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Session 9 (2001)
Director: Brad Anderson

review by Richard Bowden
Spoiler alert!
After writing, editing, and directing the more romantically-based projects of Happy Accidents (2000) and Next Stop Wonderland (1998), Brad Anderson turned to horror to make this, his next and just as effective, low budget outing, Session 9. The filmmakers took full advantage of the immediacy of video and 'found' surroundings to sustain an atmosphere of unease, leading inevitably to terror - reflecting both the proximity, and the success, of The Blair Witch Project (1999). The differences being that Anderson's cast provide no first-person monologues direct to camera, and the events of Session 9 are more structured (although the structure of Blair was concealed, rather than truly absent).    There's a professionally written musical score too, amplifying events, and an ending which allows a resolution to the mystery. Like its famous predecessor, there's a sense of natural horror here, well handled for the most part, providing a similarly refreshing change from 'studio' product.
   The plot concerns an asbestos cleaning crew working in a cavernous, abandoned mental hospital (the real life Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, MA). Under a tight deadline to make a $10,000 bonus, tensions soon run high as they grow familiar and interact with the institution's history of lobotomies, multiple personality disorders, child abuse and gloomy incarceration. Leader of the gang is Gordon (Peter Mullan), who faces personal problems at home. It also includes his nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton) who has a fear of the dark, Mike (Steven Gevedon) a failed law student, the brooding and scheming Hank (Josh Lucas), and Phil (suspected to be on drugs, who has had his girlfriend stolen by Hank).
   The labyrinthine institution dominates the film and the actions of the characters. Gordon is undergoing a stressful familial relationship; Hank locates a trove of personal possessions hidden by inmates; Mike discovers and becomes absorbed in the recorded testimony of a threatening multiple personality; while Phil has concerns about the viability of the project and Gordon's mental state.
   It would be surprising if so many disparate elements came together into an entirely satisfactory whole. Predictably enough, one of the weaknesses of Session 9 is that some of the terror, so carefully built up, is dissipated by a climax that leaves too much unspoken. Most importantly, Anderson's script fails to unite completely the two main threads of the story (the usurpation of personality and Gordon's personal crises). Phil blames Gordon's problems on "fatherhood," but by the end of the film a much more malign influence has been confirmed. But there's an absence of real satanic dialogue between the possessor and the possessed. It leaves the viewer hanging, and the inner tensions within Gordon's character remain nigglingly unresolved. While the occasional imprecations from 'Simon' may seem a brief, obvious way of suggesting the forces at work, they fall short of convincing motivation. More damagingly, Gordon's relationship with his family is too distanced (a sad phone call, or a gaze from a parked car) to evoke a real feeling of the effects of evil on their lives. In the event, the final claim by 'Simon' that he "lives in the weak and the wounded" sounds more like an apologetic roundup of an instigating role than a convincing boast of events.
   Having said that, Gordon's breakdown is perhaps the best thing in the film. Our sense of his subtle, increasing alienation is a testament to some fine acting by the underrated Peter Mullan. In The Claim, (his last film before this), Mullan played a powerful, but morally guilty, man whose estrangement from human relations comes to dominate his life. In Session 9, Mullan again plays a man excluded from his kin - although on this occasion by forces overwhelming, in addition to his own dubious actions. Both experiences lead to destruction.
   There are some fine, spooky moments within Danvers, the superb environment in which the action is set. The old mental hospital, decaying and monolithic, provides an atmosphere that would be impossible to achieve except on such an ideal location. Hank's discovery of the hoard in a wall outside the morgue, for instance - ominously stressed by a compelling backward tracking shot inside while he scrambles, out of shot, for the dusty loot. Jeff's panic in the passageway as the generator fails, running for safety, the threatening dark in hot pursuit; or just the quiet moment when Gordon studies his ravaged fingers with unstable amazement, are all standouts. The artefacts that Mike discovers of Mary Hobbes' interview are convincing too: scrupulously presented, the eerie tapes convincingly acted. So effective is this evocation of past events, in fact, that one feels disappointed that Mike does relatively little with his discoveries by the end.
   "It's gonna get ugly," says a prescient Phil (David Caruso) at one point, and so it proves. So much of the first part of the film is fine, that the ultimate descent into gore, however telegraphed in advance, is somewhat of an anti-climax. Hank's madness, alone and stripped in a dark corridor, is considerably more disturbing than the stalk 'n' slash action which follows. Perhaps Anderson thought so too, as he delays confirming the identity of the maniac until the very end. Along the way he confounds the audience with an ambiguous stand off between two major characters, a lot of separated principals blundering through gloomy passageways, and red herrings like Phil's strange meeting with two men (presumably drug dealers) in the yard. Interestingly, the American DVD includes a further subplot, featuring a homeless Indian woman - subsequently dropped for the UK release to help tidy up an already straggling narrative line.
   What remains is a good - surprisingly good, given the limited resources of the production - horror film, unlikely to please those who like their terror on a grand special effects-laden scale, but of interest to those who enjoy excellence on a budget. Director and writer Anderson should be better known, as the appreciative reviews of his other films by fans show for his direction is sure and effective. Session 9 is a worthy addition to his underrated output, and is well worth looking for.
Session 9

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