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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Session 9 (Blu-ray)
Session 9 (Blu-ray)
Shout Factory // R // August 16, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $27.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted July 31, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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In 10 Words or Less
A masterpiece of atmospheric horror

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Psychological horror
Likes: David Caruso, stuff set in abandoned asylums
Dislikes: Getting seriously creeped out
Hates: Children in danger

The Movie
Set anything in an abandoned asylum and you've instantly got a high creep factor going on. The combination of the rotting structure and all the danger that entails; the likely problematic history of the institution, considering mental health's dubious legacy; and people's innate discomfort when dealing with the "troubled"--it all adds up to a classic horror setting. Whether you're talking about Arkham Asylum, Silent Hill or Deadgirl, having your story take place in an old asylum starts you 10 lengths ahead in the race to scare the audience. Such is the case with Session 9, a lesser-known 2001 film that utilizes such a setting to huge effect, creating one of the most disturbing modern movie experiences out of mostly atmosphere.

Gordon (Peter Mullan) is a new father and his asbestos abatement company is struggling. In order to steady the ship, he underbids and over promises on a big government job: cleaning out a giant abandoned asylum that's being converted to offices. Working with his team, including hardworking Phil (David Caruso), cocky Hank (Josh Lucas), book smart Mike (Steve Gevedon) and Gordon's mulleted nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), he has one week to complete the immense project, which would be next to impossible even if something wasn't weighing on Gordon's mind already.

Conflicts between the men crop up (or get reignited) as the pressures of the job and the disturbing locale start to wear on them. Learning more about the asylum's controversial history doesn't help, as Mike discovers old recordings of a patient and doctor and quickly becomes obsessed with them, introducing a parallel plot and mystery to the film. And, as one might expect from a film like this, strange things start happening. Going into much detail about the plot would be unfair to newcomers, but suffice it to say, things are not as they seem.

Though some very disturbing things happen during the film, more than anything, Session 9 is about atmosphere. Director Brad Anderson and his team use a mix of techniques to create an unsettling tone, not to mention an incredible real-life location that drips with creepy detail. However, no element here is as powerful as the sound. Besides its delightfully effective sound effects and disjointed score, Session 9 is the rare film that can get away with extensive use of voiceover, in the form of Mike's tapes, because it's organically a part of the story and serves the film perfectly by being integral to both the plot and the feel. To take it out would be to destroy this film. That the sound is so important makes utter sense, since the movie is more about what you don't see than what you do.

Though the film gets a ton of mileage from the set and audio, if you didn't care about the people on the screen, the scares would have no effect, since they are, with a very few exceptions, more mental than visceral. Mullan and Caruso provide an excellent dramatic core to build around, while Lucas keeps you guessing as to what he's up to. The MVPs may be Gevedon and Sexton though. Gevedon has the unenviable task of acting against no one and projecting obsession, as he actually makes research look intense. Sexton, on the other hand, is the viewer's proxy, and his fear reads as entirely believable, especially in one iconic, terrifying moment that no one who has seen the film can forget. There's only one truly questionable performance in the film, and that's one gloriously over-delivered expletive courtesy of Caruso, which is completely excusable because it's so utterly enjoyable.

As good as the film is for its first 85 or so minutes, the ending is something of a letdown, as it becomes too explanatory for its own good and simply takes too long to lay everything out on the table. One would like to think that there could have been a more satisfying or at least a more efficient way to wrap this film up. There is no real need to see how everything happened or answer every question. A little mystery and a bit of ambiguity does wonders for a movie, as it allows the story to linger in the viewer's head that much longer. (Though on the plus side, there is more than one way to interpret what you see.) That all said, the last line of the film is so wonderfully creepy in every aspect that it redeems any problems with the conclusion all on its own.

The Disc
Session 9 arrives on one Blu-ray, in a standard Blu-ray keepcase that features appropriately horrifying artwork on the side (which is something of a spoiler, unfortunately.). The Blu-ray disc has a static menu with options to watch the film, adjust the setup, select scenes and check out the extras. There are no audio options, though subtitles are available in English.

The Quality
The 2.85:1, AVC-encoded 1080p transfer here, which, based on a comparison to footage in the bonus features, looks to be taken from the theatrical film rather than the digital source, looks great, boasting excellent fine detail that truly helps to sell the decaying state of the hospital and a cinematic look. Color is similarly impressive, going from the natural hues outside Danvers' walls to the sickly palette inside, with a few other looks along the way, while keeping fleshtones looking appropriate as well. Black levels, a key in a film like this, are quite nice as well. Neither digital distractions not dirt or damage are an issue here. This image really lets you enjoy the atmosphere the film builds.

I have to say, considering how important sound is to the entire feel of this film, I expected a blowout surround mix, but instead we get a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. It's not a bad presentation, as all the creepy little details are well-defined and powerful, and there's some nice movement between the two channels, but it would be amazing to experience this film with the sense that you are in Danvers with the team. That said, what's here doesn't take away from the experience of watching the film, as it sounds as terrifying as ever, with the presence of the tapes sticking with you long after the credits roll. Little breaths, steps, squeaks and drips of water get the same quality deliver as the dialogue, making this a wonderful-sounding film.

The Extras
There are a pair of new extras on this disc, starting with "Return to Danvers: The Secrets of Session 9", an excellent 48:57 documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with Anderson, cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, Gevedon, Lucas, Sexton and Larry Fessenden (yes, that means no Caruso and no Mullan.) In addition to some quality discussion of the plot and characters, there's plenty of info about the low-budget production shared, including talk of the true-life origin of the plot and the dangers on the set, a disturbing story about a near-catastrophe on the set, as well as some notes about the film's ineffective release and eventual cult re-discovery. For fans, it's a great chance to hear more about the making of the film (though not having Caruso and Mullan present is a bummer.)

Also new to this release is another episode of Sean Clark's Horror's Hallowed Grounds (20:13), in which the host (who produced the "Return to Danvers" documentary) visits Danvers and other sites seen in the film, to talk about their histories and what happened after production wrapped. As someone who (illegally) explored the hospital in the time between the shooting of the film and its eventual redevelopment, he's got a definite connection to the movie, and his night-vision footage of the now-gone location makes the piece that must more interesting and informative for the film's fans.

The remainder of the extras were previously available on the 2002 DVD, including a feature-length commentary by Anderson and Gevedon, who served as both actor and co-writer. Touching on the film's influences and the effects of the technology used to shoot the film, as well as the effect of test screenings, the two collaborators cover pretty much every piece of info you might want to know, both in terms of the production and the story. They also explain a few things that weren't quite clear in the film.

A handful of deleted scenes (9:40) are available to check out, including an alternate ending, with optional commentary from Anderson, who talks about what's going on, provides from background and explains why they were cut from the movie. These scenes all center on a subplot that was completely removed from the film due to the confusion it (understandably) created in some audiences. It was a good choice. It's hard to imagine the movie with these scenes in place.

The "Story to Screen" featurette (10:01) combines storyboards and behind-the-scenes footage in split-screen with three scenes from the film to show how they came together.

"The Haunted Palace: The Ghosts of Danvers Hospital" (12:54) is something of a shorter version of the new documentary, though it focuses on the location, and this time Caruso and Mullen do participate, sharing their thoughts on the hospital, alongside Anderson, Lucas, Sexton, Gevedon, painter/author Mike Ramseur, photographer Jeremy Barnard and sculptor A. Andy Chulyk, the last three men having previously chronicled the building's history. Far creepier is tone, this piece shows Mullan and Caruso to have definite, strong opinions about the hospital (Mullan perhaps more so, as he explains weird things he felt during shooting) while the artists fill in with historic detail (also shown through their work.)

The film's trailer (1:53), though since it's full-frame it might be either a TV ad or a for-video preview, reveals too much and sells too little. I can't imagine being excited to see the film after watching this promo.

The Bottom Line
While the film's ending has its shortcomings, that doesn't take away from the overwhelming sense of dread crafted over the course of the film, which sucks you in and won't let go, as well as the interesting characters, without whom the dread would be meaningless. Anderson and company create any number of unforgettable visual and aural experiences along the way, making for a film that completely gets into your brain. The presentation here is excellent (despite the lack of surround sound) and with two solid new extras, along with all the previously available content, there's enough to satisfy the fanbase that's grown around the film in the years since its release. Session 9 deserves to be discovered by far more viewers, and hopefully this disc will help make that happen.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter

*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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