Saturday, November 20, 2021

THE DAY AFTER: Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell

 “They made you a moron, A potential H bomb. There’s no future, no future, no future for you” – The Sex Pistols
 
In my childhood - in the late seventies and eighties – premieres for made for television movies were a big event. You would see commercial spots for the newest made for TV movie for months leading up to the big event.  I remember quite vividly the kid floating to the window in Salem’s Lot (1979). When The Exorcist premiered on CBS. My cousins showed me that movie when I was five years old. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards. I used to sneak down stairs and turn on one of the movie channels of my youth, First Choice or Super Channel. This is how I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing for the first time. Runaway train was another film I got up well after bedtime to watch.
 
The most terrifying scene for me personally, premiered on November 20, 1983 on the ABC television network. Ronald Reagan was President. Yuri Andropov was the paramount leader of the Soviet Union and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or A.I.D.S was a new immune system disorder that was making headlines. Assured mutual destruction and trickle-down economics were buzzwords. Reaganomics was in full effect following massive tax cuts signed into law in 1981. The percentage of people below the poverty line in 1983 had climbed to 15.2%. On March 8th, 1983 President Reagan was speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals where he first said the phrase, “Evil Empire” in reference to the Soviet Union. The doomsday clock was positioned at four minutes to midnight. In November 1983 I was eight years old and living with my grandmother and great-grandmother.

For weeks and weeks we had seen the commercial spots for the latest television movie that was premiering on ABC, The Day After. That November night we gathered around the living room. The ABC Theater logo began. Then a man sitting in front of bookshelves introduced himself, “Hello I’m John Cullum.” And went on to introduce the move. “And this evenings ABC Theater presentation of The Day After I play a father in a typical American family who experienced the catastrophic events of a full-scale nuclear war. Before the movie begins we would like to caution parents about the graphic depiction of nuclear explosions and their devastating effects. The emotional impact of these scenes maybe unusually disturbing and are therefore recommending that very young children not be permitted to watch. In homes where young people are watching we’d like to suggest that the family watch together so the parents can be on hand to answer questions and discuss issues raised by the movie.” Suffice to say my grandmother and great-grandmother did not heed the first part of John Cullum’s warning. The three of us did indeed watch the movie together.


The screen went to black and I had a palpable sense that I was about to see something quite incredible and terrifying. The movie on television began with the following words on the screen: “Although based on scientific fact, this film is fiction. Because the graphic depiction of the effects of a nuclear war may not be suitable for young viewers, parental discretion is advised.”
 
As a kid I loved, loved airplanes. I had notebooks filled with drawings of them. My father would take me an airshow every summer. I knew all the designations of military aircraft. The Day After opens on a Boeing 707 with gray, white and black lettering of the United States air force sitting on the tarmac at SAC Airborne Command Post Omaha, Nebraska. A general boards the plane. Service people are working. This opening scene feels very much like a documentary. The plane roars to life and takes off over cornfields. Big brassy music swells as the camera flies over farms and small mid-west towns. School is staring. Cowboys ride through cattle pens. People are working in manufacturing jobs. The camera flies over Royals Ballpark where George Brett, Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry played months before. It is a beautiful day in Kansas.
 
The ticker tape is humming, the phones are ringing and the numbers are changing on the stock boards at the Kansas Board of Trade. The television news plays as journalists are talking about Soviet Union military buildup along the border of Czechoslovakia. A military helicopter lands at a quaint little house. Military personal run off of the helicopter. They enter a missile silo. “Everything is clean and green.” An air force person informs the others. 

 

Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) is meeting with his daughter Marilyn (Kyle Aletter) “Hey what’s eating you fruitcake.” he remarks. “I’m sorry just jumpy.” “Ah, you saw 60 minutes last night.” “Huh? No. Come on, I’m taking you to someplace you work right next to and I bet you’ve never been inside in fifteen years.” Sirens are off in the distance. They then wander an art museum. “Sometimes it’s hard to experience a Chinese landscape because the artist does not tell you where you are watching from.” Marilyn informs her dad as they look upon a painting. “You know why?” She asks. Dr. Russell shakes his head, no. “Because he wants you to be in the landscape. A part of it not out here looking at it.” “You mean a God’s eye point of view?” “No, well yes, if by God you mean everywhere inside sort of thing.” Marilyn informs her dad that she is moving to Boston. “Growing up is like growing apart, maybe it’s a natural phenomenon.” Marilyn says. Seconds of silence. Dr. Russell speaks,  “It’s not so easy, saying goodbye.”
 
As families gather for dinner the evening news plays on the radio and television. The Soviet Union is moving large military forces. People pause as an anchorperson relates that East Germany has closed off access to West Berlin. As the sun sets in Kansas, the threat of war is imminent. A baseball game plays. “We interrupt this program to bring you a special report…” East Germany is making more aggressive moves. Life continues. Two sisters chase each other around the house fighting. “Jolene, I’m never going to speak to you again.” An air force man is getting ready to be deployed to his missile silo has an emotional goodbye with his wife. “It’s just an alert, we run around and check things twice instead of once, that’s it.” Life continues as the prospect of war looms larger. There is such a dread the runs throughout The Day After which directly tapped into the zeitgeist of the early 1980s. At any moment actual nuclear was possible and probable. For a country that has in been in continuous declared war for most of the twenty-first century, it is perhaps difficult to grasp how real nuclear war and all out destruction of the planet was. This threat has never actually dissipated. 
 
The sun rises the next day and people continue to go about their day. Tensions continue to escalate in East Germany. A high school football practice is happening. War in Germany is starting. People are leaving Kansas because of the missile silos. The city of Moscow is being evacuated. A man gets a haircut before his wedding the next day. The Russians have invaded West Germany. The highways of Kansas and Missouri are packed with cars leaving the area. Panic. Supermarkets are getting cleaned out. Children watch morning cartoons. The high-pitched tone of an emergency broadcast interrupts the show. Three nuclear blasts are being reported over advancing Soviet troops. Air force troops scramble to B-52 bombers. Another nuclear bomb has exploded at regional NATO headquarters.
 
Forty-nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds into The Day After a woman is drying off after a shower. Her kids are playing outside. The farmhouse begins to shake. In the window behind her a huge plume of light and smoke emerges from the ground. She rushes to the window. A horse neighs and bolts in slow motion. The kids stare in awe of the missile emerging from the silo. The nuclear missile is airborne. The unthinkable is happening. When Jim Dahlberg (Jim Cullen) carries his wife Eve (Bibi Besch) downstairs to the cellar and Eve is screaming it is bone chilling.


We see the Kansas City skyline. The wailing of warning seconds give way to silence. The shot pulls back. The sound of a large boom followed by a brilliant flash of light. Electricity goes out, rooms immediately darken. Clocks stop. Cars stop. A fireball explosion begins on the horizon. The television screen goes white. Only the silhouettes of cars on the highway are visible. The explosion starts to rise from the ground, rising upwards, forming a mushroom cloud. Vast destruction. More explosions. Mushroom clouds. The screen flashes.
 
In an entire film filled with the horror of nuclear war, it is a forty second sequence that really got to eight year and now forty-six year old me. It begins with a woman flashing into a skeleton and then ceasing to exist. An entire classroom of children flashes into skeletons and cease to exist. Within flashes of red, white and blue one hundred and seventy life forms flash into skeletons and are instantly evaporated. Among the evaporated, fifty children, six cattle, the horse from the first missile launch and one dog. The most violent fictional forty seconds ever aired on American television. I had nightmares for weeks.

As a Generation X child, it felt like the world could end at any moment. The psychological effect of these catastrophic images at such a young age were deeply embedded in my imagination. I often think of my worldview of the future being such an abstract thought and how I often live within the moment. To both a benefit and a detriment. I hadn’t had nightmares of nuclear war for many years until the 45th President was elected. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues it still feels as though there is no future for you. Scientists developed the doomsday clock in 1947 to convey the threats to humanity and the planet.  The doomsday clock is set every year. As of January 27, 2021 the Doomsday clock is set at 100 seconds to Midnight. The closet to extinction the clock has ever been set.


 

Friday, October 22, 2021

I STILL SEARCH FOR YOU: A Cinematic Sketch by Robert Aaron Mitchell

 

I have been living in the middle of a cattle ranch in South Texas for a couple of months now. The area is very isolated and has amazing visuals. Everyday I have some sort of encounter with wildlife. Be it a snake chasing a frog I saw when out driving. A baby owl trapped near a cactus. The fleeting glimpse of a deer jumping over a barbed-wire fence. I wander the ranch in the hot Texas sun formulating ideas to create several short films. I decided to edit some of my cellphone footage I have been taking, to put together, what I'm calling a cinematic sketch. I used several filter and editing tools available at the app store to play around and manipulate the images. This is the result. 

I Still Search For You. A man walks in around a cattle ranch ranch in South Texas in a hallucinogenic state. 


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

BROOKLYN HORROR FILM FESTIVAL 2021: WHAT JOSIAH SAW Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell


                                 WHAT JOSIAH SAW (USA) Directed by Vincent Grashaw

Out on old willow road on the outskirts of a small Texas town is a dilapidated farmhouse surrounded by a good swath of land. This is the Graham homestead. Tommy (Scott Haze) is on a rusted out tractor trying to get it started. He cranks the ignition. It pops and puffs. Plumes of smoke billow out. Inside Josiah (Robert Patrick) looks on. His powerful patriarchal presence felt through the glass of the window. Out on an old oak tree is the inscription;
 

                                                        Miriam Graham
                                                        Darling Wife
                                                        Beloved Mom

Josiah and Tommy sit around the kitchen table. Tommy says a prayer, “God, God I just love you and thank you from the bottom of my heart. For this food today. I pray for ma. I pray for pa. I pray for the man he lied to Amen.” Josiah tells Tommy a story and tells his son he is ignorant to believe in God.

The small town is like a lot of towns these days. Barely hanging on. A main street with a few shops. Oil developers are circling the town trying to buy up land relevant to their shale oil extraction. A couple of Devlin Oil company men meet with one of the assemblymen of the town. They want to buy the Graham property. Assemblyman Gentry points to a map, “Well, this is Willow Road. That’s the Graham property that’ll be a tough sell.” The company men do not seem to phased. “Most have a price.” Gentry continues, “That place has a bad history...something awful has come about.” He proceeds to tell them a story about the Graham family.

On a night when the winds are whipping up something fierce, the farmhouse creaking away. Josiah wakes up in a panic. He sees something above him. He is transfixed and frozen in fear. The next morning Tommy sees Josiah standing beside the oak tree. “Whatever bad you got inside you come from me. Everything good comes from your mother.” Josiah eyes wide and unblinking says God is indeed watching them. They can right their ways, right their wrongs. Getting right has to begin with spit shining the house. Tommy gets down to work. Whatever Josiah saw sure has changed him. At the kitchen table Tommy is about to pour him some whiskey. Josiah covers the coffee mug with his hand “Leave it be.” “No morning tea?” Tommy asks. “Not no more.” Things are turning around. Tommy sets upon the old tractor and it pops and puffs more smoke and wouldn’t you know it, the tractor starts.

Robert Patrick as Josiah is a dominating presence. He stalks around quietly and on the turn of a dime flies into rage. His wide-eyed, unblinking blue eyes are a force of nature. The eyes that can be infused with drunken lunacy, outright terror, menace and malice. Scott Haze playing the son who has returned has the formidable task of sharing scenes with Robert. He rises to the challenge. From Tommy’s posture, dialect or the way he muses and cares for his pa even when his father is in a mean drunk is a role full of empathy and a longing to stay in pa’s good graces. Resolve and courage are two exemplary traits of good actors. Robert Patrick and Scott Haze display these traits as the story moves into unsettling and disturbing ways.

Eli arrives in the story in a frenzied moment of passion. As Josiah remarks about his son, “First step that boy took was a mud pile of trouble.” Looks like Eli continues to step in a mud pile after mud pile of trouble. Eli navigates a violent, rough and tumble world of gambling, whoring and drinking. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Nick Stahl as Eli personifies such a man. A man who is perpetually down on his luck.

One of Eli’s many vices is gambling. He owes Boone, a bar owner and all around shady guy a shit ton of money. Boone is going to kill Eli. Unless. Eli has to accompany two of Boone’s guys, Logan (Troy Powell) and Billy (Ronnie Gene Blevins) on a job. Job don’t go well, Eli is dead.

The three man crew arrive at a gypsy carnival. “They say if a dog howls for no reason, there’s trouble coming. Gypsy lore.” Billy says, ”Lightning without rain these are omens” Eli sits in a trailer as Logan and Billy go on about things. Eli is approached by a young woman, they get to talking. She mentions Eli should meet with the median. He reluctantly agrees. The gypsy median tells him some things. Bullshit everyday platitudes or ominous omens? A lot of shit goes down. Looks like Eli might very well have a second chance. He shows up to his trailer with a letter from the oil company sitting on the floor.

Mary (Kelli Garner) is Joisah and Miriam’s daughter. She is married to Ross (Tony Hale). They are not doing well. They are trying to adopt a child. Mary is meeting with a therapist as a part of the adoption process. Eli shows up with the letter from the oil company shattering a peace that was never quite there to begin with. 

Thomas Wolfe's posthumous novel is entitled, “You Can’t Go Home Again”. Mary and Eli have spent a lifetime with this as a guiding principle. The allure of the oil company money is the impetus. The confrontation with the past is the pull. A heart wrenching reunion with Tommy in the front yard of the farm house. The hugs and warm feeling is short lived. When Tommy informs Josiah his other children have returned the ominous tone ratchets up in intensity.

I like the novel structure of the film. There are also some great story telling moments in the beginning of the chapters when assemblyman Gentry (Ben Hall) and bar owner Boone (Jake Weber) relay a yarn. The film moves among its stories, characters and tones. Sometimes with ease, sometimes jarringly.  That is probably the point. There is a lot of movie here. A film full of great faces. Vincent Grashaw makes some great distinct and visual choices to tell the story. There is such an ominous feeling of dread that permeates the film.

Film is a combination of so many things. Visual, musical, sound design. In a good movie one should not notice these things. However, for me, that is like going to the symphony and not seeing the musicians gathered around a half-circle on stage. When the elements of a film mesh well together it is pure cinema. Cinematographer Carlos Ritter brings a great look to the movie. Composer Robert Pycior's score is haunting, beautiful, and versatile as the tone of the film changes. Last but certainly not least, the sound design team of What Josiah Saw have done an amazing job. The sound design is exquisite.

What Josiah Saw is a southern gothic crime thriller. The film has a great foundation with Robert Alan Dilts screenplay and is anchored by strong performances from a great character actor ensemble. The story twists and turns in unexpected ways. Suspenseful, creepy, disturbing. Director Vincent Grashaw and his team of filmmakers keep the story moving in unique and compelling directions.

One of the core elements of What Josiah Saw is the stories people tell. The truth and lies. Through the murky lens of memory and manipulation.

Family reunions, much like film endings can be complicated affairs. What Joisah Saw will definitely have much discussion after the credits roll. That is a testament to a film that is unafraid to go there.

BROOKLYN HORROR FILM FESTIVAL 2021: WHEN I CONSUME YOU Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell


 WHEN I CONSUME YOU (USA) Directed by Perry Blackshear

When I Consume You is Perry Blackshear’s third feature film. His 2018 film The Siren was the closing film of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. He returns to the festival with his core acting troupe.

The film opens with a frenetic pace. Incredible images of physical pain. A woman is bruised and bloodied. She is in a bathroom. Locks the door. Standing over the sink she regurgitates a lot of blood. She reaches into her mouth. A distinct and jarring snapping sound. She pulls a loose tooth from her mouth. Another jarring sound as the tooth hits the porcelain. Washing her hands a tattoo of appears to be a stick figure is on the inside of her wrist. A man calls out. The woman runs the shower. She says she is good, she is finishing the shower. She sits on the floor, fully clothed, the water pouring over her as a victim of a horrendous encroachment would.

A nightmare is revealed in the closet.

The woman is in the mirror applying cover up to a bruise. Two people sit on a balcony. Daphne (Libby Ewing) and Wilson (Evan Dumouchel). Wilson says, “I decided I want to be a teacher because I want to help people. People who have had a hard time, need help, and protection and to feel safe. Like kids. It’s really scary to be a kid.” He is really focused on getting this out and has clearly spent a lot time rehearsing his words to get them out in a concise manner.

Daphne hands Wilson a necklace. It is inscribed with a quote, “I sought my brother” They are siblings who have endured a lifetime of pain and hardship together. They have a bond that is inseparable.

“Are you okay?” Wilson asks. A memory. She nods her head in a way that says I’m not quite okay.

The Shaw siblings are forging ahead and pursing paths to better their lives. Daphne is trying to adopt a child. Wilson is going to have an interview for a new job in a couple of days. The adoption process is not going well and has revealed some deep psychological aspects to Daphne’s personality.

Wilson preparing for his big interview leaves the iron on his good shirt too long marking it with a burn. He practices tying a tie. Keeping up appearances to a cold, indifferent society. Wilson is not doing well the night before the interview and shows up at his sister’s apartment in the middle of the night. There is a sense that is a familiar routine. A lifetime of developing coping mechanisms. Intense workouts. A fantasy card game. Three am visits. Hanging out on the balcony. Wilson and Daphne are there for each other through thick or thin.

Wilson stands outside the school waiting for his interview. He self consciously rubs at the stain on his shirt, holding his jacket a little bit higher. While waiting he is approached by someone who works at the school and is informed he will not get an interview. He does not have a college degree. Wilson stands shattered. Another hit from a cold, indifferent society

Wilson returns to Daphne’s apartment. Tragedy. Wilson spots someone running out of the apartment and onto the balcony. On the roof and down the fire escape. He gives chase. To no avail. Wilson stands in the glow of first responder blue and red lights. The chaos of sirens. He frantically is communicating that he saw someone run out the window. An integration. An examination.

At the grave site Wilson holds the words he wrote to eulogize Daphne. “I love my sister very much. When we were little, she protected me though she was younger. I would probably be dead if it wasn’t for her and how strong she is.”  He chooses a different set of  words. He also makes a vow to find the evil that is still out there. The evil that murdered his younger sister.

Wilson wanders the dark New York City streets inquiring about the person he saw flee Daphne’s apartment. Approaching people if they saw the person who he describes. They treat him as people do in a cold indifferent society as a delusional person. Wilson continues to work as a janitor. Invisible to the people around him.

Wilson falls further into himself. Searching for solace at the end of the next bottle. Is he indeed alone? He obtains a box of keepsakes. He opens a leather bound book. Daphne’s diary. Her voice fills Wilson’s mind. The diary compels him to search for the mystery surrounding Daphne. The path leads to intense violence. A mysterious figure has great plans for Wilson Shaw.

When a supernatural event occurs Wilson begins a personal transformation to avenge Daphne. The seeds of letting go and moving forward are also being planted.

When I Consume You is Daphne and Wilson’s story. Libby Ewing and Evan Dumouchel carry the film with outstanding performances. Performances that run the gamut of range.

When I Consume You is a violent, meditation of personal pain and loneliness. A struggle with mental illness in a society that moves on its own accord and has not the luxury or desire to pause and listen and to help. Perry Blackshear navigates genre storytelling elements as an allegory for physical and mental abuse. The film is also a study in loss and grief. How do you continue to navigate through grief?

In a cold, indifferent society the bonds of love are a powerful adherence that spans across different planes of existence.

Losing someone there is no such thing as closure. That kind of pain now becomes a part of you. Perhaps, there can be a moment of peace. A moment of acceptance. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s a victory to hold the demon at bay, for one more day.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

BROOKLYN HORROR FILM FESTIVAL 2021: NIGHTMARE FUEL Short Film Block

 

If a feature film is a novel, then a short film is a poem. I took a look at the following short films that were curated by the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival under the program, Nightmare Fuel. Hope I can sleep tonight….

THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS (U.K). Directed by Sophie Mair & Dan Gitsham

The film opens on a beautiful vista. A man walks the countryside. A bag slung over his shoulder. He points a flashlight ahead of him. The music swells. The man stops walking. A bird lies dead before the man’s feet. Something is wrong in the countryside.

Wonderful sound design and musical score. Fully realized characters. It feels as though we are getting a momentary glimpse into a larger conflict. The makeup effects are top notch. The Thing That Ate The Birds does a great job operating with the confines of a short film. A wonderful piece of horror cinema. No birds were harmed making the picture.

IGNORE IT (USA) Directed by Sam Evenson

A kid sits on a bed playing a GameBoy. The kid’s father comes into the room and tells Justin that an unwanted visitor is back. He must follow the rule. “Stay focused.” The father says.

Great use of light as well as fun, creative shots of the unwanted visitor. Ignore it does a superb job of creating suspense and a tone of dread.  

Family dinners can be awkward and forced. Hopefully your next dinner is not as tense as this one…

CUTTER (USA) Directed by Dan Repp & Lindsay Young

Cutter wastes no time drawing you into its world. The opening shot is powerful and horrific.

I had no idea where this film was going, which is a considerable feat in the short film running time. A film with this kind of gravitas only works on the strength of the actors involved. Nadia Alexander who plays Raelyn and Leslie Fender (Raelyn’s Mother) anchor the film with strong performances.

Loneliness and heartbreak are very painful experiences. Sometimes the emotional pain manifests into self-inflicted physical pain. Sometimes other forces are at work. Cutter was an uncomfortable watch. I believe that is a compliment. The film does a great job with the horror people inflict upon themselves as well as the possible supernatural elements that can create havoc.


WEEE WOOO (USA) Directed by Charlie McWade

A night in. Playing some tunes. Sipping some red wine. Good times. A door creaks open.

I personally hate looking in a mirror and seeing something off. This happened to me just a couple of days ago.

Snow gently falls from the night sky. Good at changing tones. Great use of lighting. Sound design that really amps up the story telling. I really dug the changing of subjective and third person in the film.

Tara Pacheco does a great job in the lead role.

Very effective at being creepy. Perfect for some nightmare fuel. 

THIS IS OUR HOME (USA) Directed by AK Espada

The short begins with “No animals were harmed in the production of this film”. It continues with, “However, real archival footage of an animal in distress has been used.”

Full disclosure, I had a mouse problem when I was living in indiana and resorted to glue boards. While brutal the traps were highly effective. I had a rule, I never went out into nature to mess with mice. However, if you come into my house, you have to get out as soon as possible. Thankfully I never stepped on a glue trap with my bare feet.

Dina (Mor Cohen) and Ruya (Ruba Thérèse Mansouri) are roomates. They also have every New Yorkers nightmare of a mice infestation. While they differ on methods they do agree that the mice have got to go.

The never-ending squeak of mice at night is so unnerving. War is war. This Is Our Home is ultimately a film about colonialism, roomates and veganism. I promise to never use a glue trap again.


OUZO AND BLACKCURRANT (U.K.) Directed by Nat Luurtsema

From the font of the title, to the infectious reunion of friends you get the immediate impression you are about to have some fun.

Friends wander through a field of wrecked cars reminiscing. To say more would be to say far too much.

I dug the look of the film. Ozuo and Blackcurrent does a lot in the condensed run time of a short. A nice slice of horror cinema.

BRACKISH (USA) Directed by Christa Boarini

Opens with beautiful widescreen cinematography. Hypnotic underwater photography. A body is submerged. An idyllic summer scene. People are enjoying being out on the lake and a woman sets up an easel to paint the landscape.

This film being in a program entitled nightmare fuel things cannot stay idyllic for too long.

You ever get that sense that you are being watched? Naw me neither.

As I have mentioned the photography quite a lot in a few sentences, kudos to Director of Photography Colin Treanbeath. Great score by Justin Hogan. The film reminded me of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

LA OSCURIDAD The Darkness (USA/MEXICO) Directed by Jorge Sistos Moreno

Marina, a former elementary school teacher, emerges badly bruised on the shore of a lake. After a lengthy track through the hot Mexican sun, she lands at the primary school where she once worked. 

A pickup sits by a lake as the sun rises. A man stands at the shore and spits into the lake. It starts. LOUD. The truck rumbles away but the evil deed the driver has performed remains out in the open in the form of a purse and a pair of heels.

The tone is a slow dread. Some exquisite shots in the film. Sometimes the darkness claims it’s vengeance.

The art house meets horror. La Oscuridad is a haunting and effective story.


 


Friday, October 15, 2021

BROOKLYN HORROR FILM FESTIVAL SESSION 9: 20th Anniversary Screening Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell

 

SESSION 9 USA 2001 (Directed by Brad Anderson) 

 

Session 9 is getting a twentieth anniversary screening during this years Brooklyn Horror Film Festival at the beautiful Nitehawk Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This Tuesday, October 19th 9:30pm. You can get tickets clicking on here.

 

Several years ago I was living in Worcester, Massachusetts and took a drive up to Danvers. It is was a crisp, clear October day when I arrived at the former Danvers State Hospital.  Not much remains of the former State Lunatic Asylum at Danvers is kind of misleading, the original center building is beautiful and remarkably tall. It is also very imposing. The red bricks stood out especially as they contrasted the blue skies of that autumn morning when I visited the grounds. The original building is actually only a tiny remnant how large the sprawling hospital was. The Danvers State Hospital has served as inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham Sanatorium as well as Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe. While the building has been influential in fiction, the true-life horrors that happened here are indeed very disturbing. 

 

Today the site is now comprised of renovated apartments. The past of the state hospital is only a short walk away down an unmarked trail and through overgrown bushes that leads to a large granite stone. The stone reads, “The Danvers State Hospital Cemetery “The Echos They Left Behind”” The cemetery contains hundreds of graves of Danvers patients. Only numbers marks the graves. Through the efforts of Pat Deegan and many others, hundreds of the dead have been identified. Many remain anonymous. A lot of times when reading about a film it is remarked that the location is another character in the movie. This sentiment is extremely true about the former Danvers State Hospital in Brad Anderson’s Session 9.

 

The film opens on two men waiting in van bearing a company name and slogan, Hazmat Elimination Co “Asbestos Abatement Professionals” outside a gate to the hospital. The two men are Gordon (Peter Mullan) & Phil (David Caruso) they await Bill Griggs (Paul Guilfoyle) who is holding bids for the asbestos removal job at the former insane asylum. They meet up and proceed on a tour of the grounds.

 

“It’s a pretty simple layout really, if you consider a giant flying bat.” Bill says as they walk down a hallway. Danvers as I mentioned has been a visual inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe. Christian Bale who played Batman in the Christopher Nolan films also acted in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist.

 

“Whoa, what the fuck is this?” Phil asks as he looks into a metal tub filled with water “What are you a little scared Phil? This is hydrotherapy. Used to be cutting edge. They’d stuff the nut jobs into cold water I guess as a way to chill them out. Or they’d give them a lobotomy. The prefrontal lobotomy was perfected here at Danvers.”  Bill Griggs (Paul Guilfoyle) As they leave the room we see the full extent of what they were seeing. A sheet with restraints covers one of the tubs. Hydrotherapy would consist of placing a person into extremely hot or cold water, as it was believed this torture would alert the parts of the brain the psychiatrists wanted to affect.

 

As Bill continues the walk through “Oh there’s a lovely cemetery behind the machine shop. No headstones, just numbers.“ As they get further into the building it gets darker and darker. “This is where they keep the extreme patients…psychotic. You know what they call ward A? The snake pit.” Gordon pauses and looks down the hallway and sees the chair from the opening shot of the film. “Hello, Gordon” some strange voice says as Gordon stays transfixed on the chair. Phil snaps him out of this reverie.

 

The camera movement and the use of light and shadow really infuse Session 9 with the sort of creepiness that really disturbs someone watching the movie. I believe of all the types of emotions and scares a horror film can achieve, to create a truly affecting foreboding that literally gets under ones skin is very difficult tone to achieve and sustain. Brad Anderson and his team elicit this feeling to an amazing extent in the film.

 

“Reclaiming the dark past to build a brighter future.” Bill says as the walk through winds down. As far as the job goes, it is difficult and a huge space. Gordon looks up the ceiling and points out that it contains crocidolite asbestos. Otherwise known as blue asbestos. It is considered the most hazardous type of asbestos. The job was severely undercut by the owner of Hazmat Elimination Company. Time is also limited; Bill wants the job done before Columbus Day, in order to get construction crews in. Phil says it’ll take three weeks to get done. Gordon says two weeks, much to Phil’s chagrin.

 

Just before stepping back outside, Phil stops and asks Bill, “Hey, what’s this?” Phil enters a room, which is covered in dozens, and dozens of illustrations cut out from magazines and books. “Seclusion, that’s what they called the patients rooms back then. A part of some therapy that was big in the seventies. Art therapy.” Gordon is once again transfixed. Outside Gordon tells Bill they’ll get the job done in one week.

 

Gordon sits outside his house and watches his wife with their new baby. A palpable sense of dread is felt.

 

The crew begins to work. Another member of the crew is introduced, Hank (Josh Lucas) Turns out Hank is dating Phil’s ex-girlfriend Amy. The other guys on the crew are, Mike (Stephen Gevedon) and Gordon’s cousin Jeff (Brendan Sexton III). The crew has lunch and Mike relates the horrific tale of Patricia Willard. Is it real or urban legend?  They get back to work.

 

The screams of the patients are in the flakes of paint falling off of the walls.

 

Everyone leaves, except for Mike. He has found an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. He sits in a dilapidated office and hits play. Voices from the past come alive. “I know this is difficult Mary and that’s why we are here to help.” Mary’s distraught and anguished voice fills the room. These are the recorded sessions of which Session 9 takes it’s title from. To say more would be to say far too much.

 

The crew is falling apart. Is it the extreme workload in a short amount of time, the personal relationships, the home life stress, the asbestos or is it the sinister past of the very building and horrors that unfolded within affecting the crew? It could very well be, all of it.

 

The film works for a lot of reasons, in large part because this five-man crew really feels as though they are indeed a crew of asbestos removal guys in Massachusetts. I find this story of an asbestos team working on the building even more remarkable, now that the actual building has become high-end apartments. The doctor (Lonnie Farmer) and Mary aka Princess, Billy and Simon (Jurian Hughes) really have to be mentioned. The audience only hears their voices through the recorded sessions; together they are really the foundation of the mystery and unsettling tone of the film. 

 

I believe that the very place of Danvers State Hospital seeps into the film. The score by Golden Climax Twins (The Mangler, The Chained) is haunting. Ultimately, the horror of the film is not built off of cheap scares but a slow I hesitate to use the word slow. Meticulous is a far better world. Session 9 is a meticulous buildup towards the haunting tale of Mary as well as the five guys working in her lingering presence. Session 9 is twenty years old. Revisiting the film today I can say, it still holds up as an unsettling, scary movie.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

MR. PUZZLES: The First Horror Movie Written Entirely By Bots

 

Netflix Is A Joke worked with Keaton Patti to make a bot watch over 400,000 hours of horror movies and then write its own horror movie. This is what it came up with. This is destined to be a perennial horror classic. Here is the film: