Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
I like good horror movies. I don’t like it when I see the scare coming from a mile away, because what happens might be disturbing or disgusting or nasty, but it’s rarely scary. In many respects, horror movies are the most stylized genre of film. Certain moments are set up in certain ways to elicit a certain reaction from the audience. Since the desired reaction is, in general, fear, there are specific horror movie tropes that get repeated. I enjoy it greatly when a film plays with those tropes and either does things in a new way or does things the old way with a different result. The real issue is that so many of these tropes are so ingrained in the genre that tweaking just one or two of them is often seen as a win or as masterful filmmaking. Session 9 tweaks a few horror movie ideas, but it also falls into a lot of the same pitfalls. That’s both encouraging and disappointing.
In that respect, it reminds me a lot of Paranormal Activity. The two films have very little outside of genre in common, but there is a similarity at the core. Both of them are more or less movies about really dumb characters by really smart filmmakers. Director Brad Anderson sets up some nice scares that don’t come through. Rather than being disappointing, these serve to increase the tension in those scenes. Sadly, those scenes also rely on one or more characters being painfully stupid to be in the situation in the first place.
An abandoned mental hospital is an imposing structure, but the locals have decided that it should be refurbished into a new town hall. The first order of business is getting rid of the asbestos. A local company run by Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) makes a desperate bid, promising to get the work done in about half the time the job really requires.
However, this is a horror movie, which means that there are a few important truths we need to learn quickly. The first is that the mental hospital is, of course, disturbingly creeptastic. It would be even if this weren’t a horror movie, but since we know we’re surfing that wave, there’s a real menace to it. Second, we slowly discover that each of the five men working on the project has slowly growing problem. Gordon finds himself under increasing pressure both from the desperate state of his asbestos removal business and from becoming a new father. His main assistant Phil (David Caruso) has recently started smoking marijuana to deal with losing his girlfriend to slacker Hank (Josh Lucas). Mike (screenplay co-author Stephen Gevedon) is a law school dropout. Finally, new hire Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is Gordon’s nephew and also severely nyctophobic.
Early in the process, the cracks start to show in Gordon’s calm. While hunting for the fuse box, Mike stumbles upon some old records and begins to listen to the recordings, which concern a woman institutionalized for an unknown reason. It’s evident that the subject on the tapes has multiple personalities and there is frequent mention of a personality named Simon. While exploring, Hank finds a massive cache of silver coins, rings, and other implements and decides to come back at night to claim them. The next day, Hank has disappeared and everyone is starting to act more and more strangely.
Session 9 does a number of things well. The sequence in the middle where Hank returns to the sanitarium at night is a microcosm of what the film does well and does poorly. On the plus side, this sequence is evidence of just how smart director Brad Anderson is. Much of these scenes are shot in close-up, preventing us from seeing anything going on around Hank. It’s an old horror movie staple—you keep the camera tight so that when something does happen, we’re not ready for it. When nothing does happen, it almost feels like a cheat, but it sets up what happens to Hank as he tries to leave.
At the same time, it shows just how dumb the characters are. First, Hank is dumb enough to come to the abandoned, creepy mental hospital at night in the dark on his own. Even without the threat of the supernatural, this is a terrible idea. He knows (as we do) going in that many of the former inmates return to the hospital and that it’s also a hangout for wayward youths and possibly gang members. Showing up alone and unarmed at night is idiotic. Second, and much more telling of Hank’s idiocy, he goes in with fucking earbuds. So it’s evidently not enough to break into a dangerous, incredibly creepy place filled with bad vibes with the possibility of being attacked by released mental patients and/or gang thugs. Just to ensure the right frame of mind, you make sure that you can’t hear anything.
The premise of Session 9 is interesting, but it never fully comes together. There’s some indication that the Simon character we hear about on the tapes is somehow “released” when Mike starts listening to the recordings. But this is only implied. There’s not much of a real connection made between the tapes (and the infamous ninth and final session) and what happens in the institution. Worse, we get frequent shots of a chair sitting at the end of a hallway. These shots go nowhere. Sure, they’re spooky. And? The only function of the chair is to get characters to a particular place in the sanitarium. A cardboard box would’ve done the same thing.
Beyond this, there are some strange line readings throughout, especially from David Caruso, who was getting ready for “CSI Miami” by overacting here.
All in all, I’m disappointed. This could’ve done something interesting with an old premise, but it really doesn’t. There are some nasty moments near the end, some genuine unpleasantness, but the film as a whole doesn’t really work that well. The structure is both too rickety and too much something I’ve seen before. I wanted to like this, but it comes up very short.
Why to watch Session 9: Some scares work in interesting ways.
Why not to watch: Do we really need another “haunted spooky place” film?