Session 9 (2001)

Being Film #2 in Hail Horror 5

SESSION 9 is an odd, unsettling transitional film from Brad Anderson, who had a small independent hit with the romantic NEXT STOP WONDERLAND in 1998.  Falling between the quirky romantic comedy of 2001's HAPPY ACCIDENTS and the paranoid thriller of 2004's THE MACHINIST, SESSION 9 is Anderson's move into darker territory, a haunted house story where the "house" in question is an abandoned mental institution and the focus is on the madness that infests a small team of asbestos workers attempting to clean out the building.

Anderson hit the mother lode when it came to his location: the real-life Danvers Mental Hospital, which couldn't look any more ominous if you had a team of production designers working on it.  The tale is fairly standard: exhausted and struggling to make ends meet after the birth of his daughter, Gordon, vividly portrayed by Peter Mullan, undercuts the competition to get his small asbestos removal company the bid to clean up the old hospital with the promise of a nice bonus if he can do it in a week.  Once there, he and his team start to crack under the strain of working in such as menacing environment.  Of course it doesn't help that his second in command Phil (David Caruso, pre-CSI Miami overacting) wants to kill co-worker Hank (Josh Lucas) for stealing his girlfriend, his nephew Jeff is terrified of the dark and new to the job, and Mike (co-screenwriter Stephen Gevedon) , who could've been a lawyer if only..., is more concerned with the old session tapes he found in the basement about Patient #444, Mary Hobbes, admitted for a mysterious event that brought about three distinct personalities.  As each day goes by the tension and paranoia grow between everyone until suddenly hank goes missing.  What happened?  Did he strike it rich and leave for Miami, as Phil claims?  Did Phil murder him?  And finally, what does any of this have to do with Mary Hobbes, and what exactly in on Session #9?

Using a variety of unnerving electronic squeals and whistles, and shooting in a very naturalistic style, Anderson manages to wring a lot of dread out of SESSION 9 without resorting to gratuitous violence: a boiling pot of of water framed in an open doorway is repeated becoming more ominous every time.  Peter's increasing nervousness and desperation to take care of the job and his family slowly winds up the audience, and when the weird shit really starts to happen, Anderson continues ratcheting up the tension, cutting together more random noises with scenes that blend together almost subliminally until all (we think) is revealed in a twist ending that doesn't feel so much like a shock that just a further twist of the knife and certainty that life is just a little more horrible than we thought it was.

Despite this, and despite the generally good acting from the small cast, I left SESSION 9 feeling slightly underwhelmed. Some of this has to do with the "supernatural" elements of the film, that although appropriately creepy, take away from the real madness that's taking over from the stress and environment these people are working in.  Anderson purposefully chooses to leave things ambiguous - not just the ending, but small items throughout the movie and while it adds to the unease it also leaves you feeling a little less fulfilled when the movie ends.  Everything's in the right place, nothing feels like a hack job and Anderson shows that he knows what he's doing, as he would prove a few years with THE MACHINIST, a film I think takes a lot of the same themes and ideas as SESSION 9 but hold together better.  So maybe chalk this up to a matter of personal preference and check it out for yourself - you might be surprised.