In 2001, Brad Anderson made his first foray into the horror genre, after directing the romantic comedies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents. Regardless if it was a conscious or unconscious choice to explore the darker side of film, it proved to be a fortuitous one, as he achieved great notoriety and success with films like The Machinist and Transsiberian -- and made a further mark for himself in television, directing episodes of Fear Itself and Fringe, on which he also served as producer.
Shot on the cheap, Session 9 nonetheless features a strong cast of Peter Mullen, David Caruso, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon, and Brendan Sexton III.
But the true star of the film is the location -- the condemned Danvers State Hospital, which closed its doors in 1985, after a century of operation.
The film is the kindred-cousin, but polar opposite of 1999's The Haunting remake. While that film also features a stellar cast, clearly the majority of focus on the part of director Jan De Bont and his crew fell to the creation of the elaborate sets and special effects. The film is almost an endless proclamation of "Look what we can do!", dedicating an exorbitant amount of time on what is seen, in terms of set design and special effects, rather than learning the lesson that the 1963 original film taught so well -- that terror is often best executed by what is unseen.
That is not to say that Session 9 doesn't make the most of its location, but Anderson let the story be inspired by the real-life location, rather than letting the location be the story.
Peter Mullen plays Gordon Fleming, the owner of an asbestos removal company. Clearly in dire financial straits, and with a wife and new baby daughter to support, he is so desperate to secure the job bid that he guarantees that the colossal amount of work to be done can be completed in one week.
He and his additional crew of four get to work, motivated by the hefty bonus guaranteed if they can complete the work on time.
But it isn't long before the team fractures, as the asylum seems to exploit the deep-seated fears of each member.
Law school dropout Mike makes a curious and unsettling discovery -- a box detailing the case of patient Mary Hobbes, including a collection of reel-to-reel audiotapes that are the recorded sessions of her treatment. The sessions are explorations of Hobbes' multiple personalities, two of which are the relatively harmless "Princess" and "Billy". But as Mike works his way through the tapes, he eventually makes his way to the session of the film's title, the one that reveals the elusive but malevolent "Simon".
Session 9 is a slow, slow burn -- taking its time to build to a blood-soaked finale. The film is clearly inspired by Kubrick's The Shining, full of long takes, and slow tracking shots through the decaying interior of the hospital.
The ending is just as ambiguous as The Shining's Jack Torrance in a sixty-year old photograph conclusion, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide if Simon's influence is relegated only to the past.
One interesting thing of note about Session 9 is that it was one of the first features to be shot digitally. Unfortunately, the digital technology of 2001 is a far cry from the current medium's genuine threat to the future of shooting on film, and there are moments where the image calls attention to itself as a less-than-worthy adversary to film stock.
But overall, I really dig the film. Well-written, well-cast, well-scored (with an eerie composition by Climax Golden Twins), and well-directed by the creatively burgeoning Brad Anderson, Session 9 is a get under your skin descent into madness.