GORE IN THE STORE
SESSION 9 *****
Directed by Brad Anderson.
Starring Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas.
USA 2001 100 mins Certificate: 15.
Released by Second Sight on Limited Edition Blu-Ray on December 27th 2021.
Though technically significant -it was the first theatrically released American film shot on 24p HD Digital Video – and the recipient of generally fine reviews, one of the great American horror films of the 21st century was barely a blip on the world’s movie watching radar upon its original release in August 2001, when it was upstaged by the (admittedly very fine) old fashioned ghost story THE OTHERS.
Brad Anderson, who subsequently made the remarkable THE MACHINIST wanted to make a grown-up horror film with serious intent at a time when the genre sat somewhere between the smarmy, self-satisfied post-SCREAM teen horrors and the nihilistic post-Guantanamo Bay cycle of hard-edged HOSTEL-like ordeals. In Japan, Hideo Nakata’s RING (1998), which opens with a scene of teen peril not dissimilar to the preamble of SCREAM, had unleashed a new wave of ghost stories without self-conscious nods to the audience or an excess of “Oh, it’s you!” jump scares. Soon after Anderson’s film came and went, Hollywood appropriated the tropes of RING and others for its own series of po-faced remakes, forsaking the subtlety of the best in the spirit of “more is less”.
Co-written with actor, Stephen Gevedon, SESSION 9 is a master class of sustained dread and isn’t interested in photogenic cast members who look great on a floating-head poster or loud orchestral stings to make the audience drop their popcorn. It sets its tone via a single flipped shot of a solitary chair in the (real-life) abandoned Danvers Hospital, Massachusetts while the soundtrack (literally) drips with menace. The exposition is delivered as a walk and talk by guest star Paul Guilfoyle which, like the seven-day narrative structure and intertitles ape Kubrick’s THE SHINING.
In the extras, Anderson admits he could have had more money at his disposal – and potentially a huge hit – if he had cast an ensemble of L.A. babes and hunks instead of the small group of construction workers in need of a decent payday and working in an asbestos-riddled former insane asylum with a questionable reputation. Supervisor Guilfoyle would prefer to have the cavernous, bat-winged building demolished to make way for a Wal-Mart, but the powers that be want it still standing. Project leader is stressed family man Peter Mullan (whom Anderson had greatly admired in Ken Loach’s MY NAME IS JOE), who seems to be harbouring immense guilt over an incident with his wife and new born baby; his friend David Caruso, who’s miffed that he has to work with the dude who stole his girlfriend (Josh Lucas), wannabe lawyer Gevedon and Mullan’s mullet-sporting, metal head nephew Brendan Sexton III.
The eponymous ‘Session 9’ is the final tape in a sequence discovered by the over-curious Gevedon and documenting the psychiatric sessions with a former patient suffering from multiple-personality disorder. It is Mullan, however, who begins hearing the voice of the most imposing of those alters, Simon, while the cracks begin to show in the whole team as Anderson’s film becomes an intense study of all-male ensemble paranoia (with echoes of Carpenter’s THE THING). It is punctuated by sweat-inducing individual sequences (including the nyctophobic Sexton III running down a corridor as all the lights go out) while Anderson’s roaming camera has us looking for things that never physically appear. The pay-off is discreetly brutal, with a notable cameo by Larry Fessenden and a clever fake-out incriminating the wrong man.
It’s the final five minutes, however, that haunt like few others. A reveal that cuts deep. A desperate phone call from a man begging forgiveness at his lowest ebb. A closing aerial shot of Danvers accompanied by what might be the most bone-chilling last line in modern American horror. Anderson set out to make a horror movie that gets under your skin and makes you want to shower immediately after. Mission: Accomplished (and then some).
EXTRAS - Another outstanding release from Second Sight: the movie looks fantastic in its first U.K. Blu-ray release, particularly given the (now outdated) technology used. The 2-disc set includes a book of new writing and an array of new extras, including valuable chats with Gevedon and Climax Golden Twins (who provided the nightmarish soundscape), a characteristically insightful and passionate analysis by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a new commentary by Mike White and Jed Ayres to accompany the excellent archival chat track from Anderson and Gevedon. Of particular note is “Return to Danvers”, a superb 50 minute retrospective with most of the key players (minus Caruso and Mullan), capturing the real-life inspiration and the nervy working conditions at an extraordinarily imposing location (now luxury condos). You get to see Mullan in the archival featurette “The Haunted Palace”, talking of a brief mental blip while shooting a rooftop scene – a chilling anecdote to stir those hairs on the back of your neck that spent the whole of SESSION 9 standing to attention.