Mike, a law school dropout, is removing asbestos from an abandoned insane asylum with four other co-workers. He wanders into an office filled with old files, reports and boxes of evidence. He discovers a series of audio tapes that contain the therapy sessions of a patient named Mary Hobbes, who suffered from multiple personality disorder. He begins to listen to the tapes during breaks from work as a way to satisfy his previously dormant legal mind. During the first session, the interviewing therapist questions Mary about vague episodes from her youth that evokes terror in the patient. Suddenly, Mary's voice vanishes and is replaced by the eerie ramblings of a child. This is "The Princess," one of Mary's personalities. There are two other personalities, according to Mary's file, and eight other sessions. Mike obsessively listens to each unsettling tape as the tension builds toward session nine.
These session tapes, while seemingly irrelevant to the plot of the movie, illustrate what director Brad Anderson wants to emphasizefear of the unseen and unknown. You can't see the sessions, or the horrors behind them, and that's the captivating effect. It's like hearing a bump in the night over and over again. In his first horror film, Anderson does more with simple sound editing, one actor, and a dark room than most directors can do with a $100 million budget. And about those soundsthey're chilling. The doctor's voice is creepily calm and monotone, while the voices of Mary's personalities seem to emerge from the walls (of the asylum and the theater). Nothing of impact has happened in the movie up to this point except skillful character development, yet Anderson effortlessly fills the movie with dread with one push of a button. This is exceptional filmmaking.
"Session 9" (IMDb listing) is the best pure horror film I've seen in years. I use the word pure because there have been good films that are very scary at timesthe classic opening scene of "Scream" comes to mind along with many fine moments in the highly underrated "Pitch Black"but nothing that has come close to replicating the genuine chills of such masterpieces as "Halloween" and "The Exorcist."
Anderson's film has been compared to "The Blair Witch Project" in that both films are simplistic and feed off the unseen. That blockbuster, while capturing a brilliant premise, didn't do much for me. The biggest reason why, of course, is the much-maligned camera work that oscillated between nausea-inducing and unrealistic (if you were being chased through the woods, would you hold up your video camera to record the event?).
"Session 9," on the other hand, is a marvel of deft camera work and cinematography. Anderson knows just how long to hold a shot of an actor walking through a dark tunnel to get maximum suspense. Adding to the genuine thrills is the setting. All of the asylum scenes were shot in an actual abandoned asylum in Massachusetts, and hardly any props or sets were used. Anderson used a high-definition digital camera to shoot the film, and it miraculously gives the film a realistic, almost home movie-feel, while translating shadows and darkness flawlessly.
It all starts with a good script. The dialogue flows naturally and gives the actors rich material to work with, but more importantly it gives the film substance. Not a single sentence in the film is without meaning, and every word, it seems, is called upon later.
The story also presents a fine set up. A five-man asbestos removal crew has a week to clean out Danvers Mental Hospital. Gordon, exceptionally portrayed by Peter Mullan, is a hardworking Scotsman struggling to keep his HAZMAT removal company afloat and take care of his wife and newborn child. Phil (David Caruso in an equally compelling performance) is Gordon's foreman, a vigorous and imposing leader. The rest of the crew includes Mike (co-writer Stephen Gevedon), Hank (Josh Lucas), an obnoxious loafer, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), Gordon's wet-behind-the-ears nephew.
The trick of the story is that all five are under pressure even before the terror starts. Anderson brilliantly weaves in the stress of blue-collar life and slowly build the pressure as the week progresses and the crew tries to complete an extremely dangerous job on a tight deadline. Tensions quickly rise and the viewer becomes embroiled in the lives of the film's engaging characters.
Then the asylum takes effect. It's a place that reeks of human suffering and madness and it grabs each character in a subtle and unique way (such as Mike becoming obsessed with the taped therapy sessions). When strange things begin to happen, the crew members aren't sure if the oddities are part of their strained psyches or if there is something more to the Danvers State Mental Hospital.
Like the film's direction and writing, the ensemble acting is also superb, particularly Mullan and Caruso. I've never noticed Mullan before but he delivers astonishing empathy as an everyman who's becoming unhinged from relentless stress. Caruso, an extremely talented actor, compliments Mullan's vulnerability with his brooding earnestness. In more than a few scenes, Caruso's intensity is just plain haunting. These performances, as well as the solid acting of the supporting players, give the movie its weight.
If "Session 9" is any indication, Anderson is an A-list director in the making. Anderson errs slightly by showing a little too much after the thrilling climax, but he stays true to his nature of relying on the unseen and the uncertain. Just when it becomes clear what has taken place and what's behind it all, the movie is horrifically turned on its head again and again as the fiber of reality begins to fray.
At one point I was actually biting my nails. Seriously. And that's just the suspenseful elements of the movie. An eerie, unnatural feeling stuck to me following the actual viewing experience. "Session 9" had such a powerful effect on me that I found myself, days later, stopping to pick up a quarter from the floor (see the movie and you'll know what I mean) only to feel a massive chill and the urge to look over my shoulder.
That's how great "Session 9" is.
Filmfodder Grade: A