SESSION 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)
In SESSION 9 a five man crew is hired to remove the asbestos from an old, abandoned Massachusetts mental hospital shuttered due to rumors of sexual and satanic abuse. Exhausted from having a new baby at home and pinched financially, crew leader Gordon (Peter Mullan) does whatever it takes to undercut the other bidders and secure the contract. His ambitious promise to complete the work in a week looks daunting, but a ten thousand dollar bonus is there for the taking if they are successful.
The domestic and work pressures on Gordon are readily apparent, and the rest of the crew is similarly on edge. Phil (David Caruso) and Hank (Josh Lucas) are not on the friendliest of terms since Hank stole the other’s girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is a law school washout treading water in a job below his skills and interests. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) has an abnormal fear of the dark. The dilapidated asylum with a spooky history may be a stressful place for a well-adjusted person to work, let alone for the tense and highly suggestible.
SESSION 9 is heavy on mood and light on narrative substance, but the pervasive sense of dread that it sustains trumps the slightness of plot. Credit a fantastic location and smart sound design for inducing a tangible state of fear. Viewed from above, the imposing mental hospital in the countryside resembles a bat with large wings. The interior’s decaying walls and broken tiles bear the marks of a place ravaged by psychological pain trying to escape.
SESSION 9 draws its title from the last in a series of doctor and patient reel-to-reel tape recordings that one crew member finds and becomes obsessed with listening to. The slight wobble in the playback enhances the unsettling nature of interviews conducted with the alters of a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. These chilling talks play out as little more than theater of the mind, yet they’re as scary as anything the film depicts. The same applies to the telling of the reason for the asylum’s downfall as a working facility. Like a good ghost story around the campfire, the recounting of supposed atrocities is horrible enough to hear to give one goosebumps.
Since SESSION 9 opened in 2001, director and co-writer Brad Anderson has done a lot of TV work. He directed an episode of the anthology programs MASTERS OF HORROR and FEAR ITSELF and helmed seven episodes of FRINGE. SESSION 9 might have been tighter as an anthology short or an investigation into the paranormal on episodic television. The thinly developed characters wouldn’t be as much of a problem in those formats, and a shorter version could pare down plot misdirects that add running time and little else.
The one area SESSION 9 benefits from being a feature film is in how Anderson draws out the atmosphere and mystery in a manner that would suffer with commercial breaks. SESSION 9 may feel a bit incomplete or small in scale at film’s end, but even if the answer isn’t as compelling as the secret, it gets under your skin for the duration and digs a little deeper with a creepy concluding line.