While I found The Blair Witch Project to be flawed at best, it did bring hope for an end to the fad of post-ironic slasher garbage masquerading as horror movies. Did it? Since then we seem to have only been cursed only with empty MTV-style monstrosities like Lost Souls and Dracula 2000 from hacks with no clue about what it takes to really scare an audience. Could the inhabitants of the indie-film world bring any respite?
Well, God bless ’em, a few are going to try. First up is Brad Anderson, the writer/director of “Next Stop Wonderland” and “Happy Accidents” with his new horror flick, “Session 9.” I can’t reveal too much about it or it would ruin the surprise. I can tell you the setup, though:
Peter (The Claim, “My Name is Joe”) Mullan stars as Gordon Fleming and he’s got problems. He and his wife just had a kid and Gordo’s asbestos removal company is in trouble. The first big problem is his crew. Hank (Josh Lucas) just stole the girlfriend of his foreman, Phil (David Caruso), while the odd Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is looking to put his life back together and go back to school. Of course, if they don’t land a big gig soon, they’ll all be out of work.
What does the boss decide to do? He takes on the huge job of cleaning up the 130-year-old Danvers State Mental Hospital just outside of Boston. Closed for 15 years, Gordon and his crew are in for a big bonus if they can clean it up in one week. There’s just one problem. There may be something far nastier than asbestos in there as these men find they have something other than their own personal demons to worry about.
What might that be? I’m not telling. What I will do however is go over with you the criteria by which I tend to judge horror movies. The goals and necessary techniques for success in this genre are a little different from other films. For one to work, it requires a great deal of attention and psychological involvement on the part of the viewer. What does it take to accomplish this? Let’s have a look:
THE SIX MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF A HORROR FILM ^ (in no particular order)
1) FAMILIARITY OF SETTING AND CHARACTERS ^ If you want to get inside people’s heads, the task is made much easier by using both place and characters with which the audience can easily identify. As the demographic for 19th-century titled aristocracy living in castles is rather small — something a little more modern will make the job easier. The Exorcist ushered in the modern, often transgressive era of horror by using a modern broken family in an urban house that looked like the kind of places in which the viewer might live. ^ While the insane asylum in “Session 9” may be a mainstay more on late-night television than in the average person’s life, most adults can relate to a group of blue-collar guys with real adult problems facing an uncertain future. For this trait the film so far rates 1 out of 6.
2) NO “SCOOBY-DOO” CRAP ^ A good horror film should rattle around in your head for awhile after you see it. One way to do this is to pose ambiguous questions that the viewers must answer themselves. You know, questions like, “WHAT THE F**K WAS THAT?!?!?” If the monster turns out to be some idiot in a mask who explains all of his shenanigans like a bad Bond villain, most people will forget what they just watched as soon as the credits role. However, if the thing in the dark is only seen and heard in glimpses and not really explained, the viewer will have to complete the picture of the film’s boogeyman in their head. Wasn’t Freddy Kreuger much scarier before he became a bad stand-up comedian? Apparently it’s always open-mike night in Hell. ^ Don’t expect to see old man Carruthers in a ghost outfit in “Session 9.” It’s just not that kind of movie. I will admit the end provides a little more payoff than The Blair Witch Project, and it does re-contextualize much of what you’ve seen over the course of the film. However, there’s enough ambiguity to provide at least three distinct explanations for what’s happened and you could very well be the night after trying to determine which one of those is right. For that bit of insomnia the movie now earns at least a 2 out of 6.
3) (RESTRAINT OF) EDITING ^ Editing is one of those arts that isn’t so easy to explain to someone. However, a couple of years ago I heard a pretty good description relating to those 3-D films they show at IMAX theaters. One thing they realized when they began making them is that every time you cut from one shot to another, it would take a moment for the viewer’s brain to process the new images and construct the 3-D picture in their heads. Too many cuts in too short a period of time can actually induce “cognitive dissonance,” which is the cause of motion sickness. Generally, puking is not the desired response someone wants from their movie. ^ Horror films have a similar situation. As a filmmaker, you want the audience to buy what’s happening at an unconscious level. As real life has little in the way of jumpcuts, any rapid series of cuts sends the subconscious message to the viewer that they’re only watching a movie (and usually a bad one at that). The Exorcist employs very precise editing that never overly calls attention to itself. The Blair Witch Project succeeds partially from the extended video takes. If there was much in the way of cuts in that film, the audience would much more clearly see how much the filmmakers are f*****g with their heads. ^ The editing never drew attention to itself in “Session 9” until the very end when the final twist made me re-examine everything I had seen over the previous 90-minutes. Still, I’ll go ahead and give it 3 out of 6.
4) WHAT’S THAT SOUND? ^ At least half of any horror film is the sound. Back before the days of CGI when Hollywood had only primitive makeup FX technology, filmmakers had to rely largely on sound to make an audience jump. Strange creaks, weird voices,… all this s**t still works because that’s the kind of stuff that can freak us out in our own homes. Go to any of your favorite scary movies and just listen to your favorite scenes with your eyes closed. You might find much of the effect was caused by what you heard and not what you actually saw. Part of the brilliance of The Exorcist is that whenever the craziness starts up in the daughter’s room, you always hear it first, then get a tracking shot to her bedroom door, and then you get to see something really messed up. It doesn’t take too long before the smallest sound can trigger the dread/exhilaration at what you might see. ^ Let me tell you, “Session 9” is all about the sound. One element that is part of the movie’s structure is series of 9 (yes 9) tapes left in a box marked “evidence” found by Mike. You just know he can’t help but listen to them. The contents of those tapes are some (but not all) of the creepiest things you hear in the film. So far we’ve got 4 out of 6.
5) NO (OR VERY LIMITED) OPTICALS OR CGI ^ You can take your computer-generated dinosaurs and shove ’em up your a*s. Does anyone out there really think either The Exorcist or John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” would have been even remotely improved by using modern CGI technology? Did anyone find the recent remake of The Haunting as anything other than laughable? I didn’t think so. I don’t whether it’s because details like surface textures or matching the lighting in the composite shots aren’t quite there yet, but whenever some monster is just computer generated, you just kind of know. Any kind of camera trick usually calls attention to itself as well. Hell, a 19-year-old Rob Bottin accomplished heights on “The Thing” that still haven’t been surpassed 20 years later. ^ Refreshingly, “Session 9” is free of opticals or CG of any kind. However, it’s markedly free of real gore as well, though the makeup effects that are there are very well used. For this act of self-restraint we’re now up to 5 out of 6.
6) IS IT SCARY? ^ You know, if a movie actually scares you, then none of the other stuff I mentioned really matters. Horror films are kind of unique in that they’re best viewed not with an audience but probably alone at night in an empty house. This is the kind of cinema experience that isn’t necessarily communal. A large audience can act as a sort of buffer zone from the action on the screen. There’s safety in numbers. Horror can exist only in a personal relationship between the film and YOU. If you find it scary, then for you it was a good horror flick. As for “Session 9”, I’d have to say it’s fairly effective. The ending might be disappointing to some, but it will make you think. On the level of just a movie I may be a little generous in giving it 4 out of 5 stars. But on the benchmarks of horror it definitely comes out ahead on all six points, and the last is the only one that really matters. In these terror-starved times that’s an accomplishment itself.