Gordon (Peter Mullan), the owner of an asbestos removal firm, and right-hand man Phil (David Caruso), accept the job of clearing the hazardous material from a disused insane asylum. Along with colleagues Mike (co-writer Gevedon), Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) and Hank (Josh Lucas), they set to work, but soon the stress of working with the carcinogenic fibres, and the impossibly close deadline, mean that tensions mount and relationships fracture. So, Mike sneaks off and discovers tape recordings of sessions between a doctor and (now dead) patient Mary Hobbes, and pretty soon he's making excuses to go back to the tapes. The spirit of the huge, gothic building and of inmate Mary Hobbes begins to tell on the crew, and as Mike begins the tape marked 'session 9', events are fated to end in bloodshed.
There is not a bad performance here, but the two principles are especially good. Mullen and Caruso may not be the most obvious pairing; I mean, how many times have you seen a broadly accented Scot, from a gritty realist Brit drama (My Name Is Joe), next to a cop show American? But they are utterly convincing, and play their friendship with real depth. You really can believe they have worked on jobs, and have had tough times together before the events of the movie. And as events deteriorate and his sanity is tested, Mullen is especially effective. But, the film is more than the performances.
Although probably a budget decision foremost, director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Ute Briesewitz seem to love the high-definition digital format they use. The image is crisp, and seems more real and immediate than celluloid, something from which a horror story certainly benefits. Moreover, the digital format captures some truly beautiful colours and eerie lighting effects.
Sound is well utilised to incite discomfort; an innocent bird's call begins to sound very much like a rusty garden swing as it repeats unceasingly, gnawing its way into your head. The voices on the session tapes are full of sinister character, and this competently renders the spectre of troubled Mary Hobbes. Her presence is all the more tangible for the care taken here.
Editing is expertly used to create suspense and a sense of the disturbing. As Mike delivers what turns out to be a seminal speech on lobotomy, we are met with images of the lush wildlife that surrounds the asylum building, a floating point of view that adds to suggestions of something supernatural.
But, it is perhaps in trying so hard to seed this suggestion that the film falters somewhat. This is a good script, (albeit a slow-burner for the first hour) but when the finale comes, it is somewhat ambiguous as to how this came to pass. You could blame supernatural possession; or you could say that it had nothing to do with that at all. You can see that the writers wanted a Shining-esque story, with the asylum slowly claiming the crew as its own, but they chose to obscure why the killer descended into madness, in order that it make for a big surprise in the end. As such, in hindsight, the suggestion of supernatural forces seems more as an incidental subplot rather than a causal factor. Whilst it can be seen as relevant to the story, to me it felt like a lot of breath was used to say not very much. So, when the camera flies over the beautifully gothic asylum for the last time, you may still have a few questions that remain unanswered.
However, I do not think that these points detract too much from what is, on the whole, a well-made and effective scary movie.
The disc extras are great. The featurette The Haunted Palace gives you some history to the Danver's Asylum, a real place not far from Boston, Massachusetts, and illustrates how a lot of the eerie atmosphere came from the location itself (and Mullen's interview is more-than-slightly disturbing, as he tells of how the line between movie and reality blurred for him). Writer/director Anderson and co-writer Gevedon are informative in their commentary, and you achieve an even greater sense that these two really do know what they're doing with a screenplay and a (digital) camera. I hope to see more from them. There are also deleted scenes and an alternate ending, Story To Screen side-by-side storyboard comparison with the finished feature, commentary by Anderson and Gevedon, a theatrical trailer.