Session 9 (2001) [Blu-ray review]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-08-16 00:59

Session 9 (2001)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: August 16th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Even though I’ve seen Session 9 four or five times now, its greatness always seems to sneak up on me. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a film that sets out to be slippery and elusive—while watching Session 9, there’s always the sense that director Brad Anderson is withholding in some way. You can’t get a hold of a film that seemingly has no center. It’s a quality that sounds damning, yet it actually explains just why this is such an effective and unsettling work. Left without an anchor, audiences are left with at least one certainty: something is certainly driving the characters here towards an inevitable doom, whether it’s their own inner turmoil or some external forces working to squeeze away their sanity.

Another certainty: this location—a condemned Massachusetts psychiatric ward—is oppressive as hell. When an asbestos removal crew is tapped to clean the place up, it feels less like a job and more like they’ve accepted a dare to hole up in a haunted facility for a couple of weeks. Never mind the fact that they’re only there in daylight hours and that they can technically leave the place and go home every afternoon: the Danvers State Hospital casts a long shadow and seemingly threatens to engulf the men in its filthy, cavernous corridors. Even the sparse sunlight that sneaks through its windows casts an eerie, sinister glow, especially since it only illuminates the squalor of broken psyches and shattered lives.

While Anderson does not treat it as the main plot, a natural intrigue arises around the place and its sordid history. Anderson and co-writer Steven Gevedon’s screenplay reveals this in piecemeal fashion, cobbling together offhand conversations about previous scandals, the discovery of old session tapes, and fleeting glimpses of suspicious, possibly paranormal activity. Most films would probably find a linear thread to tie all of this together, Anderson lets the mythology creep about the edges, serving mostly as a suggestion. Unsettling voices—as many as three or four of them belonging to one mentally ill patient—often play over the crew’s mundane tasks, with each word slowly wrapping around the proceedings, tightening like a noose.

It’s an approach that’s disquieting in its caginess and the director’s refusal to connect the dots. Where a lesser film might offer some semblance of comfort by holding the audience’s hand throughout, Session 9 practically turns them loose in this dark, abandoned asylum and leaves them fumbling to pick up and stitch together the scraps of possibilities scattered about. When they’re eventually pieced together into something of a coherent puzzle, it almost feels like a sucker punch. Aided by an ambient score that often sounds like a low-key buzz saw or drill, Session 9 slowly burrows into your brain, where it occasionally plants glimpses of these possibilities: is the hospital haunted? Are the men losing their minds? Is it some combination of both?

Through their interactions, each man reveals his own demons: lead man Gordon (Peter Mullen) is cracking under the pressure of being a new father; Phil (David Caruso) seems collected but shows the potential for volatile behavior; Mike (Gevedon) still lives with the disappointment of flunking out of law school; Hank (Josh Lucas) is a petulant asshole. Only Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) seems to have it all together, but he’s arguably the most spooked by the place. Even if there’s absolutely no malevolent forces haunting the place, a palpable tension exists between these men. They’re a powder get waiting to explode, and the only question is if anything supernatural will toss on more gasoline and light the fuse.

Mullen and Caruso’s presences loom the largest. Both capture the opposite ends of Session 9’s spectrum: the former reflects the sullen, melancholy pall that hangs over the film, while the latter represents the film’s sinister potential. The push and pull between the two is compelling and forms some semblance of a center of gravity for the film. You especially feel like you’re being pulled into Gordon’s dark night of the soul, beckoned down into an abyss guided by hushed voices and fleeting spirits. Something ominous looms over every interaction, be it a contentious confrontation or a potential reconciliation: at no point does it feel like they’ll ever escape the profound sorrow of this abandoned facility.

That Danvers is a hollowed out shell of its former self is apt; so, too, are the men who enter it. Whether or not it’s literally haunted is beside the point: what’s certain is that these men are haunted by the overwhelming strain of life. Perhaps more than anything, Session 9 is a middle-age fever dream, its schizoid embellishments acting as an extreme twist on a mid-life crisis—this is a potent reminder that demons don’t always possess from without. Sometimes, they eat away from within, slowly peeling away at the psyche, the heart, and the soul.

The disc:

When I reviewed Session 9 a few years ago, I noted that you won’t find a Collector’s Edition of the film on shelves, and that’s technically still true in light of Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release. For whatever reason, the studio didn’t bestow the Collector’s Edition label on a release that does everything possible to earn it. Not only is the presentation much improved over the ancient DVD, but audiences might even be downright surprised that the film’s pioneering digital photography holds up extremely well. It’s virtually indistinguishable from modern digital photography.

Newly-produced retrospective “Return to Danvers” headlines a robust set of supplements. A familiar documentary for Scream aficionados, the 40-minute featurette wrangles up a typical assortment of talking heads to discuss the film’s conception, release, and surprising legacy. Anderson and Gevedon are key contributors, though Lucas and Sexton III chime in with informative anecdotes. Cinematographer Uta Briesewitz also appears to discuss the challenging process of shooting in digital on a low budget and relays a disturbing on-set incident of art nearly imitating life.

Another new addition here is a new episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, though this particular installment mixes current footage with host Sean Clark’s previous excursion to Danvers in 2004. The vintage (well, if 2004 can be considered “vintage”) is most interesting since it reveals that the building was in more or less the same condition as it was during Session 9’s production. It really makes you appreciate just how raw and authentic Anderson’s film is.

Previous supplements are also ported over, including a “story to screen” featurette, a commentary with Anderson and Gevedon, a theatrical trailer, and “The Haunted Palace,” a 12-minute making-of bit that sells just how creepy the Danvers location is. Again, it’s technically not labelled a Collector’s Edition, but it features just about everything one would want from such a release (well, short of bringing back Mullen and Caruso, neither of which appear in the newly-produced stuff).

Of course, the retrospective can’t skirt around the disappointing release and reception of Session 9. It’s almost become part of the lore itself: after USA Films went under, the film was infamously dumped into a handful of videos before receiving an unceremonious home video release. Those of us who just happened to be turned on to it back then (a buddy of mine insisted that I just had to see it, and he was right) can feel some measure of vindication that the film has seen a happier ending: at this point, it’s pretty well recognized as one of the most underappreciated horror movies of the past fifteen years. Now, it has a well-deserved home video release to back it up. Now, if we could just get Hollywood to recognize Anderson as one its more unsung and underutilized talents.
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