of widescreen video and DVD.
The second release in less than a month (after “Jackpot”) to be shot with Sony’s CineAlta HD digital video cameras recording at 24 frames per second, “Session 9” is most noteworthy as part of the early wave of latest-generation digital cinema, deploying the technology to a low-budget scale that George Lucas is using for his upcoming “Star Wars: Episode II.”
But while the new process eliminates one irritating factor that has long made the standard 30 fps digital video an inferior alternative to film — visible image flicker, especially noticeable during camera moves — it still has far to go aesthetically: True registers in the full color spectrum remain elusive, especially the all-important area of flesh tones . While absolute blacks and whites also are outside the range of these cameras, pic’s image in dark, shadowy corridors is perhaps the best yet in the new video age. However, what works most against this story is the video image’s artificial, “electronic” texture, hardly eliminated by the 24 fps innovation.
While the brave new world of digi-cinema is unimpressively cracking open, the pesky old-world problems of story, drama and character persist, and while pic works up a nervously eerie paranoia, it finally doesn’t know what to do with what it sets up. What begins with the deliberate unbalance of “Don’t Look Now” resolves as a low-minded shocker that Clive Barker might hand off to one of his sycophants.
Fresh premise intros asbestos-cleaning crew run by Gordon (Peter Mullan), who relies on his right-hand man, Phil (David Caruso). Gordon’s firm needs business, so he promises Bill (Paul Guilfoyle), municipal engineer for the town of Danvers, Mass., that his outfit can remove asbestos from the rotting insides of the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital in a week. The hospital facility is so massive that it requires aerial shots to take it all in; not even a team of five supermen could do the job in a week, so right off, there’s something clearly off about Gordon, which Mullan indicates with an itchy air of desperation.
And supermen these are not: Below Phil, there’s former law student Mike (co-writer Stephen Gevedon), blue-collar cynic Hank (Josh Lucas) and Gordon’s nephew, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), who has never worked on asbestos cleanup before and, if that’s not enough, is afraid of the dark — a real problem, since the guys are about to sweep up one dark and gloomy place.
With interiors full of flaking paint, stagnant water and the enveloping sense of rot, it feels as if Gordon’s team has walked into a widescreen version of one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s clammy, sepulchral sets, like the murky spaces in “Nostalgia.” Actually, Mike seems to know all about what happened here, from endless tortures of mental patients to cases of supposed satanic ritual, and his account plants seeds of fear in everyone.
Hank already bugs all-pro Phil, but now it gets worse, and the men start sniping. Jeff can hardly seem to turn on a simple motor, Gordon starts sweating a bit, and Mike just happens to find the sealed evidence file on the satanic ritual case, containing hours of creepy audiotapes.
Like the evil sick ward of Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom” and the malevolent Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” the complex holds so much human misery and horror inside of it that it touches anyone hanging around too long. Who it will touch the deepest, and how they’ll react, is the supposed suspense, but Anderson’s direction — and most critically, his own editing — give away the answers at an absurdly early phase, and any number of Maguffins thrown into the mix are hardly enough distraction.
Anderson’s and Gevedon’s script displays a healthy dislike of easy metaphysical explanations for the terrors that ensue, and pic delights in linking the crew with the unseen forces by purely visual and aural means. But the lack of imagination, especially in the final 30 minutes, makes even the attempts at genre credibility an empty gesture in the end.
Though the quality of ensemble chamber drama is a step above — for example, the group schisms of crews in the “Alien” series — thesps hardly distract us from wondering why guys who are apparently in the midst of a massive, impossible rush job have so much time to sit around and snipe at each other. With a supporting crew that is never possible to take seriously, Mullan and Caruso are asked to do the heavy lifting, and they are best at raising the paranoid temperature.
The synthetic quality of the high-definition image, even when transferred to film, leaves one wishing that pic’s extensive and relentless use of the decaying building as a central character had been captured on celluloid, but it doesn’t lessen designer Sophie Carlhian’s achievement in literally deconstructing a gigantic interior space. Lisle Houston Engle’s sound design turns the psychological screws, and the score by band Climax Golden Twins creates its own atonal mental soundscapes.