Written by: Brad Anderson & Stephen Gevedon
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Starring: David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, and Paul Guilfoyle
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďI live in the weak and the wounded, Doc."
Looking back, itís almost remarkable that the previous decade became defined (fairly or not) by the torture porn trend because it sure didnít start out that way. Instead, it looked like The Blair Witch Project was set to usher in an era of lo-fi, understated psychological thrillers that would bring us out of the gore-soaked hangover of the 80s and 90s. For whatever reason, that never quite materialized, as these sorts of films mostly operated on the fringes until Hollywood ran them into the ground by turning them into overcooked but dull schizoid thrillers like Hide and Seek and Secret Window, films that were also looking to one-up the twists found in films like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club.
As such, the early part of the decade is littered with a bunch of movies with notorious endings that have given this sequence a black eye; if there were ever a case to put a moratorium on resolutions involving multiple personalities or an insane protagonist, it'd be this rash of millennial films that were preoccupied with the theme. However, some offerings out of this mold escaped unscathed and still hold up, and itís no surprise that most of them were fringe operators like Brad Andersonís Session 9. While it was largely unheralded upon its direct-to-video release, it nonetheless feels like the template for many films that followed in its wake.
When a local contractor needs to remove the asbestos from a condemned mental institution, he taps Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), the owner of a hazmat elimination company. Along with his small crew, Fleming pledges to have the job done in a week, a somewhat shocking claim given the enormity of the task; however, he truly needs the money the job will bring since his wife recently had a baby, so heís willing to make big promises despite the protests of his assistant, Phil (David Caruso). Once inside, the pressure begins to mount on the crew as the sinister history of the building slowly asserts itself.
Really, thereís nothing too terribly original about Session 9óat its heart, itís a dowdy, grungy take-off of The Shining, and its inevitable climax feels intensely familiar. Regardless, the film felt like a breath of fresh air back in 2001 and still holds up rather well over a decade later. It does so because Anderson somehow skirts around and embraces the inevitability of its ending all at the same time. On the one hand, he makes it clear that some force is preying on the crewís psyche (some of which are already slightly frayed), but, on the other, he teases the possibility that any or all of the guys could be going slightly mad. Session 9 isnít so much a ďwhodunitĒ as much as itís a ďwhoís gonna do it?,Ē an approach that brings a different dynamic to this type of film.
Calling Session 9 a ďwhodunitĒ is also difficult because not a whole lot happens for a while; usually, thatís a criticism, but Anderson masterfully crafts a movie that operates on mood and atmosphere as he slowly puts all of the pieces into place. Even though he has a remarkable cast, his biggest star is the Danvers Mental Hospital, which is playing itself. This giant, foreboding, and dilapidated haunt is the real deal and deserves to serve as a setting for a horror movie. Anderson films it about as lovingly as one can and takes every opportunity to indulge every creepy corner of the place. If The Shining is a reference point, then this is a twisted version of The Overlook; instead of an almost stately abode defined by a nightmarish sense of impossible space, Danvers is rundown, shoddy, and simply full of cavernous space that still manages to suffocate.
Like any worthwhile haunt, it comes with its own twisted history, though Anderson manages to subvert the typical, expository urban legend setup. One of the guys (Steven Gevedon) does recount a perverse story involving a former patientís brush with Satanic rituals but quickly reveals that itís just bullshit. Of course, he eventually begins to uncover the actual truth in the form of some leftover session tapes involving one of the hospitalís schizophrenic patients. Even this is parceled out throughout the entire film, though, as Anderson maintains an ambiguous vibe; in some ways, even these recordings act as a sort of red herring since itís possible that one of the asylumís old tenants haunts the place either spiritually or physically. One thing is certain, though: something unsettling is subtly rumbling on the edges of Session 9. You just feel it in every scrape of the filmís restrained, industrial soundtrack; likewise, Andersonís reserved, lingering photography adds to the eeriness. The digital photography (and this was actually the first digital movie shot in 24fps) seems primitive now, but it strikingly mixes an unnatural rawness with a macabre beauty in a way that recalls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, particularly in its free-roaming, almost documentary-style sequences.
For all its atmosphere and understated creepiness, Session 9 wouldnít work without its impressive ensemble. In the spirit of the film, no one attempts to steal the show, as everyone gives nicely-realized, lived-in performances. Mullan is the beleaguered lead struggling with the stress of parenthood, and he feels every bit the part of a guy attempting to hold it together while everyone around him may be falling apart. These days, a lot of people scoff at Carusoís ill-fated attempt to leave television for the movies, but he brings a notable presence here as a slippery crew member who may only seem like the most stable among them. Even the other three are nicely rounded out: Josh Lucas is the scoundrel of the group (who stole Carusoís girlfriend, as if these guys needed more tension between them), while Brandon Sexton plays the young, somewhat naÔve member of the group whose fear of the dark is inevitably preyed on before the credits roll. Gevedonís law school washout is the one who becomes obsessed with replaying the session tapes, and heís probably the most likeable guy in a generally affable group. Thatís one thing that sets Session 9 apartóthese guys might not be perfect, but they are genuine, so the proceedings are grounded by an actual sense of humanity. Anderson carefully avoids having the film become an overt display of shocks, as it only suddenly becomes a body count film towards the end.
Nearly a dozen years after its release, Session 9 is probably most famous (or infamous) for its ending, which probably plays as obvious and quaint since so many films have trod upon the same ground. However, itís actually deceptively clever and more complex upon a second glance, as Anderson strews in a bunch of clues as to what actually (might) be happening throughout the entire movie (oddly enough, the recurring schizophrenia theme acts as misdirection). The result is a sneakily great film that hums along with a haunting precision; Session 9 might be a mash-up of familiar elements, but itís a meticulously constructed one that established a minimalist style that would recur in Andersonís later works. Heís gone on to become one of our more reliable genre directors over the past decade (at worst, his films have been consistently interesting), and Session 9 is now rightly regarded as one of the stronger horror offerings from the previous decade.
Despite this, you wonít find any sort of collectorís edition on store shelves, but Universalís DVD release from 2003 is still pretty strong. The transfer isnít exactly reference quality thanks to the video source material, but the stereo surround track is subtly engrossing and shows off the filmís scrupulous sound design. Special features are also rather abundant, as the disc contains deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a commentary with Anderson, a theatrical trailer, and a featurette detailing the filmís location. In retrospect, Session 9 also seems a little ahead of its time; I imagine if Anderson had come up with this idea a decade later, it would have been a smash hit for Blumhouse. After all, it certainly follows the slow-burn, understated approach thatís defined that studioís output; Anderson canít claim to have invented such a tack, of course, but few have mastered it as well in recent memory. Buy it!
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