It’s a week and a half ’til Halloween, the best holiday of the year, and I’m tired of reviewing regular comics. So let’s spend the rest of the month focusing on stuff that’s scary — whether it be comics, movies, or anything else. And heck, today, let’s start with a movie.
This movie was directed by Brad Anderson, written by Anderson and Stephen Gevedon, and released back in 2001.
The movie’s characters include Gordon (Peter Mullan) who runs a small asbestos removal company and is under a great deal of pressure by a new baby and lower profits from his business. He employs Phil (David Caruso), his rock-steady partner who hates fellow employee Hank (Josh Lucas) for stealing his girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon, one of the writers) is a former law school student who everyone agrees is too smart to be working such a lousy job, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is Gordon’s nephew, grateful to be working for his uncle.
They all get introduced to the Danvers State Mental Hospital, where they have just one week to clean up the asbestos at the site — an almost impossible task. Gordon hears voices calling his name. Everyone gets their heads filled with stories about lobotomies and murders and madness. Hank discovers a cache of money and valuables. And Mike starts skipping out on his duties so he can listen to old reel-to-reel tapes of a psychiatrist interviewing a patient named Mary who suffers from multiple personalities, some innocent, one very, very malign. There are nine tapes, each covering a single psychiatric session with Mary and the voices in her head.
Hank disappears. And everything goes to hell.
Verdict: Thumbs up. I like this movie a lot. It seems like it’s been specifically designed to appeal to my personal sense of what makes the scariest movies — not a lot of gory violence, no monsters jumping out of closets, just a lot of quiet, creepy stuff.
The introductory premise alone is enough to get many viewers squirming — asbestos can cause cancer and other serious conditions with the right exposures, but in popular culture, the risk is even higher and more dire. Just imagining working around such a dangerous mineral, always looking for a way to worm its way into your lungs to wreak havoc, can be enough to make many audience members nervous.
All the actors do a great job — nothing really spectacular, just good work by good actors. Even Caruso does a fine job — his eccentric performances in “CSI: Miami” are nowhere in evidence.
But the star of the film is, without a doubt, the Danvers Hospital itself.
It used to be a real mental hospital that operated from 1878 to 1992. It was said to be the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanatorium, and thus for the Arkham Asylum from the Batman comics.
In the years since its closure, the facility has remained beautiful and stately (but also ominously threatening) on the outside — but on the inside, it became almost unspeakably decayed and claustrophobic — as pure a metaphor for madness as can be described. The building is a maze of peeling paint, cracked windows, and dark, shadowy corridors. Little work was needed to make the sets scarier — real-life age, neglect, decay, and dust had done the hard work for the set designers. The building looks genuinely terrifying, inside and out.
There are shocks and scares here, but they’re not the ones that come screaming down the hallways, scraping talons on the walls and slinging viscera over the landscape. These are quiet, whispering, intimate fears. They hide just on the other side of your own worries and quirks and distrusts and paranoias. Gordon, Phil, Mike, Hank, and Jeff have the same weaknesses we have, and any of us could share their fates.
It’s a wonderfully scary movie. Go pick it up.