Session 9 Review
Loosely based on the true story of a seemingly normal Insurance salesman in Boston, Massachusetts, who murdered his wife, then stuck her heart and lungs on a stick in the backyard whilst he continued to go to work and function as if nothing had happened, Session 9 is a creepy little thriller that promises so much more than it delivers.
Gordon (Peter Mullan), is an older, stressed-out, brand new dad, whose Hazmat removal company is one job away from bankruptcy. Desperate to win a lucrative contract for bringing the long-abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital up to code, he underbids and commits his crew to an impossible one week start-to-finish deadline for the job. Working alongside Gordon, are Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a likeable, law school dropout, Phil (David Caruso), a friend of Gordon's with a major chip on his shoulder due in large part to co-worker Hank (Josh Lucas), a sleazy gambler who stole Phil's girlfriend, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), the wise-cracking, naive nephew of Gordon, who sports a horrific mullet and does most of the manual labour.
The five men settle into a comfortable routine of removing asbestos and trying to meet their deadline...then several things happen simultaneously: Mike discovers a box of reel-to-reel tapes that document nine sessions (hence the film's title) of a deceased, former mental patient named Mary Hobbes' psychiatric sessions with her doctor. Mary exhibits multiple personality disorder during her sessions and the tapes are truly disturbing (actress Jurian Hughes supplied all of the voices, and with some creative sound effect inserts and distortion-tweaking, the end result was chilling). Gordon, who is experiencing marital problems and lack of sleep due to his baby daughter's ear infection, starts to display symptoms of paranoia and aggression. Friends and co-workers turn on each other, and the scene is set. Without giving away the plot, the situation escalates, with genuine chills and creepiness along the way to its disappointing conclusion.
The true star of this film is the Danvers State Mental Hospital. It is massive, eerie and second only to The Overlook Hotel from The Shining in inspired set use. Everything from the peeling paint, to the cracked and crumbling tiles, to the garish murals on the walls give the film its sense of dread and otherworldliness. The acting is excellent, especially performances by Scottish actor Peter Mullan and former NYPD Blue regular David Caruso. Paul Guilfoyle is charming in a short, but funny cameo in the beginning of the film.
The film promised a lot, but failed to deliver. A large part of the blame is Anderson's inability to decide where he wanted Session 9 to go. The film was intentionally shot to be ambiguous. Instead of making it strictly supernatural, or strictly psychological, he relied heavily on the viewer's ability to discern what was happening in the parallel stories. Numerous red herrings were thrown into the mix that were more annoying than plot-enhancing, and ultimately added more unanswered questions to the film's already ambiguous conclusion. On the plus side, the visuals were absolutely stunning, and his use of sound (Mary and her doctor's voices on the tapes) as cast members was inspired.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and is a bit of a pioneer, as it is the first feature film to use High Definition Video instead of film. A CineAlta 24P HD digital camera was used. The picture quality is remarkable, crisp, with no fading of colours or smears, and only the tiniest bit of grain and occasional softness. A pristine print was used and no pixellation was evident, nor did I see any edge enhancement. The dual-layered DVD comes in an attractive keepcase, with liner notes on the inside cover.
In part because of the limited budget, Anderson opted for Dolby Digital 2.0 instead of 5.1 While understandable, is a bit of a surprise considering the film relied on sounds to fill the gaps in certain scenes. Despite that, the sound was clean, with no hissing and the dialogue was clear.
Deleted Scenes - Several deleted scenes and an alternate ending are accompanied by director Brad Anderson's commentary. Although the alternate ending and related subplot were ultimately scrapped, they still make for fascinating viewing.
Story to Screen - Storyboard-to-scene split-screen comparisons are included with optional commentary. Alternate poster concepts are included as well.
Director's Commentary - An interesting, albeit dry-sounding commentary with director Brad Anderson and Stephen Gevedon is included in the extras. The commentary focused on technical aspects of different shots, the as-is condition of the Danvers State Mental Hospital which they temporarily took possession of for the duration of the film shoot, complimentary remarks on the cast and crew, and humorous anecdotes about some of the effective, but spur-of-the-moment special effects. Although Anderson and Gevedon attempted a running commentary, there were lapses of silence, and not an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm.
Chapter Stops and Menus - There are 12 animated chapter stops, and menus. The animation consists of clips from the film. The navigation is easy and smooth.
Theatrical Trailer - A trailer in 2.0 audio and 1.85:1 is included.
Featurette: The Haunted Palace - I found this featurette to be the best part of the extras. A partial history of the Danvers State Mental Hospital, and "making of" Session 9 are included along with personal anecdotes from cast and crew members on their experiences inside the Hospital. Peter Mullan, in particular, was deeply and bizarrely affected by the building.
A genuinely good, creepy little thriller, bogged down only by its unsatisfying ending. Fine acting, a wonderful score, a majestic structure and talented directing, Session 9 is recommended viewing - just do it with the lights on, and leave your expectations at the door.