Starring David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon
Directed by Brad Anderson
Distributed by Scream Factory
Any director with an ounce of talent can make a “scary” horror film simply by including a handful of the most low-hanging fruit available: jump scares. They’re an easy way to get a rise out of audiences, but, almost universally, they never feel earned. True terror sinks beneath the skin and makes it crawl, generating a palpable response to what the characters on screen are experiencing. Writer/director Brad Anderson felt horror was lacking films filled with a true sense of dread, so he made his own: Session 9 (2001). Set within the decaying Danvers State Hospital, located in Massachusetts, Anderson’s film is a small-scale picture that delivers big scares because the chilling effect is relatable. Universal fears, such as that of the dark, the unknown, or being watched when you’re certain no one else is around; these are the primal terrors that cause the hair on your arms to stiffen and a cold sweat to creep across the brow. There are no loud noises or ghostly entities intended to frighten viewers, instead Anderson relies on his film’s true star, Danvers, to deliver choking fear in spades.
Gordon (Peter Mullan) is a small business owner whose trade is in hazardous waste removal. He’s also a new father struggling to cope with the stress of raising an infant and keeping his wife, Wendy, happy. When the opportunity to do cleanup at the abandoned Danvers State Hospital is presented to him, Gordon makes the nearly-impossible promise of being able to complete work within the week if he wins the bid. He does. Along with Gordon is his usual crew, consisting of law school dropout Mike (Stephen Gevedon), hot headed Phil (David Caruso), envelope pusher Hank (Josh Lucas), and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), Gordon’s nephew who is new to the business and has a serious case of nyctophobia (fear of the dark). Some of the men are already at odds with each other – for example, Hank, at some point in the past, stole Phil’s girl – and the two-week job that has turned into one is only exacerbating hot tempers.
Danvers is a mammoth; labyrinthine and decrepit, the interior wings are as pitch black during the day as they are at night. While roaming around the tunnels down below, Mike comes across a recorder and a box of “sessions” – nine, to be exact – with a patient named Mary Hobbes. During these sessions a doctor is questioning Mary and her multiple personalities in an effort to piece together the fateful events of a particular Christmas night. “Princess” is Mary’s most childlike and innocent personality, while “Billy” is more protective. But it is “Simon” who the doctor is after, a facet of Mary that is unknown to “Princess” and frightens “Billy”. While on his own recon mission, Hank comes across a cache of antique coins and silver trinkets – unbeknownst to him, spilling out from the aging crematorium – with so much booty found he decides to come back later that evening.
Hank returns, but after wrapping up his plunder he is met in the dank hallways of Danvers by… someone. The next day Hank fails to show up to work. Phil offers to call Amy, their “mutual friend”, whereupon she tells him Hank broke up with her and moved to Florida; or at least, that’s what Phil tells everyone. The men continue their work but Gordon is distracted. Phil notices. As Gordon admits, a few nights earlier his wife accidentally spilled boiling water on his leg, badly burning him, and he hit her. She hasn’t spoken to him since. Phil tries to get Gordon back on track but it is clear his marital problems have taken quite a toll. He’s also been hearing a voice calling to him from within Danvers…
This is a film that excels at white knuckle tension through the use of stunning photography and deliberate pacing. Nothing, save for maybe the ending, feels rushed, with Anderson allowing the imposing nature of Danvers to whip up all the tension needed for any given scene. When Hank returns to brazenly collect his loot, fear immediately begins creeping up. Sure, logic says there isn’t anyone else in the place, save for a vagrant or two, but would you want to walk in there armed with only a flashlight? Creepy abandoned palaces are one thing; creepy abandoned palaces where people were lobotomized, tortured, or worse, is another.
Psychological horrors are far more effective and lasting than anything gruesome, at least from what I’ve seen. Here, Anderson has each of the men being affected in different ways from their stay at Danvers. Their work takes a backseat to curiosity and greed, as the hospital seems to play directly to their interests. Hank finds all that sweet coinage. Phil finds a couple of local drug dealers. Mark finds those intriguing tapes. Gordon finds respite from his home life. And Jeff, poor sweet Jeff; he doesn’t find much outside of a bad time. In a short amount of time, Danvers is able to wean these men off of their duties and control their minds, affecting their actions and interactions. The denouement works, although I somewhat agree with a few complaints about how it is handled; it could be a little smoother. But that isn’t a knock against what is unarguably one of the early millennium’s most effective, underrated chillers.
Session 9 was shot on digital before shooting on digital was the thing to do, and it shows. The 2.35:1 1080p image looks more like video than film, though it was one of the earliest features shot at 24 frames per second versus digital’s then-standard 30fps. The lack of a cinematic aesthetic mostly works in the film’s favor, however, because it adds a layer of realism, almost like a documentary. The image is nicely defined for the most part, though some wide and master shots appear inherently soft. Colors are on the dull side; likely a stylistic choice more than camera limitations. The few primary colors on display are well saturated but hardly “pop”. The aesthetic here is decidedly austere and grim, something cinematographer Uta Briesewitz perfectly captures. Black levels are on point without looking hazy or gray like some digitally lensed pictures.
Audio is carried via an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track, which is how the film was mixed for theaters. A multi-channel track could have significantly amped up the creep factor here, as there are lots of subtle spooky sounds that could have aided in immersing the viewer within Danvers, but this track gets the job done just fine. It’s clean, separation is nicely handled, and many of the ambient sounds and manipulated vocals still provide a chilling response. Subtitles are available in English.
Writer/director/editor Brad Anderson delivers a thoughtful and thorough audio commentary track.
“Return to Danvers: The Secrets of Session 9” – Anderson, Gevedon, Briesewitz, and a few others discuss the film’s origins, shooting in Danvers, crazy set stories and more. There is some great information in here, making this a must-watch for fans of the film.
“Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” – Host Sean Clark revisits Danvers, which has since been turned into condos, and he also shows off old home video footage of an unauthorized visit made before it was razed.
A number of deleted scenes and an alternate ending are included, with optional commentary by Anderson.
“Story to Screen” – Footage from the film is shown side-by-side with storyboards and behind-the-scenes footage from the set.
“The Haunted Palace” – Hear some scary stories from those who have spent time at Danvers, including members of the cast.
The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
- NEW Return to Danvers: The Secrets of SESSION 9 featuring interviews with director/co-writer Brad Anderson, actor/co-writer Stephen Gevedon, actors Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III, Larry Fessenden, composers The Climax Golden Twins and director of photography Uta Briesewitz
- NEW Horror’s Hallowed Grounds – revisiting the locations of the film
- Audio Commentary with Brad Anderson and Stephen Gevedon
- Deleted Scenes/ Alternate Ending with/without commentary by director Brad Anderson
- Story to Screen
- The Haunted Palace
- Theatrical Trailer
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 152 – Cloverfield Paradox & The Ritual
Last week Netflix shocked the world by not only releasing a new trailer for Cloverfield Paradox during the Superbowl, but announcing the film would be available to stream right after the game. In a move no one saw coming, Netflix shook the film industry to it’s very core. A few days later, Netflix quietly released horror festival darling: The Ritual.
Hold on to your Higgs Boson, because this week we’ve got a double header for ya, and we’re not talking about that “world’s largest gummy worm” in your mom’s nightstand. Why was one film marketed during the biggest sporting event of the year, and why was one quietly snuck in like a pinky in your pooper? Tune in a find out!
Meet me at the waterfront after the social for the Who Goes There Podcast episode 152!
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The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
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