Poor Gordon (Peter Mullan). He's tired. Sitting in his work truck in a truly universal pose, he sips his coffee, because his newborn baby, Emma, is not sleeping well. Compounding problems is his job: his hazmat crew needs one desperately; so a successful bid, at all costs, to remove the asbestos from Danvers Mental Hospital is of the highest priority. Of course, Phil (David Caruso), his crew captain, is going to remind him of that in his passive-aggressive, "if I were running things, things would be different" way. Danvers is old and looms large with an older history, but that's really not on Gordon's mind. However, Danvers is certainly thinking about Gordon's mind, as an ominous voice greets Gordon, while walking the halls of the old psycho ward. The supernatural meets the psychological in Brad Anderson's Session 9 (2001).With a story that is at least as old as Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) and a look and atmosphere influenced by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), Session 9 is a film that is both elegantly simple and simply elegant. Gordon's crew does get the gig to clean up Danvers, only after he seriously underbids to do the work in one week (and gives a slight sympathy plea) to the organizer. The one-week time frame creates the framework of the narrative, as each day increasingly becomes darker in both tone and visuals. After a short yet integral scene of Gordon arriving home to his baby girl and wife with flowers to celebrate, the film cuts to the first day, with the hum of the generator, as the crew begins work. Mike (Stephen Gevedon; also co-writer) is a law-school dropout, who secretly has an obsession with Danvers's dark past. Hank (Josh Lucas) is a lazy, smart-assed, wannabe gambler, who has stolen away Phil's girlfriend. Finally, there's young Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), sporting a serious mullet and not knowing a damn thing. After Phil tells the crew at lunch that the gig will last a week with a cash bonus for its on-time completion, Mike tells a story about some of the real "horrors" that went on in Danvers during its heyday. As the crew goes back to work, Danvers begins to work its spell upon them. Mike finds in the basement a box of old recordings of a patient's, Mary Hobbes, psychiatric sessions. Hobbes had a multiple-personality disorder, which manifests itself in three other personalities, beyond her own. Mike begins listening to the first session and over the course of the week, he takes every opportunity he gets to avoid working and listen to them. The sessions end with the titular tape: they are genuinely horrifying and engrossing, because the sessions come off as real. Hearing only the quiet and rational doctor attempt to counsel his patient, as he works through each session to get Mary to talk about, presumably, a childhood murder, is unnervingly creepy. Each of the personalities are revealed, and by the end of the film, the final personality not only draws the film together but kind of explains the goings on. The session tapes are a second story within Session 9 that drives the main narrative, seamlessly.Hank finds an old coin while roaming the basement catacombs, spraying the ducts with the "red slime." In fact, Hank finds several of them, coming from a endless fountain out of the wall (which is shown cleverly to have its origin in the morgue). One evening, in the film's only night scene, Hank returns to Danvers to loot his find. In Session 9's most traditional "haunted house" sequence, Anderson creates real tension and the film's few jump scares, as Hank is chased (?) through the corridors by a shadowy figure. Hank doesn't show up to work the following day, and Phil is not surprised. Phil and Hank do not like each other, but Gordon thinks something else is going on. The work at Danvers is becoming more stressful over the week, and Gordon is acting stranger. On Thursday, clueless Jeff climbs the stairs to find Hank, standing at the top, and the film perfectly escalates to its conclusion.Session 9 is a character-driven film, and no character stands out more than the location, the Danvers Mental Institution. Like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the location has its own personality, and Anderson devotes the film's initial exposition to a long tour of the facility. Danvers is a genuinely real location, and it's authenticity is essential to Session 9's success. Anderson shoots his film wide, a la The Shining, with panning shots gliding from room to room or down a corridor. Anderson also makes good use of his montage imagery, filling them with random shots, which are all the more creepier, perhaps, because of their randomness. Peter Mullan as Gordon paints quite the portrait of his character: over the course of the film, Gordon's character shifts between sinister intensity and pathetic and crying, like a lost child. David Caruso's Phil is totally over-the-top, almost like a parody, but I can't imagine Caruso's acting in any other way. In any regard, Caruso's performance works as the whining Phil. Josh Lucas, as Hank, is perfectly annoying at times, but also his dialogue is often quite funny. Brendan Sexton's Jeff is just plain funny-looking. His character has a genuine fear of the dark, and in one of the film's best visual sequences, Jeff is literally being chased by the dark. Kudos, also to Sexton for his performance.
Finally, Brad Anderson did a splendid job directing Session 9, which he also co-wrote and edited. He shows a real artistic visual eye, which he's developed further with little-seen and wrongfully ignored The Machinist (2004) and Transsiberian (2008). He makes great use of audio with music by Climax Golden Twins, which is kind-of experimental and eccentric combined with traditional music, while odd screeches and humming tones fill the transitional sequences. Perhaps his best achievement in Session 9 are the session tapes: it really says something in a visual medium, when the artist is able to capture dread, through only the sound of characters' voices.
If I were to list the best horror films of this decade, today, then Session 9 would be a serious contender for number one. On that note, if you haven't seen this film, then make seeing Session 9 priority one.