Danvers Mental Institution, an enormous, moldering Gothic edifice in rural Massachusetts, has an illustrious history. The lobotomy was perfected there, and its shadowy Ward A – the "snakepit" – was the site of even more disreputable experimental procedures. A lawsuit forced its closing in 1985, after a therapist dredged up a particularly lurid repressed memory of Satanic abuse (replete with ritual murder and cannibalized babies) which destroyed a family before being proved false.
Fifteen years later, the abandoned building has been purchased and a hazardous materials clean-up crew is brought in to clear out the asbestos that litters the site. The town hires a floundering independent firm that’s so desperate for business they agree to do the three week job in a single week. The crew plunges into the work but something feels off about the site: they hear sounds they can’t explain, lights go out unexpectedly and soon enough, one of them goes missing.
For its first half, Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is a canny horror film that keeps finding pleasurable ways to catch us off guard and yell "Boo!" It works partly because it’s content to play within the strict rules of the haunted house genre: all five members of the team are at once perfect suspects and potential victims, made vulnerable by their own dark drives. Everyone here has his reasons, and all these reasons are suspect at best. Gordon (Peter Mullan) is a reluctant new father under enormous financial and emotional strain. Phil (David Caruso) might just be dealing drugs on the side. He hates Hank (Josh Lucas), the shiftless thief who’s stolen his girlfriend. Gordon’s young nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) suffers from a paralyzing fear of the dark. And Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is the son of the Attorney General who shut Danvers down. His curiosity about the case compels him to sneak off each day and listen to audio tapes he’s found from therapy sessions with a profoundly disturbed girl.
The film keeps us guessing for a while by refusing to explain exactly what’s happening. It plays like a weird amalgam of The Shining and Sybil, with the increasingly frightening events of the week tied into Mike’s mounting obsession with the tapes. The building could simply be haunted, or it could be overburdened with the psychic debt of hundreds of victimized patients (the Oprah era version of a house built on an Indian burial ground?). Demonic possession might be involved, or it may come down to the trauma of the events revealed in the tape of session #9. And we’re never quite sure just who’s involved: are there phantoms wandering the halls, or is one of our crew members psychotic or possessed? Anderson gives us enough contradictory information to make us desperate to know, even as he ties us in knots fearing whatever answer he may provide.
Anderson must know that there’s something fundamentally silly about horror films: who, after all, would send their loved ones to a mental institution named after one of Hitchcock’s most memorably sociopathic villains? He goes for the most baroque shock effects with a completely straight face, never letting on that he might realize that tilting the camera into ever-darker and weirder rooms and overlaying the most insignificant shots with shrill, hyperactive music is cheesy. The initial setup is sufficiently compelling to make these operatic flourishes just as nerve-wracking as they’re supposed to be: we’re always anticipating something awful. It’s only as the movie goes on that we realize that every single moment is goosed up to peak intensity. There’s no breathing room, and thus no relief from the constant climaxes. The sense of building dread peaks about halfway through then peters out. Too exhausted to care anymore, we’re left with nothing to do but guess who’ll die next and attempt to puzzle out what might be responsible.
Anderson is a talented director, however misguided his approach to this material. He does fine work with actors, getting believable performances from his entire cast in the face of potentially ludicrous situations. The film has a beautiful look, all harsh greens and muted shadows, and it’s cunningly edited – the first half rushes by so smoothly that the sheer mechanics of the plot carry us through. But the single-minded pursuit of shocks ultimately undermines the film. If we’d had just a few scenes of life outside the job to help draw us into the characters, or if Anderson had permitted himself even one joke, the film’s stultifying conclusion might have been riveting. As it stands, it’s half a great horror film.