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Release: 2001, USA Films
Starring: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III
Director: Brad Anderson
MPAA Rating: [R] violence, language
Genre: Horror
Runtime: 100 minutes


Fear is a place...

Summary
A decontamination crew hired to remove asbestos from the condemned Danvers lunatic asylum begins to experience bizarre phenomenon as they uncover the site's strange history.

What's Good
tries to disturb, not just shock, the audience
excellent use of sound as a horror device
shot on location in a condemned asylum for maximum mood

What's Bad
conclusion is sinister, but not particularly haunting
lack of correlation between storylines

Commentary
Reviewer: Andrew Manning, Contributing Editor: Michael J. Lee (08/01)

Unlike fright flicks like Scream that try to merely shock you with sudden jolts, Session 9 aims to be a true horror film: one that gets in your head and fundamentally disturbs you. Like the best of the genre, this is a story populated with normal, everyday characters thrust into terror. Shot on location in a real, abandoned asylum, Session 9 has no shortage of foreboding atmosphere and gnawing unease, elements that are sadly lacking in most of Hollywood's so-called "scary" movies.

Session 9 follows the story of a decontamination crew hired to remove asbestos from the Danvers asylum in order to bring it up to code. Gordon (Peter Mullan), the crew's leader and owner of the business, is struggling to support his wife and baby in a world where good work is hard to come by. Meanwhile, his crew chief Phil (David Caruso) resorts to drug use to numb the pain of a recent break-up. Assisting them in the purging of Danvers is a small but determined group: Hank, a down and out dreamer who stole Phil's girlfriend; Mike, a wannabe lawyer fascinated with the history of Danvers; and Jeff, Gordon's young, naive nephew. All of the actors play their parts with such deft normalcy that it is easy to relate to their story and get caught up in it.

From day one, they are all under an enormous amount of pressure. To land the contract, Gordon promises that the job can be done in one week--a seemingly impossible goal. But the men set out to tackle the job nonetheless. Only a few days into the project, however, strange events begin to unfold. Mike discovers reels of tape that recorded the sessions with Danvers' mental patients, and becomes obsessed with one case in particular: a woman diagnosed with multiple personalities, one of which committed a gruesome crime. As he spends time listening to the case studies, tragedies befall the crew, until it becomes clear that something in Danvers is stalking them.

The tapes that document chilling sessions of regression therapy in which alternate personalities emerge are the horror centerpiece of the movie. Invoking images of inhumane medical practices and the psychotically deranged, they rely solely on the sense of sound to convey a dreadful atmosphere with remarkable effectiveness. The use of audio really works to make your nerves tingle, and is almost on par with the gruesome sound editing and audio gimmicks of The Exorcist.

Like The Blair Witch Project, Session 9 works best when it implies violence and horror rather than depicting them. Mysterious shadows, out of place sounds, a dilapidated chair sitting lone in the middle of a room, and an otherwise normal crewman unable to speak--these elements work to evoke terror more effectively than a knife-wielding psycho jumping out at you. Indeed, the movie sticks to this less-is-more formula with remarkable restraint for most of its runtime, except for some short scenes of graphic violence at the end.

[Note: The remainder of this review contains minor spoilers. -MJL]

With such a good set-up, it is perhaps inevitable that Session 9 should stumble at the finish line--and so it does. When the mystery behind the bizarre events is finally uncovered, the truth does not turn out to be much stranger than fiction. To be sure, it is horrific in its own right, but in a more mundane way that doesn't quite live up to high expectations. Session 9 tries to keep things open to interpretation, but it unfortunately reveals just enough to kill the mysticism. It would have been like showing a murderer in The Blair Witch Project rather than giving your imagination free license to run completely wild.

Also disappointing is the lack of correlation between the disturbing case study tapes and the horror that befalls the decontamination crew. Again, this is left somewhat open to interpretation, but enough is explained so that you realize the story of the mental patients and the story of the crew are merely paralleling each other, and never truly intersecting. This would have been more acceptable were it not for the fact that the movie runs the audio of the tapes over the scenes of the crew's tragedies, thus implying a connection that isn't there. It feels a bit forced, as if it's an excuse to simply play scary sounds.

Despite some minor flaws, though, Session 9 largely succeeds in a genre that is very difficult to do well. For every true horror film that tries to get under your skin, there are a hundred slasher flicks that never break the surface of real terror. Session 9 is among the few that can be counted in the former group, and is a must-see for those who like their horror to be deeper than a freak with a giant fishhook.


Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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