Session 9 (Review)
Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is a shining example of conservative low-budget horror filmmaking at its finest, reminding us what a deliberately slow-paced and well-constructed exercise in suspense can do to our minds and our nervous systems. Using nothing more than a perfect location, a talented cast, and some fantastic sound design and editing, Anderson crafts a tense and nightmarish film that manages to worm its way under the skin without needing to resort to excessive gore or cheap shocks to scare its viewers.
There is a clear influence from classic horror films like The Shining, not the least of which is the way that the location (the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital) comes to feel like a character in itself, carrying a presence on screen that feels at times almost tangible. In reality, the history of the building is every bit as shocking as it appears here, and this level of authenticity certainly works to the film’s advantage and adds to its lasting impact. As an example, the characters in the film tell stories about how Danvers State was the first site to develop and implement the frontal lobotomy as a means of treatment – a fact that is allegedly true, not to mention quite disturbing. Instances such as this prove as effective methods of foreshadowing later plot points while simultaneously tying the film to historical fact, thus opening the door to the twisted stories of the patients (both real and fictional) and their experiences with abnormal disorders and inhumane methods of treatment
The eerie sound design also helps to further emerge you in the psychotic world of the Hospital, where ethereal sounds and voices waver in and out of the ambient musical score and work to slowly build layers of unease, resulting in a continual sense of foreboding. The audio tapes that are eventually uncovered by one of the characters – chronicling nine therapy sessions of a schizophrenic patient named Mary Hobbes – function as the haunting centerpiece of Session 9, delivering some of the film’s most chilling moments while also holding the key to understanding what has really happened by the end. The fact that it is these moments of disembodied dialogue (with no visual reference) which carry the strongest impact remains a testament to how tightly Anderson has crafted his film, and how efficient he is at building suspense and delivering lasting scares using minimalist techniques.
Thankfully the cast is talented enough to carry this tension forward as well, and there are even a few familiar faces to be found (most notably David Caruso, better known for his role as CSI Miami’s star Horatio). Peter Mullan stands out in the lead with a performance that effectively balances emotionality with detachment, while Caruso remains stable and occasionally mysterious in the supporting role. Josh Lucas, co-writer Stephen Gevedon and the young Brendan Sexton III fill out the rest of the central characters – a five-man asbestos cleaning crew who are contracted to clean out the rotting Hospital over the course of a week.
Like many of the films that inspired it, Session 9 has a fairly long and slow build-up to firmly establish its atmosphere, offering scenes that develop a subliminal sense of horror before the narrative pushes things into more sinister territory; however, the final act plays out with a relentless nail-biting tension, gripping you firmly right up until the shocking (if slightly abstract) conclusion. Due to the artistic visual style which relies less on overt exposition and more on intuitive deduction, this is surely a film that invites discussion and encourages repeat viewings, with an ending that may perplex viewers who haven’t been paying full attention.
And although its lack of blood is somewhat welcomed considering the opposing trend of modern horror films, there are a few moments where I wish Anderson would have shown us a little bit more – specifically when dealing with the fate of one or two of the central characters, whose demise feels almost brushed over. Still, despite this minor qualm, Session 9 is one of the most genuinely gripping and unforgettable films I’ve ever seen, and remains a hidden gem for fans of classic suspense-driven horror.
R A T I N G : 4.5 / 5 S t a r s
Session 9 (2001, USA, R: 100 mins) Directed by: Brad Anderson. Starring: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III, and Paul Guilfoyle.