Directed by Brad Anderson, Session 9 is a chilling and well-orchestrated psychological horror film from 2001. It doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares or flimsy characters to get the job done. It is, instead, grounded in the reality of mental illness and a careful acceleration of tension and fear.
Anderson’s first horror movie was shot on location at the Danvers State Hospital, an asylum that was once home to several “progressive” methods of treating mental illness. The locale didn’t require much by way of set-up, which lends Session 9 a tremendously organic feel. As characters move down eerie caverns and traipse through doctor/patient corridors, the natural spine-chilling sensation is very palpable.
Gordon (Peter Mullan) owns an asbestos removal company and finds himself really in need of a new job for his crew. As a result, he suggests that he can get a job done at Danvers State Hospital in a week (a completely unrealistic time frame) and brings his workers to the asylum to get started.
His team is comprised of a law school dropout named Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a bitter and creepy long-time cohort named Phil (David Caruso), a brash gambler named Hank (Josh Lucas), and a fresh-faced kid with a mullet named Jeff (Brendan Sexton III). As the job carries on, the asylum’s eerie atmosphere begins to take its toll on the crew. As Mike listens to tapes from a former patient, strange and deadly events spiral out of control.
While Session 9 does take on a whodunit twist at the end, it comes by it honestly. Despite the eerie location, this motion picture is largely a human-based horror story that deals in aspects of psychological distress.
An early conversation about how various mental institutions were shut down due to budget cuts plants the seed and presents an authentic problem that carries weight. What happened to the mentally ill when the asylums that housed them were systematically closed down? What happened to those who fell through the cracks and into so-called normal existence?
Anderson’s film asks these questions, but the screenplay is never overbearing. Instead, the script, helmed by Gevedon and the director, allows the events to unfold naturally and without unnecessary accoutrements. There are no standard guideposts of horror until the last 20 or so minutes, which leaves a fog of uneasiness hanging in the air.
Because of the intense terror of Danvers, it stands to reason that the various characters of Session 9 would split down their own dramatic hallways. The relationship between Phil and Hank, already working at a fever pitch due to the fact that the latter is sleeping with the former’s ex-girlfriend, pitches through a haze of discomfort that is almost unbearable.
And young Jeff, eager for a job but certainly not convinced of his future in such a damaging and shrinking field, has his own demons to contend with when a fright in the dark draws up his inborn fears. Interestingly, Session 9 doesn’t exploit his fear of the dark so much as it uses it as a conduit for more atmospheric chills.
Gordon, the Scottish head of the crew, is perhaps the biggest mystery of all. Anderson wisely shows us parts of the drama at a time, with the character parked outside his own home. The camera is pointed through rain-covered windows, offering the telling sign that something is obscuring the view and getting in the way. These early points make the movie’s closing moments an essential outcropping of the storyline.
Much of Session 9 exists in a maze of possibilities and that’s what sets it apart from the norm. It doesn’t pander to the audience or serve the solutions on a silver platter of familiar ground. Instead, Anderson’s flick pushes disassociation from reality, which explains a key character’s detachment.
While this movie may not be built for fans of more immediate payoffs, there are many treasures within the brick walls of Session 9. Anderson’s picture builds nicely and plants itself like a germ, causing a long-term effect that requires a little digging to get at. For those willing to enter its passageways, the remuneration is sweet.