Retro Review: Session 9

"Fear is a place."

Session 9 (2001)
Directed by Brad Anderson
Written by Brad Anderson and Steven Gevedon

Session 9 is a moody, disturbing horror film about members of an asbestos clean-up crew who land a big job cleaning up an abandoned mental hospital. Sounds like a pretty pedestrian set up, huh? Spooky, isolated setting entered unwittingly by a handful of unsuspecting people? Gee, I wonder what happens. Maybe the ghosts of long ago lobotomized patients torment them? Perhaps a hollow-eyed little girl ghost dogs them through the seemingly endless hallways? I bet they recorded every gory detail on a handheld camera and now somebody’s found their footage and made a movie out of it.

Well actually, no. None of that happens. And the fact that Session 9 adheres to none of the modern day horror tropes is what makes it such a special film. Instead of bludgeoning the viewer with the spotty, unsettling history of the mental hospital, director Brad Anderson chooses to let these details seep out organically. And each character is treated with the same care and respect; these guys aren’t slasher fodder. Throughout the course of the tale, we get to know these men as each of their personal lives starts to bleed over into their day’s work, giving rise to a host of conflict and unexpected mystery.

Peter Mullan is fantastic as the crew foreman, Gordon Fleming, a seemingly average working stiff. But early on, we see him treating some incredibly painful-looking burns on his leg, a condition he appears to be concealing from the rest of the crew. What is he hiding? And why is Mike (played superbly by co-screenwriter Steven Gevedon) growing increasingly obsessed with a series of cassette tapes containing interviews of a former patient afflicted with multiple personality disorder?

If you’re looking for typical gore and jump scares, you won’t find it here. Rather than an external supernatural force bearing down on the characters of Session 9, it’s the decayed and decrepit setting that seems to turn their own fears and shortcomings into something horrible.

There is an almost dreamlike quality to many moments in the film. Upon my first viewing, I found myself stumped as to whether or not certain scenes were the characters’ actual reality, or something they were hallucinating. Anderson conveys a lot of suspense in this way, sometimes fading scenes out quickly before their resolution in a stylistic manner that reminds me a bit of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway.

The hospital itself is quite the setting, its vast expanse dwarfing the five man crew. Hallways and staircases beckon on, seemingly into infinity and darkness. However I find that the most disturbing scenes take place in the middle of the day, in the largest parts of the hospital, with sunlight streaming in through the windows.

Session 9 is a truly engrossing film that ends with a stunning reveal. The minimal soundtrack is one of its strongest qualities, excelling at creating a bleak and foreboding mood that pairs well with the darkness of the story. The acting is superb with the aforementioned Peter Mullan and also David Caruso and Josh Lucas turning in wonderfully grim performances. That being said, you won’t like all of the characters in Session 9, but you’ll believe in them. And if you’re anything like me, what Brad Anderson shows you in this surreal horror mystery will stay with you for a very long time.


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