Session 9

4 out of 5

Directed by: Brad Anderson

Every time I watch Session 9 I experience a similar rollercoaster of impressions: from being really impressed at how much mood director / co-writer Brad Anderson wrings out of his low budget, single-location horror thriller, to being dismissive over how dumbly it transitions into its more direct scares, to appreciating but being unimpressed at how it clambers back from that, to suddenly being wowed again by how it brings it all back home. Going out on a high note is certainly a good thing: it makes the previous, questionable sections feel more worthwhile, and for sure strengthens the movie as a whole; it feels purposeful, and strengthens rewatches. At the same time, the risks Anderson takes with structuring his movie this way – leaving us, for a while, in a lesser-seeming movie – is why it often misses out on my “must watch” lists.

Gordon (Peter Fleming), Phil (David Caruso), and others, make up an asbestos removal company; by promising a nigh-impossible turnaround time of a week, they’ve won the bid to be the company handling cleaning out a massive, abandoned mental facility – with the incentive of a huge bonus upon completion. Anderson and co-writer (and co-star) Stephen Gevedon play with this obviously spooky setup – letting the camera trail through the facility’s long hallways; drift across its surrounding fields – and prop it up against the tuff-guy chatter of the asbestos team, who discuss the undeniably creepy nature of the thing, but also jibber jab about getting the job done and whatnot.

There are some wise tonal choices from the outset: the ambient score from Climax Golden Twins is always scritching and creaking around, never settling, and never offering up any faux “pleasant” themes; Gordon also clearly hears faint voices while being given a tour – during the daytime – of the location, triggering thoughts of his wife and child we’ll come to understand… In other words, Session 9 is never not a horror movie, and that openness of intention saves Anderson some setup steps: it seems natural when members of the team wander off and make strange discoveries, like a stash of silver coins – and hair, and a lobotomy tool – hidden together in the basement, or reel-to-reel recordings of some unsettling regression therapy.

When team member Hank (Josh Lucas) goes missing one day, cracks in the group begin to show: Gordo admits to problems at home that are clearly making his leadership lacking; Phil’s do-or-die attitude makes him abrasive as opposed to supportive; Mike (Gevedon) seems more obsessed with the building’s history – specifically the therapy recordings he’s found, and which start to form an ongoing soundtrack to scenes – than working. This is also when the movie starts to crumble a bit, though, tossing pieces around to suggest supernatural forces that may be at work corrupting things, and the tight grip Anderson has retained on the tone slips in to sudden shouting matches which don’t seem earned, and the kind of “don’t go in the room” questionable decision making that exists in more average horror flicks…

But once these elements settle – like tossing bits of the script up in the air, waiting for them to land, then rearranging them so they make sense again – Session 9 becomes rather brilliant in its closing: the previous confusion makes sense, and where the film has some gaps – not quite selling us on the stakes of this whole asbestos outing beyond the scent of a dollar reward – it fills them in with a suddenly strong sense of character, and also the outright horror of what we’ve just seen.

This rollercoaster never fails me, but by the conclusion, Anderson’s film also never fails to impress, and to leave me thinking back through what I’ve just seen…