Worth A Look: 13.51%
Pretty Bad: 9.46%
Total Crap: 1.35%
3 reviews, 56 user ratings
by David Hollands
I see Session 9, perhaps the most frightening film I've seen in a long time, as a ray of hope for the horror genre. The plot of this little keeper involves a Hazmat crew assigned to clean out espestos from the condemned Danvers Lunatic Asylum. As they work around the clock to meet their ridiculous deadline, the asylum itself begins to have odd effects on them. Soon, all Hell will break loose into a tangle of mystery, hauntings, and murder.The decision to set this film in an abandoned insane asylum was an utter masterstroke. The place is unbelievably creepy, with all the wonderful horror movie hallways that seems to go on forever, the frightening darkness that seems to just seep into every little corner. All the director really had to do was point his camera at something and it would be scary. Director Brad Anderson understands this, often having the setting dwarf the participants. By having a setting that constantly surrounds your protagonists in a way as if it's crushing them, the film just feels as if it's crushing the audience as well. Just like the characters here who are affected by the asylum, you too will be effected. This lets us identify with our characters in such a way that we feel we are with them every step of the way. As they slowly lose their sanity, we too will feel as if we are loosing our sanity. All this because the setting is just so unbelievably creepy. Just look at the rotting walls, the way any noise made echoes throughout the place, and sinister looking rooms that still have their former patients' presence littering them.
"The most frightening film of 2001."
Perhaps the element that makes Session 9 so unusual is how it was shot. The film was photographed using digital cameras, and we can see that by the appearance of the picture. I don't usually like this look, as it can be so cold and unemotional, and can more than separate an audience from a film. Here however, it just seems to fit, because it almost looks as if we are looking through one of those old therapy sessions that was videotaped. The quality of the video is sharp, although it looks extremely unnatural. And that's what helps. The movie just has that unnatural feeling here, and thus the un-emotion of digital video is shattered. Much like one of the characters in this film, the video just seeps into you like it's possessing you. At first, the look is off-putting, but as you get further and further into the movie, you begin to accept its presence as if it's been with you the entire time. That's really one of the reasons why this film is so effective. Long after you finish it, you won't be able to shake the feeling that something is with you, because you've gotten so used to that feeling when watching the film. And when you see the characters start to become edgy, you understand why this film looks like an old therapy tape.
Speaking of the characters, these are a great bunch of people we have in this film. Unlike so many other horror movies, this film takes the time to pay attention to these guys so you can feel for them when things start getting intense. However, the movie doesn't simply give each character outlandish back stories that so many other films have done with success. Instead, the script creates believable characters who are simple, yet effective. Each does have his or her own weakness, just like everybody else (one character's fear of the dark the only one seeming a bit too coincidental) in the world today, and yet the weaknesses are not things that are epic or bloated. They are simple and small, like one characterís inability to cope with his wife and their new child, or anotherís problem with drugs. We can imagine meeting these type of characters practically anywhere, which is why this horror film functions so well. By having characters who seem more like us and not typical movie personas, the quality of the film immediately goes up. The characters are so much like real ones, that we feel like we are along side them every step of the way, and that we are also a part of them. This greatly helps the film when they are put in danger, because we donít want to see great characters like these go through troubles like the ones in this film.
A very clever aspect of the film is that it isnít quite the typical haunted building tale. For most of the running time, weíre unsure if the place is actually haunted, or if the HazMat team is starting to severely crack up. The way the film does this is through a perfect combination of the supernatural and the psychotic. Many times, the film doesnít even need ghosts to be in the frame. You just feel them everywhere in the film, as if they live in the walls, constantly watching you. This fear is reinforced through a very clever device. One worker finds old session tapes in a room down in the basement of the asylum. When he plays them, he discovers they are the sessions of patient Mary Hobbs, who has many different personalities. The voices she makes when undergoing therapy are some the freakiest I have ever heard, and the main reason why this film functions as both a psychological drama and a dark horror film. Basically, the presence of the ghost is reinforced through the Mary Hobbes session tapes, something the excellent ending of the picture justifies. By doing this, the script never has to rely on typical haunted house movie conventions, like doors creaking open or things jumping out of corners to give you a little ďBoo!Ē. Itís almost as if there are no ghosts here, although the feeling that there are ghosts is what makes this a truly scary film.
The film also comes up with some very clever reasons as to why some characters do what they do. Many times in horror films, you have characters wandering off into darkened areas simply because the script calls for it. You really don't feel any kind of tension in those moments, because you can't help but feel that you're being cheated. That never happens in this film, as there's always some kind of legitimate reason for the characters to head into the dark areas of the asylum. One such scene like that is when one of the workers, Hank, heads back to the Asylum late at night to collect some hidden money he had found in the walls. It's logical that he would head back at night, so as to not call the attention of his fellow co-workers. Another moment of this type is when the characters are all searching for one of their men that has gone missing. Characters do head off into dark areas without much in the way of light, but that's because there is no real light to be found in Danver's Asylum. Plus, they have to split up to cover more ground, and they are not aware that something is in the asylum that could possibly do them harm. It truly is great when a film seeks to be intelligent about its horror, and not to simply have characters traipse around with a flashlight going "Hello?".
The film is unbelievably restraint. There is hardly any onscreen violence to be found here, as the director keeps anything that could possibly be gruesome hidden right until the end of the picture. Frankly, this approach is easily the best to be taken when dealing with violence in serious horror films. By keeping things completely restrained here, the final three minutes of violence during the conclusion become so unbelievably gruelling, that I was actually shielding my eyes and wincing, something I hardly ever do when watching movies with gore. Plus, the lack of gore for most of the film clearly says that the filmmakers are up for taking risks. No, there are no MTV references or gore galore to satisfy today's horror crowd. Instead, this film harkens back to that old rule of "less is more", which it keeps to heart admirably. Truth be told, there are no special effects or production design here. To capture one significant shot of the sky, the filmmakers actually waited for the sky to form specific patterns. Knowing this, I immediately gave the filmmakers my utmost respect, because these guys are definitely not lazy.
Further proof of this is seen with the risks these guys take on the film. The pace of this flick is very slow, which, I'm sure, is an immediate turn-off for MTV crack heads with attention disorders. But the filmmakers clearly don't care, because unlike another horror film that tried this approach and failed miserably (Larry Fessenden's Wendigo), there is actually interesting stuff going on in the slow running time. In fact, there's never anything resembling a dull moment here, because the filmmakers use the running time to establish certain creepy things that constantly hold our attention. One character talks on his cell phone to his wife at home, and you can't quite understand why the filmmakers are padding the running time with this detail, and yet you just can't turn away at all. You want to find out why the character is talking on his cell phone with a strange detached glaze in his eyes, or why another character seems to be so obsessed with a patient's tapes that he discovered in a room in the asylum's basement. The long running time is essential to set up these little details, because they pay off in a huge fashion when the conclusion arrives.
Speaking of the conclusion, it may just be one of the best twist endings I've ever seen. And it almost didn't work the first time I saw it, but when I watched the film again, I realised why it actually plays out in such a great fashion. Basically, my initial gripe with the ending of the film was that it concerned possession, a staple of a purely supernatural film. First time watching this, this movie seemed much more like a psychological thriller and not a pure supernatural horror film. However, the second time you watch this, I guarantee everything will make sense, because the film perfectly sets up the supernatural aspect of its twist. We see the main character who will eventually become the reason for all the mayhem stare down a hallway at a chair that's been left outside a former patient's room. A voice than speaks to him, a haunting disembodied voice. This character than begins to act a bit strange as the film goes on; hitting his wife, becoming paranoid, etc. Then, by the end of the film, we hear the voice again on the patient Mary Hobbes' session tapes. Perhaps the main gripe I had with the ending initially was how little the filmmakers tell us. In fact, they leave practically everything up to the audience to figure out, a true case of "show, don't tell". But then I realised how much they do tell us, only through perfectly executed visuals and audio.
Consider a character who finds out that the patient Mary Hobbes, who suffered from multiple personality disorder, had died and was buried in lot 444 in the graveyard. Then see how we have our main character talking to his wife, sitting in the cemetery right beside Hobbes' grave stone. See, this is the kind of film that gives us every clue we need; it's then our job to put all those clues together to figure out the details. To give an example of how carefully the filmmakers thought this film through, look no further than a jar of peanut butter that a character finds in the bowels of the insane asylum. Then notice briefly that as another character (the one who's the cause of all the problems) exits his car with a grocery bag, one of the contents being that same peanut butter. Not only does this little detail provide a beautifully hidden clue, it also brings up another incredibly creepy notion: that the character has begun sleeping in the asylum. Again, the film tells you nothing to indicate that...it just shows you, exactly how every film should.
But then comes the question about the ending. What exactly is going on there? Well, it's a simple case of possession, that's all it is. When the character who becomes possessed first hears the demonic voice in the hallway, it is essentially one of Mary Hobbes' alternate personalities possessing him. We know this, because during the conclusion, the same voice the character hears in the hallway appears in the final session of Mary Hobbes' taped examinations. Plus, the only answer left is possession, because there's simply no other way that the character could have heard the same voice that Mary Hobbes utters during her final session. The film essentially says this through it's visual clues, and that's why the movie functions as both a supernatural horror film and a psychological mystery. There's just enough of both elements to make this movie work, enough of that supernatural feeling so as not to make the film's final supernatural twist come completely out of left field.
Of course, one thing wouldn't appear to make sense at first: why does one character state that he talked to the character's girlfriend, and she said he had taken off for casino school? How is this possible when we find out this character's fate? Simple. The character was lying the whole time. He had always hated the character who had gone missing, because that character stole away his girlfriend, so it's extremely natural to assume that he was lying his a*s off in that moment. And that kind of thing is, again, not presented to its audience overtly, it's something that the audience simply has to figure out for itself. I doubt that I've ever seen a horror film that requires one to pay so much attention, yet the fact that now there is one is extremely refreshing. Plus, that kind of character moment is excellent, because it not only shows that this film is mostly a character driven piece, but that it respects it's audience's ability to notice these things for themselves.
****END OF SPOILER WARNING****
The film is extremely playful about what is supernatural and what isn't. When characters here a series of rapid footsteps on the second floor, it could quite possibly be one character who had gone missing, or it could have been a spirit trying to lead them places. The gas generator could have failed because it ran out of gas, or it could be that a spirit was tampering with it. Whatever the situation, the filmmakers always leave a door open for the audience to decide whether something was simply just a mere accident, or whether supernatural forces are at work here.
Aside from being an extremely carefully constructed film, Session 9 is also an unbelievably terrifying film. This sucker scared the living sh*t out of me, because it taps into so many of our every day fears. Plus, there is a grand number of absolute bravura scare sequences here. Consider a sequence that occurs when a character returns to the asylum to collect some money that he found earlier in the day. The place is completely dark, and the guy only has a flashlight. After he has his things, he starts to make his way back outside. It's at this point that he hears a sound, and turning around, he sees a dark figure rise up behind him. Note that this scene takes place in a hallway lit only by a flashlight, and also one that takes place in the dead of night. The terror level is unbelievably high here, because we are with the character every step of the way. Director Brad Anderson never cuts wide, instead putting a Stedi-cam on the guy and running with him, echoing his disorientation perfectly. Plus, the sheer terror of being stuck alone in an abandoned insane asylum armed only with a flashlight in the darkest of places while somebody's chasing you is just unbelievable. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack while watching the sequence...I also desperately wanted director Anderson to pull back a little, to give me some relief. He doesn't, and thus makes a true horror film, one that never gives its audience any kind of relief even when they desperately need it. Also, the final moments of this sequence are filled with so much tension, that I was about to f*cking faint. Looking back, I can hardly recall any other horror film that affected me in that way.
Another sequence though that truly got my nerves going involved one poor guy in a tunnel. The character in the film has an intense fear of the dark, almost as severe as mine. The script has the guy searching the basement just as the gas generator goes out. The lights flicker, and he begins to run. Then, the lights finally go out, creating a roaming darkness that proceeds to chase the poor guy down the hall before finally engulfing him. It's the film's scariest moment, and it's done with an unbelievable sense of ease by the director. Not only is it yet another case of Anderson not pulling back at all, but it's also him tapping into a fear shared by just about everyone. The difference between this horror film and many others is that we are with the characters every step of the way, something that mercilessly increases the tension a thousand fold. If a character is in a dark space, we are also in that dark space. If a character begins going through severe psychosis, we will also go threw severe psychosis. And that's probably why it scares so easily. It dreams up situations that we can all see ourselves in, and brings us to the place where we least want to be. So really, it is an absolute true horror film.
Director Brad Anderson fills this film with a sense of menace that is simply astounding. Obviously choosing to use Stanley Kubrick's directorial style from The Shining, Anderson has also completely one-upped the person who obviously inspired his style here. Kubrick filmed the classic Overlook hotel in The Shining as if he were composing paintings. He created images that were far more beautiful than terrifying, and I really wasn't that scared at all. Here however, Anderson applies that same style, only for the proper location. Anderson has an extreme visual flair, knowing exactly when to cut from one shot to the next, and always knowing when he must push forward or pull back. Plus, he keeps our attention throughout without resorting to jump scares or gore, a true plus for a horror film. Also, he really does have a great location to work with, and he uses it to full extent, never giving us a second to catch our breath. Case in point is the very first shot of the film: an upside-down camera angle on a chair in the middle of a decrepit hallway that soon begins to spin back upright. It's unnerving, perfectly setting up the kind of film we are about to see. In fact, the opening shot is almost like Anderson warning the audience about what is to follow...and then he actually pays off that warning marvellously.
Anderson throws trick after trick at the audience, using quick cutaways, dates superimposed onto the screen to hint at a tension-filled countdown to something, and twists at every turn. An example is when a character is about to turn a corner, and something is heading straight for him around that corner. Anderson shows us this, accompanied by the creepiest sounds imaginable, then shows us the character's obliviousness to increase suspense. When he has you at a fever pitch, and when the character sees what's been heading towards him around the corner, there is an immediate cut to black. But Anderson doesn't just take you out of a suspense set-piece to give you relief, he does so to increase the suspense. We want to know what happened to this character, and yet Anderson won't let us, meaning that we are on pins and needles for the whole film...plus, we're terrified for the other characters now, because we do care for them. There's no doubt in my mind that Session 9 may just belong in the cinema history vaults as one of the scariest films of all time...it's THAT effective.
Of course, horror films do not rely solely on direction and scares. The performances are equally important, and they are first rate here. Peter Mullan, playing our hero Gordon, does a fantastic job. His character is stressed out constantly, and slightly on edge, and Mullan plays it wonderfully. He shows that the character may be slightly off his rocker, and yet he adds the human touch to that which makes his character all the more pitiful. The technique works like a son of a b*tch, especially when the extremely grim ending comes around. David Caruso inhabits his character very well, being able to bring a sense of gravity to his character. Yet the actor also understands his character's flaws as well, and doesn't shy away from being imperfect when the script calls for it. Josh Lucas, always a fine performer, turns in a nice performance here as well. While his character may be the typical jerk, Lucas does just enough tweaking here to make him a likable jerk. It pays off too, cause I expected that I would end up hating the guy...and yet just like the other characters, I felt sorry that he was going through these supernatural troubles. Brendan Sexton does a great job playing the typical teenage character here. His work is nothing new, yet it doesn't have to be. It's a lived-in performance that never gets annoying, and it deserves kudos. Finally, Paul Guilfoyle turns in a wonderfully restraint, creepy performance. We're constantly wondering about this guy, and it provides the film with a perfect sense of menace.
The ones who truly deserve mention here are those who provided the voices of Mary Hobbes' alternate personalities. These are some really creepy aspects to these voices, and the way they are spoken adds an eeriness that's extremely effective. Without the talented vocal artists who did the voices, the film wouldn't have a key element of creepiness.
The cinematography by Uta Briesewitz is fantastic. Instead of going for style, Briesewitz instead photographs each situation as if it were taking place in the real world, something which ups the tension considerably. Basically, we feel that this film is truly occurring, so it makes it easier for us to imagine being in the same situation. Plus, when the film switches gears and heads into the shadow-filled places, the cinematography takes on a darkness that is just unparalleled. Briesewitz uses shadows extremely well. He also finds a way here to photograph the appearance of darkness without making it pitch black, so we can still make out the characters. This is something that doesn't allow for audience to character separation at all. We are constantly connected to them, something which is perfect in a film like this, because it increases tension ten fold.
Then, there's the music by Climax Golden Twins. Quite frankly, it is perhaps the most disturbing score for a horror film that I've ever heard (aside from The Mothman Prophecies, of course). The movie begins with strange clicks and bleeps, then moving into a piece of music that perfectly complements the opening shot of the picture. The music here is perhaps the true definition of "creepiness", as it is completely unrelenting. Never does the score become at all happy or "safe". It simply stays in its state of constant horror for the entire film, something that increases the fright factor considerably. It uses synthesizers to suggest that things aren't quite normal in the asylum, and it also sticks it where it hurts many times with beautifully executed musical jumps. What's special about the musical jumps here is that they aren't just explosions of noise - they actually build to something and have a purpose. Never in this film was there useless noise in the music. And the greatest thing about this score is that it only infiltrates a scene when it needs to. In fact, much of this film relies on absolute pure silence most of the time, something which creates tension beautifully. The rest of the score is comprised of high-pitched shriek tones, and they are extremely discomforting, perfectly reflecting the nature of this film.Session 9 stands firmly as the scariest film of 2001. It is a wonderfully put together movie that relies way more on atmosphere than boo shocks and jumps. It has perfect direction, a setting that's every horror fanís wet dream, and performances that are just great. See it, and experience terror beyond belief.
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originally posted: 01/19/04 09:49:05