Today: February 25, 2024

Films To See Before You Die But Probably Haven’t: Part Six

So many films, so little time. Fortunately here at FilmJuice we have a pool of talented writers, prepared to spend the vast part of their days hunkered down in darkened cinemas so that you don’t have to.  Earlier this year, we decided to put all this generated knowledge to the test and ask our regular writers to come up with a list of the Films You Should See … But Probably Haven’t. This week, Ed Boff shares his choices with two very different films which both deliver the goods in spades …

Session 9 (2001)
The whole aim of horror is to be unnerving and/or unsettling, and there’s a very simple way of building this effect. Keep the audience wondering.  It’s simple but it’s remarkable how many horror films get it wrong by over explaining absolutely everything (many remakes, such as those of The Fog and Halloween are particularly guilty of this).  Brad Anderson‘s Session 9 isn’t just a notable exception, in that it knows what to tell and when, it was also one of the few horrors of the post-Scream era that wasn’t exclusively for the teen market.

The film takes place at one of the world’s creepiest places ever – the real-life long abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital – and uses aspects of the building’s history to great effect. The Hazmat Elimination Company, lead by Gordon (Peter Mullan) and Phil (David “YEEEEEAAHHHH” Caruso) have won the contract to clear asbestos out of the building before its reconversion.  The catch is that they’ve got to get it done in a week if they want a bonus, which will save the ailing company.  So tension is high and not helped by the five-man crew bringing additional personal baggage with them on the job.  However, as the work continues, something strange starts to happen. Something that makes the deadline the least of their worries … This set up, combined with an excellent, veteran cast, brings a very real world feel to the film, making the men and their plight, easy to connect with. Another good lesson that this film demonstrates is that horror is far more effective when it happens to characters we care about!

Session 9 also matches strong characters with a very clever storyline that has many a great set piece, and a strong sense of mystery and tension that keeps the audience on tenterhooks right to the shocking climax.  One good touch is a subplot where one of the team, Mike (co-writer of the film Stephen Gevedon), finds recordings of sessions between one of the patients (Jurian Hughes) and a doctor (hence the title).  Not only does this feature a tour-de-force voice performance(s?), but it parallels the main storyline in ways that only become clear towards the end.

Session 9 wasn’t a huge success on release but its reputation is growing and deservedly so.  This is a genuinely intelligent, affecting horror that refuses to be pigeonholed into any particular sub-genre (any attempt to do so would be entering spoiler territory) … and if nothing else, it has perhaps one of the most chilling final lines to a horror movie ever.

The Iron Giant (1999)
Warner Bros. Animation was betting big with this production, hoping that it would really launch them into the big league, right alongside Disney in terms of animated features. This didn’t really pan out for them, as the sub-standard release and marketing of the film made it a box-office flop, especially in the wake of The Phantom Menace‘s release.  However, it has since gotten a second life on video and DVD, bolstered by director Brad Bird‘s subsequent high profile successes with The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar.

The story is based on Ted Hughes‘ novel The Iron Man (the name was changed for obvious reasons).  In Maine 1957, Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) is a lonely child who makes an incredible discovery; a fifty-foot tall, metal eating alien robot (Vin Diesel).  The being doesn’t seem to know who or what he is, or why he’s there, so Hogarth takes him in, with the help of a fellow outcast, beatnik artist Dean (Harry Connick Jnr.).  But the giant’s presence has been noticed, and overzealous government agent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) is on the case.  There’s also the matter of why the giant is on Earth. What it’s true mission is, and what’s it (he?) truly capable of.

This film has endured thanks, in part, to its sheer charm.  From the design aesthetics, the recreation of the fifties setting (down to “Duck and Cover” information film) to the very well rounded characters, everything has the sort of warmth and good humour that grows on you with time, whether you see this as a kid or as an adult.  This is helped from some wonderfully put together set pieces, and not just in terms of the big action you’d expect, but from more character based scenes, like several confrontations between Hogarth and Mansley.

It’s a full-on emotional roller coaster ride too, offering quiet, tender scenes, like the robot contemplating nature, to huge action moments, when the military arrives, to one of the most tear-jerking endings of an animated film you’re ever likely to see.  It also has a far better sense of pacing than many other family films before or since – building slowly and naturally to its big moments, and then having them pay-off well.

At its most basic, the film could be said to be a sort of retread of E.T., which is sort of what the trailers undersold it as, but that’s oversimplifying it too much, as there’s far more depth in here, and a strong lesson about one’s sense of identity coming from your own actions, not what others would class you as.  Besides, can you honestly say that ET wouldn’t be better with, instead of something that looks like a friendly poo, a gigantic Vin Diesel robot?  Thought so…

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