Tag Archives: Brad Anderson

CAPSULE: SESSION 9 (2001)

DIRECTED BY:  Brad Anderson

FEATURING: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, , Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III

PLOT: A hazmat crew removing asbestos from an abandoned asylum uncover secrets about the long-dead but deeply disturbed residents—and, arguably, more chilling secrets about each other.

Still from Session 9 (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The weirdometer registers only trace amounts of bizarrity in this eerie, complex psychological horror.  It’s worth a viewing for fright fans, but not thanks to its strangeness.

COMMENTS: Before Session 9, director Brad Anderson was best known (if he was known at all) for his romantic comedies.  Anderson co-fashioned Session 9‘s complicated, haunted script to take advantage of the availability of an abandoned mental institution, a dream location to shoot a horror movie, and wound up finding a more successful niche as a specialist in psychological suspense.  Disdaining shock violence and other teen horror tropes, Session 9 hoes a tougher row by creating its suspense through characterization, hidden secrets, and (for the most part) by encouraging the audience to imagine unspeakable carnage rather than to get off on seeing it laid out in splattery crimson glory.  The idea here is to throw five average Joes into a pressure cooker situation (finishing a three-week asbestos removal job in one week) inside a suggestively creepy locale, and let the tension build organically as they begin to crack under the stress.  Gordon is the most preoccupied of the bunch: he may lose his struggling business if he doesn’t complete this contract on time, and he’s got a newborn baby back home to feed.  Phil, his right hand man, has his own tense dynamic with the obnoxious Hank: they share an uncomfortable history with a common woman.  Mullet-headed young Jeff is the neophyte kid who gets picked on by the others, and Mike is the thoughtful guy who’s too good for this job (for unknown reasons, he’s dropped out of law school to schlep around in a hazmat suit).  The characterizations aren’t deep, but they’re efficient; we know these guys, we get their conflicting agendas.  Mike’s discovery of old tape recordings of hypnotherapy with a schizophrenic woman—reels labeled sessions 1 to 9—provides a parallel dramatic line, as we periodically hear a tranquil doctor probe the mind of a psychopathic woman with buried issues that may continue to haunt the hosptal’s halls to this day.  Like the Overlook Hotel in Session 9‘s closest ancestor, The Shining, the empty spaces of the asylum are virtually a separate character (there are plenty of tracking shots down abandoned corridors to remind us of ‘s horror).  The grounds are full of memories of the departed: Satanist graffiti scrawled on the walls by the teens who broke in to party there on weekends, old mementos and clippings pasted onto the walls of the patients rooms, and broken bric-a-brac left there by the long-gone staff and by homeless squatters.  Everything is linked by dark, dank underground tunnels connecting the various buildings.  It would be almost impossible to shoot a film in this setting that didn’t raise at least a couple of hairs on the back of your neck, and Anderson’s restrained direction and the ensembles’ paranoiac acting ably amplify the institution’s inherent creepiness.  The ending is too obvious to qualify as a twist, and I wish Anderson had shown Kubrick’s courage to go shamelessly over-the-top every now and then, but Session 9 satisfies as a mature, eerie, and mostly quiet horror—a type of film that’s all too rare nowadays.  What could be scarier than an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of ghosts?  The answer: an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of schizophrenic ghosts.

The asylum in the movie, Danvers State Hospital, was a real abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts. It holds the dubious honor of being known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy (a fact referenced in the movie), and later became infamous for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of its inmates.  Most of the buildings on the sprawling campus were torn down in 2006 to construct an apartment complex.  The units burned down in 2007 in a mysterious fire, though they were soon rebuilt.  A 12-minute featurette on the DVD documents the cruel history of the institution.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Save for the disappointing finale, Session 9 proves to be a remarkably spare journey into the confines of the mind and a unique evocation of just how terrifying it is to loose one’s mind.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jack Mort.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: VANISHING ON 7th STREET (2010)

DIRECTED BY:  Brad Anderson

FEATURING: Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, , Jordan Trovillion

PLOT: Several people take refuge in a city tavern when Detroit is inexplicably

Still from Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

plunged into darkness; simultaneously, most of the city’s population has mysteriously vanished.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Vanishing On 7th Street is a straightforward sci-fi horror flick.  The premise is uniquely weird, but the movie itself is not.

COMMENTS:  Something unknown has struck the city of Detroit.  Something just … well just awful!  All the lights have gone out, but batteries, small generators, and solar cells still work.  Except that capacitor function is mysteriously waning, and there is dramatically less and less sunlight every day.

Even more disturbing is the fact that nearly everyone has suddenly vanished into thin air leaving only clothing and synthetic personal effects behind, such as eyeglasses, pacemakers and false teeth.  Suits and dresses lie empty, still bearing the shapes of the people who were wearing them, right where they stood or sat when they disappeared.  Driver-less vehicles careen into obstacles and un-piloted planes fall from the sky.

A brightly lit bar on 7th Street that is still powered thanks to a backup generator draws several people who survived the vanishing.  It seems to be the only reserve generator still running, and it is starting to die despite adequate fuel.

What is this inky blackness that is spreading like a kerosene slick, slithering out of cracks and crevices, creeping up from grates, and oozing into open spaces where it devours people?

7th Street has a lot of potential, but the filmmakers try to make the characters “accessible” by having them behave irrationally.  Ironically, it’s therefore difficult to have empathy for them. This is not the fault of the actors, who all deliver competent performances.

A lot of film time that could be devoted to exploring the vanishing phenomenon and to other, even scarier scenarios is wasted with senseless action, bickering and characters waxing maudlin.  The survivors spend a lot of time arguing and doing very stupid, counterproductive things.

Disappointingly, they fail to do the obvious.  Despite the fact that light is protecting them from the darkness, it never occurs to them to build a raging bonfire.  Desperately scavenging old batteries, they never have a flash of insight to raid the Duracell racks at the nearest Walgreens.  One day I would like to see brighter, more pragmatic people being challenged in a horror movie.

On the other hand, if something really happened such as what we see depicted in Vanishing On 7th Street, the film’s participants would probably be typical, given the cross section of the population I observe daily who cannot complete a simple ATM transaction in under 15 minutes.  Perhaps merit in the choice of characters depends upon whether one expects good drama or fictional “documentary.”

The story in Vanishing has a few plot holes, but the basic idea is good and creepy.  Despite wishing I had a fast forward button handy at times, the film mostly kept my attention and gave me goosebumps.

You may not find Vanishing On 7th Street to be the most thoughtful horror movie you have ever seen, but it is still fun.  It is worth a peek for any but the most discriminating horror fans.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s especially maddening about Vanishing on 7th Street is that there are some interesting elements to the film; they just get completely overlooked by the story. Much of the movie is kind of a weird version of the rapture, but its religious imagery is perfunctory and without any real thought behind it.”–Sean Gandert, Paste Magazine (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE MACHINIST (2004)

DIRECTED BYBrad Anderson

FEATURING: Christian Bale, , Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, John Sharian

PLOT: A troubled man tries to solve the riddle of his fragmented existence as he becomes

Still from The Machinist (2004)

increasingly tormented by strange visions and apparitions.

WHY IT ‘S ON THE BORDERLINE: The events which unfold in The Machinist are hard to wrap one’s mind around.  It is difficult to ascertain what is real and what is unreal.  Other, more cleverly thought-out films, have handled this same premise with more finesse, however.

COMMENTS:  Honestly? I liked this movie much better THE FIRST NINE TIMES I SAW IT! When it was called:

Dead and Buried (1981), and
Final Approach (1991), and
The Sixth Sense (1991), and
Crazy As Hell (2002), and
The Return (2003), and
Stay (2005), and
Dark Corners (2006), and
Salvage (2006), and
Cold Storage (2006).

The Machinist is a well made Spanish puzzler that waxes somewhat melodramatic.  However, the triggering event for its basic premise, while not overly preachy, is well, kinda damn preachy.  Additionally, somebody should have told the filmmakers that this plot has been produced before (OK, nearly every plot has been previously used one way or another. To wit: Brett Sullivan’s The Chair is basically The Skeleton Key or Child’s Play repackaged, but the premise of The Machinist has been done a LOT.  As such, redoing it yet again demands a very fresh take, and an unconventional handling of the idea).

In The Machinist Christian Bale plays, you guessed it, an industrial machinist who lives and works in a creepy industrial park (the movie was filmed in Barcelona, so you bet they found an imposing-looking one, although a similar location in Bilbao might have been even more grim.)  Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE MACHINIST (2004)