Director/writer Brad Anderson, who turned heads with the winning romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland, does a narrative about face with Session 9, a creepy, psychological thriller more likely to twist heads than turn them. After displaying a knack for witty dialogue and strong pacing with Wonderland, Anderson applies those skills to the difficult horror genre, and delivers an exciting, low-key treat.
You can think of Session 9 as a kind of 5 Angry Men meets The Shining. A crew of asbestos removal workers — played with solid force throughout, with notable performances by David Caruso (Kiss of Death, NYPD Blue) and Peter Mullan (The Claim) — has the unenviable task of spending a week in an enormous, abandoned insane asylum, gutting it at a fever pitch pace in order to make it safe for renovation. The hospital once housed 2,300 ‘patients’ at its peak, and very few of them were happy. Makes for an excellent haunted house story.
As the week progresses, the building, the job, and the lives of the men begin to eat away at them. As the floor and ceiling tiles get peeled away, so too does the crew’s psyche, and Anderson (with co-screenwriter and actor Stephen Gevedon) does an outstanding job keeping both us and his characters guessing. Who’s cracking? Who’s lying? Who’s trying to make the job work well for all? The script keeps just enough information away from everyone, resulting in a film that gets tighter and tighter as the days start slipping away.
Shot on digital video (with impressive cinematography by Uta Briesewetz — sometimes you forget it’s video) at an actual empty asylum in Danvers, MA, Session 9 works for all the reasons a thriller should. There’s strong, ensemble acting, with Anderson allowing his talented cast to talk over one another, giving the movie a conversational reality and weight. There’s a spiraling pace, which deftly picks up speed as the movie heads toward the final act. And, of course, there are spooky visuals — simple family photographs that hide pain behind the smiling faces, dilapidated ‘treatment’ rooms, and long, dark, corridors.
Anderson’s one downfall is in allowing the final act to unravel with a lack of structure. It ends up drawing out the resolution a little too far, and doesn’t feel as satisfyingly tight as the rest of the movie. It doesn’t taint the total experience, but it does need some restraint. Also, his choice of scary imagery is effective, but he tends to use it too much toward the finale, diluting the freaky feel just a bit.
Overall, though, Session 9 is a real summer winner, with a lot more punch than that Blair craziness from two summers ago. You know you’re watching a good thriller when audience members start giggling with excitement when they see something coming (wait, is the generator losing power?). Add in a solid dose of well-acted drama, and that’s the general feeling of Session 9.
Before the madness.