SESSION 9 ***** USA 2001 Dir: Brad Anderson. 100 mins
Co-writer / director Brad Anderson, who later made the THE MACHINIST, wanted to make a grown-up horror film with serious intent at a time when the genre had run the smug, self-conscious post-SCREAM teen horrors into the ground and, in the U,S, was about to remake the J-horror cycle with short-lived commercial success. Barely a blip on the box office radar upon its release in August 2001, the digitally shot SESSION 9 now looks like one of the great American horror films of the 21st century.
Written with actor, Stephen Gevedon, it’s a masterclass of sustained dread, setting its tone via a single flipped shot of a solitary chair in the (real-life) abandoned Danvers Hospital, Massachusetts while the soundtrack (literally) drips with menace. The exposition is delivered as a walk and talk by guest star Paul Guilfoyle which, like the seven-day narrative structure and intertitles ape Kubrick’s THE SHINING.
Anderson has talked of how he could have had more money at his disposal – and potentially a huge hit – if he had cast an ensemble of L.A. babes and hunks instead of the small group of construction workers in need of a decent payday and working in an asbestos-riddled former insane asylum with a questionable reputation. Supervisor Guilfoyle would prefer to have the cavernous, bat-winged building demolished to make way for a Wal-Mart, but the powers that be want it still standing. Project leader is stressed family man Peter Mullan, who seems to be harbouring immense guilt over an incident with his wife and new born baby; his friend David Caruso, who’s miffed that he has to work with the dude who stole his girlfriend (Josh Lucas), wannabe lawyer Gevedon and Mullan’s mullet-sporting, metalhead nephew Brendan Sexton III.
The eponymous ‘Session 9’ is the final tape in a sequence discovered by the over-curious Gevedon and documenting the psychiatric sessions with a former patient suffering from multiple-personality disorder. It is Mullan, however, who begins hearing the voice of the most imposing of those alters, Simon, while the cracks begin to show in the whole team as Anderson’s film becomes an intense study of all-male ensemble paranoia (with echoes of Carpenter’s THE THING). It is punctuated by sweat-inducing individual sequences (including the nyctophobic Sexton III running down a corridor as all the lights go out) while Anderson’s roaming camera has us looking for things that never physically appear. The pay-off is discreetly brutal, with a notable cameo by Larry Fessenden and a clever fake-out incriminating the wrong man.
It’s the final five minutes, however, that haunt like few others. A reveal that cuts deep. A desperate phone call from a man begging forgiveness at his lowest ebb. A closing aerial shot of Danvers accompanied by what might be the most bone-chilling last line in modern American horror. Anderson set out to make a horror movie that gets under your skin and makes you want to shower immediately after. Mission: Accomplished (and then some).
Review by Steven West