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Session 9   B+

USA Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Brad Anderson
Writers: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon
Cast: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Brendan Sexton III, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas, Paul Guilfoyle.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

"It's gonna get ugly," winces hard-nosed crew manager Phil (David Caruso, Kiss of Death) by Day Four of grueling asbestos removal in the abandoned, dilapidated, psychologically unsettling Danvers State Mental Hospital. He's not referring to the dangerous manual labor in the damp underground tunnels or even the precarious generator that threatens to strand the five-man team in this "haunted" asylum with the lights out. Muttered with a frightened grin, it's Phil's grim attempt to acknowledge the strange traumas that have become manifest in the group, perhaps brought about by supernatural forces. Quiet, introspective college-boy Mike (Stephen Gevedon, States of Control) may unknowingly have reawakened old ghosts as he gradually receded from his assigned duties to track the case history of a multiple personality patient, leading him to the secrets contained in a long buried recording labeled Session 9... and we all know what curiosity did to the cat. These guys might not make it to Day Five.

From Day One, they're already on shaky ground. Hazmat Elimination Company owner Gordon Fleming (rugged Scottish character actor Peter Mullan) vows to have the hazardous job done in one week when the town engineer has already quoted him at least two or three solid weeks, minimum. Mean-spirited working class grunt Hank (Josh Lucas) is taunting his so-called compadres as a means of dealing with the resentment of a dead-end life. Gordon's scatterbrained nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is unfamiliar with the hardware and forgetful of his protective safety suit and mask.

These edgy loners gradually learn there's more to the work than meets the eye, disturbed by the faded artwork still tacked to the walls in the "seclusion rooms" of former patients and pervasive rumors of apparitions and Satanic hosts. Footsteps, heartbeats and shadows become the stuff that sleepless nights are made of. Gordon slowly retreats into a near-catatonic state of guilt over family secrets and Mike invests his time and resources into the dense asylum mythology. One even starts having doubts about protagonist (by default) Phil's dogged, intense attempts to rally his increasingly distraught team into action. There are only so many times he can reaffirm that individual tensions are "becoming a liability" before casting doubts about his own steadiness. Why is he so hell-bent on this renovation work anyway? As one of the characters from John Carpenter's The Thing (another male-centric story of paranoid isolation) dourly intoned, "I don't know who to trust."

Shot with the latest top-of-the-line Sony Hi-Def TV cameras, running at 24 frames-per-second (the same as film), the "look" surprisingly doesn't call attention to itself. Not going for the purposeful pseudo-documentary sloppiness of Lars von Trier's The Idiots or the TV-movie gloss of The Anniversary Party, Session 9 doesn't seem to acknowledge its own videographic medium. There's actually no reason (purely from a viewer's perspective) why it couldn't have been shot on film, though one imagines the crew striving for small-camera mobility and flexibility as they rove through the dilapidated, potentially unsafe location. The cinematography by Uta Briesewitz is carefully composed, often riding on an ethereal dolly rather than the whiplash-inducing hand-held that passes for realism nowadays. It's only fitting that the stoic New England ghost story, being grounded in the classic tradition of Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, be presented largely with visual restraint and slow, calculated moves. Sound is used to more ominous effect, with blurred screams and heavy rumblings in the wall softly lurking to bookend scenes as they open or close, masked and aurally distorted by the heavy rumbling of equipment or power tools. During a cryptic dialogue scene in a car, the isolated sound of rock 'n' roll on the radio is enough to convey seclusion, an effect similarly used in John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. If we could hear anything else, perhaps we'd be more prepared to face whatever unseen anxieties lie in wait around the corner.

Unlike the endless dirth of teeny-bopper fright-flicks that have oversaturated the market in recent years, Session 9 rests on the shoulders of substantial actors. Peter Mullan's blunt, weatherbeaten features, seen most recently in Michael Winterbottom's The Claim, are what you might expect from a veteran bricklayer. Investing his role with the weight that comes from age and experience, he provides a deeply wounded, quietly concentrated center for the other performers to buckle against. Brendan Sexton III (the would-be rapist from Welcome to the Dollhouse, now grown-up and sporting a mullet) has the look and attitude of a street kid too withdrawn and cagey to plug himself in with the popular kids. Best of all is the effortlessly charismatic David Caruso, who stole the show last year in the Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan fiasco, Proof of Life. This scrappy Queens-born tough guy seems to bring authenticity and focus to every role: Barbet Schroeder's lean, mean Kiss of Death signaled the appearance of a movie star who could actually act, and NYPD Blue was never the same without him. Caruso subtly projects slow-burning irritation as Pete loses his nerve, using mostly his eyes, or a slight cranky tilt of the head. While The Blair Witch Project floundered in repetitive shouting matches between amateur performers unskilled in even the most basic improvisatory techniques, Session 9 reveals how thinly written characters can be fleshed out and given depth if performed by the right team of players.

Despite the efforts of a first-rate cast, Session 9 cops out at the ending, having assembled a notable series of shaggy dog stories that could have evolved into a crescendo of Lovecraftian proportion. The final beats descend into the well-worn territory of predictable hack 'n' slash, lacking confidence in the skillfully paced metaphysical uneasiness that preceded it. While the element of fatalism is consistent, it's also proves to be surprisingly literal. One wishes Anderson and co-writer Gevedon had left their characters' sought phantoms to the audience's imagination.

The success or failure of director Brad Anderson's creepshow, a complete 180° from the dialogue-driven whimsy of his romantic comedy, Next Stop Wonderland, thankfully doesn't rest in the hands of the script. Session 9 is an often simplistic, functional affair saddled with flimsy dialogue and one-note character types. The eerie, unspoken mood is instead found in the remarkable use of location. Shot in and around an actual Victorian-era mental hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts (and inspired by certain ugly tales from its long, grotesque history), surrounded by New England trees stripped bare during the October season, the building is formidable. Tracking through long, dust-coated hallways with cracked wallpaper and imposing lines of pipe, Anderson and Briesewitz make full advantage of the space's inherent character.

Alienating rooms and corridors have not been made so memorably sinister since Stanley Kubrick's Overlook Hotel in The Shining or Nicolas Roeg's labyrinthine Venice in Don't Look Now, two of the many films Anderson tips his hat to. Session 9 is a virtual encyclopedia of homages to modern genre films that manages to stand on its own, unlike the postmodern jokes and references used for their own sake in our post-Scream era. There are the inevitable echoes of The Blair Witch Project, if only because both stories are genuinely out to scare their audiences. More than any other source, Session 9 captures the flavor of Stephen King's short story collection, Night Shift (and particularly "Graveyard Shift," which it often resembles). Horror fiction has often been able to craft a mood of near-imperceptible dread through the power of suggestion, but very few motion pictures can sustain the weight of implied menace. Even Session 9 caves in at the end, but Anderson and Gevedon do their best to show respect for the genre's form.

It's encouraging to see emerging filmmakers working with the same integrity as scary movie directors from the '70s and early '80s who have either changed with the times (Wes Craven seems to have moved away from scaring his audience, packaging his Scream series like a happy meal) or drifted out of the public eye altogether (George Romero, Tobe Hooper). Anderson hasn't quite secured his place in their league, but Session 9 is far more mature than what is commonly accepted as the Modern American Horror Film. Rumor has it Anderson has other spooky scripts on file. If there's any hope for the future, he'll join indie horror maverick Larry Fessenden (who has a cameo here as an ill-fated gatecrasher) as a self-appointed New Guard of genre filmmakers. Fessenden's upcoming Wendigo and Anderson's Session 9 serve as contemporary, much-needed reminders of where evil dwells.

Review published 07.25.2001.

* * *

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