The crispness of vision and the timelessness of both its location and story are testament to why Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is still lauded as one of the finest examples of contemporary horror.
Session 9 is a classic haunted house story. A group of men take a short-term, high-pressure, job to get a big payout. The job? Clearing asbestos from the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, a sprawling derelict monument to the medical failures of generations past.
It’s a classic set-up. Wrought interpersonal relationships between stubborn men, set against a backdrop of eerie, psychological revelations. Like if the cast of The Thing got dumped in the Overlook hotel for a week. Peter Mullan is superb here, leading a magnetic cast (David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas, Larry Fessenden) into the inevitable powder keg of psychological thrills. It would be bad enough if Session 9 was just toxic masculinity in isolation, but with the discovery of a past patient’s interview tapes, the one-week job takes a turn into horror territory as the Danvers’ past breathes new life.
It’s been said before but perhaps not since The Shining has a locale felt so inherently intwined with the story, and not since The Overlook has a building been such an obvious character in proceedings. The Danvers building is a classic example of sheer institutional brutalism, its abandonment has allowed it to flourish with a kind of decrepit beauty that feels impossible to manufacture. Or, at least, the viewer reaction to it is hard to manufacture since knowing it’s a legitimate ex-institution gives it so much power over a studio construction.
Session 9’s ambience is indebted to its perfect location yes, but also to its camera work. Bizarrely, Brad Anderson has made his film feel like a mockumentary. It’s as though there’s a missing scene where the characters acknowledge a fly-on-the-wall crew, or a lone cameraman out to craft a visual tone poem from static images of decay and choice excerpts of fraught interactions. It lends the whole film an involving sense of reality while it feeds us a narrative we should never truly trust.
Session 9 is a film when benefits from blind viewing, so singing its praises is best limited to the technical out of respect for the story. But if you’re looking for a palpable atmosphere and a good scare this Halloween, look no further.
Dir. Brad Anderson
Stars. Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas, Larry Fessenden