Tag Archives: Josh Lucas

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: DAYDREAM NATION (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Goldbach

FEATURING: , Reece Thompson, Josh Lucas, Andie MacDowell, Ted Whittall

PLOT: A teenage girl and her dad move to a small town populated with drug-addled teenagers and a mysterious serial killer. Feeling alienated and struggling to make friends, she sees a fellow intellectual outcast in her English teacher and decides to seduce him, while her bumbling classmate Thurston starts to fall for her.

Still from Daydream Nation (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though its dark undertones, nonlinear format, and attempts to comment on the violence and sexiness apparently inherent to small-town teenagers have garnered comparisons to Donnie Darko and Twin Peaks, this is just an angsty, poorly-scripted knockoff with very little true weirdness.

COMMENTS: Narrated by the gorgeous Kat Dennings, who switches back and forth between her recent past and the present, Daydream Nation attempts to mesh poignant high school drama with erratic comedy and suburban darkness.  Caroline, our protagonist, is intelligent and disaffected, often sneaking in awkwardly sophisticated references that her peers don’t understand.  She embarks on a relationship with her teacher on a lark, in an effort to try something new and become a different person for a while; the unstable Mr. Anderson quickly becomes obsessively infatuated with her.  Their relationship falters as Caroline starts responding to the advances of Thurston (Reece Thompson), a druggie classmate mourning the recent death of a friend.  These core proceedings are surrounded by a lingering industrial fire, serial killings, parental interventions, and a ghost or two.

Seemingly shot entirely through a high-contrast haze, the film offers a few visual treats but nothing in the way of ingenuity.  The same can be said for the script, which has a few shining moments of interest but lingers in derivative mediocrity for most of the runtime.  Writer/director Michael Goldbach doesn’t seem to have much confidence in his ability to tell a story, inundating us with unnecessary amounts of narration and several needless plot devices.  The central character of Caroline—while played wonderfully by Kat Dennings—suffers the most. The best parts of the film involve her speaking her mind, calling out the hypocrisy and sexism of those around her, but these scenes are immediately followed by the character chastising herself in private, thinking herself a “bitch” just because she spoke the truth. It’s as if Goldbach wanted to write a strong female character, but then lost his momentum and copped out to typical gender stereotypes.

Daydream Nation aims for subtlety, but comes out with blaring obviousness thanks to the clumsy pacing and script. The performances from Dennings, Thompson, Lucas, and MacDowell are solid, but can’t save the ridiculous dialogue or self-indulgent shooting style (not that I’m complaining about the myriad drawn-out, close-up shots of Dennings, but really, it’s all a bit much). And it isn’t even that weird!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…rolls elements of ‘Juno,’ ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Donnie Darko’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ into a potent blunt.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)