|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 13 August 2002|
"Session 9" is a low-budget horror film that increasingly scares the whump out of you as it progresses. Director Brad Anderson and his co-writer Stephen Gevedon explain in the audio commentary – also in the generous two-page liner notes – that they lucked into discovering the mother of all locations, an actual closed-down mental hospital in Massachusetts. The sprawling buildings look haunted even from the outside – the potential for terror is ripe, and the filmmakers employ it expertly.
Like "The Shining," "Session 9" concerns already troubled individuals who respond to a malevolent environment by coming apart at the seams. In this case, the protagonists are five men who work together on a hazardous waste crew. Foreman Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) has gotten his men a gig decontaminating the abandoned historic Danvers Mental Hospital, but the schedule is so tight that everybody threatens to crack under the strain. Additionally, Gordon has financial woes and a new baby adding to his stress. His best friend and lieutenant Phil (David Caruso) is furious that his girlfriend left him for handsome, less-than-responsible co-worker Hank (Josh Lucas). Mike (co-writer Gevedon) is a rich boy doing manual labor apparently in order to thumb his nose at his father’s plans for him, while Gordon’s young nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) just wants to prove himself on the job. The men are all separately tense before they start delving into the dark nooks and crannies of the hospital. Tapes of old psychiatric sessions (hence the title), listened to in secret, seem to be influencing events – but then again, it could just be that a mental hospital is the appropriate place for one or more of the characters.
Shot on high-definition video (in the commentary, it is noted that this was apparently the first film shot in widescreen HD 24), "Session 9" has an impressive filmic look, pixilating only in a few pans over busy backgrounds, like a vine-covered wall. Anderson has some fabulous shots, including a really creepy opener of a lone chair in an abandoned, scabrous room, and the start of Chapter 8, where the cloud-laden sky appears to be lowering itself right onto the hospital roof, as if poised to devour the whole complex.
Anderson has a few gasp-inducing full-tilt horror moments, but he mainly achieves dread through shadows, suggestion and judicious use of sound. The stereo mix on the DVD is extremely good, with a very clear dialogue track and expert use of individual effects. A scene transition in Chapter 2 has an organic sound that is momentarily terrifying and subtle rumbles, just loud enough to be audible without interfering with the ambience, that suggest something malevolent lurking nearby. Chapter 3 carries the congestive sound of the workers’ loud equipment efficiently without being unbearable. Chapter 4 combines solitary piano notes, breathing and screams for an audio mix that is extremely frightening, while Chapter 6 similarly blends dripping water, flapping pigeons and a very slight, menacing hum to provoke more fear. Chapter 10 has a weird little comical music riff that doesn’t quite work in context, although it’s a laudable experiment. There’s a Nirvana-like song over the end credits that has lyrics that are a bit too on the nose, though the mood is appropriate.
Extras on the disc include a making-of featurette that emphasizes the fearsome location (if anything, the hospital looks even scarier in the behind-the-scenes footage than in the film itself) and deleted scenes that add up to an entire excised subplot. For ready comprehension of the footage, it’s probably a good idea to view it first with the audio commentary explaining the concept behind it, which is not evident in the final cut. Audio commentary by Anderson and Gevedon is informative, if a bit laid back – the filmmakers tend to get caught up in what they’re watching and fall silent from time to time, allowing the soundtrack to rise to almost full volume.
The actors all do convincing, naturalistic work, with Mullan’s worried, suspicious, anguished Gordon a particular standout. The dialogue likewise has the credibility of construction site banter – the movie effortlessly gets us to believe in the characters. One story point is apparent as soon as it is hinted at (its revelation seems intended to take place much later), but otherwise, "Session 9" delivers the kind of building, pulsing horror that gives the genre a good name.