Location, Location, Location: 'Session 9' Review
The premise of Session 9 is, unfortunately for the film’s reputation, not terribly original. A handful of “insert profession here” have to spend the night in a reportedly haunted mansion/asylum/hospital/school and must overcome their character flaws or fall victim to the slowly progressing danger that follows them throughout the building, making itself more and more known with growingly apparent signs.
It’s a derivative plot for sure, but with what the film (and director Brad Anderson), is trying to achieve, it’s more than enough. Session 9 follows a crew of workers given a contract to remove asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital that was shuttered following allegations of sexual abuse and weird satanic rituals. Financially burdened crew leader Gordon (Peter Mullan) does whatever it takes to secure the contract and promises to get the job done in a week for a bonus.
Saddled with relatively light narrative baggage, Session 9’s primary pursuit is crafting an excellently unnerving atmospheric-driven horror. And while it doesn’t entirely achieve that lofty goal, it comes pretty damn close.
The best parts of the film are when there’s little speech, and the camera follows the crew down darkened hallways listening to the creaks and groans of the abandoned building. Ironically, the building itself is probably the best character in the film; that’s less of a critique on the character development and more of a compliment to the setting. Regarding location, Anderson hit the jackpot. Both inside and out, the structure regularly imposes a sense of quiet dread upon the scene. Sans music, most of the shots would work just as well if not better.
Unfortunately, the premise isn’t the only unoriginal element of the film. The title Session 9, draws its name from the last in a series of doctor-patient tape recordings in which one crew member finds an unnerving obsession of listening to them. That’s not to say they’re uninteresting, just that it’s not a surprising element of horror, especially haunted house horror, and thus the fear factor of that component suffers.
The film’s real sin is its poor and underdeveloped characterizations. With a relatively diverse crew, all susceptible to the house’s terror, you’d expect there to be more dedication to developing them. They are either killed off because they couldn’t make the crucial moral decision in their time of peril or were simply too slow to react. Instead, the film offsets them as only another piece of the puzzle of the setting. They're side attractions, as exciting as a lamp that turns on and off in an ominous fashion or a door that shuts itself as the camera enters the frame. For all their colorful backstories, the film tries to do little with them and makes their perils that much more uninteresting to the audience.
As a short film, Session 9 works very well. As a fully-fledged movie, however, one should expect something a little more focused. If the characters themselves are unimportant, treat them as such and sideline them for a large part of the movie. Instead of talking about a crew member’s failed law career, put the focus on the character of the camera and terrify it with the superb location choice and unique sound designs. Session 9 is a worthwhile watch if you’re looking for something that paralyzes the eyes and stimulates the mind, even if the scattershot plot is distracting at times.