Session 9; The Others
In the skittery haunted-house thriller The Others, Nicole Kidman plays a very frightened woman with two very spooky children in a remote Victorian mansion that looks as if it might contain more rooms than the palace of Versailles. At one point, she does something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do in a haunted-house movie: She grabs the mansion’s heavy aristocratic drapes and makes sure that they’re closed, eliminating all the light of the world. She wants to lock the darkness in.
By now, the tropes of gothic ghost stories have been recycled, even parodied, into dust. The terrible secrets, the midnight moans and wails, the deceased ancestors who go bump in the night — at this point, even the spine-tingling moments of living-dead ”revelation” are a bit moldy (My God! It’s Grandma’s skull face smiling as she plays ”It Had to Be You” on the harpsichord!). As the summer winds down, however, a pair of very different thrillers are out to put a tricky, novel spin on the old-dark-house floor plan that too many filmgoers know in their bones. ”The Others,” featuring Kidman at her icy best, would like to be a kind of mahogany-drawing-room version of ”The Sixth Sense.” Meanwhile, Session 9, set in an abandoned New England insane asylum that evokes the horror of medical experiments past, is as clinical in its creepiness as the other film is archaically grand.
”It did happen,” insists the little girl in ”The Others,” and watching the film, which is as crammed with teasing portents as a Stephen King seance, there is never much doubt that it did. The suspenseful question is what it is. Set in the gray-mist English countryside during the waning days of World War II, the movie has a busy, throttling intensity that takes off from the elegant fury of Kidman, her hair styled into a chaste postwar curl that gives her the aura of a Grace Kelly suffering from repressed hysteria.
The character’s name is, in fact, Grace, and as she waits in frantic desolation for her husband to return from the war, she fights to protect her young son and daughter from some hidden unspeakable knowledge. She insists that every passageway be sealed off (if the door to a room is opened, you’re required to close the one behind you), and this mania for the hermetic, for turning parlors into de facto tombs, cuts so far against the grain of how the milky-skinned heroine of an old-fashioned supernatural chiller is supposed to behave that the turn of Kidman’s screw appears to be more than a little loose. She practically courts the terror, which is not, as I recall, what went on in Amityville.
As orchestrated by the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenabar (”Open Your Eyes”), ”The Others” ricochets from such been-there-shivered-at cliches as creaking floorboards and a distant piano waltz to a disturbingly eerie monograph book of posed corpses. The dowdy trio of Irish servants who go to work for Grace are so obviously up to something that it’s hard to find them sinister, but the image of Grace’s little girl channeling an old lady has a psycho bugginess. Does it all add up? The gimmicks, in the end, are too arbitrary to tie together in a memorably haunting fashion, though they do culminate in a Big Twist, a nifty one that almost — but not quite — makes you want to see the movie again.
”Session 9” is the first film released from director Brad Anderson after his lovely 1998 breakthrough, the bossa-nova-sparked ”Next Stop Wonderland,” and this movie is so different in tone that the filmmaker, at times, seems to be bending over backward to stretch his wings. Anderson stumbled upon the Danvers Mental Hospital, an ornately oversize Massachusetts complex that had been closed down since 1985, and discovered a high-ceilinged maze of dusty, crumbly chambers, the peeling-paint catacombs still crammed with ominous medical paraphernalia: examination tables, steel hydrotherapy baths. He must have realized that this could be as organic a setting for a new-style daylight gothic as the Over- look Hotel in ”The Shining” or the deranged Danish hospital of Lars von Trier’s ”The Kingdom.”
Shot on HD video, ”Session 9” is a marvel of verite-nightmare atmosphere. It follows five asbestos removal workers, led by the solicitous yet troubled Scottish emigrant Gordon (Peter Mullan), as they spend a week clearing the rooms of poison panels (the place is so huge that it looks as if they would actually need three years). At moments, you can just about smell the invisible fibers, and the ghosts of former patients as well. This is a movie in which the 1970s and ’80s loom as the graveyard of the psychoanalytic past, and there are tantalizing references to multiple-personality disorder and repressed-memory syndrome. The trouble is, they remain motifs, scripted rather than connected. The story, a potpourri of fright devices (midnight stalker, overly foreshadowed lobotomy maiming), keeps undercutting the grainy ”Blair Witch” mood established by Anderson’s intuitive camera eye. If ”Session 9,” like ”The Others,” proves anything, it’s that what today’s audiences may have to fear more than the return of the repressed is the return of repressed horror-film conventions. ”The Others”: B ”Session 9”: B-