2001's supremely underrated and unnerving horror sleeper SESSION 9 comes to Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
With business competition and a new baby, asbestos abatement company owner Gordon (Peter Mullan, MISS JULIE) seriously overbids and gives an unrealistic one-week schedule for the job of preparing the long derelict Danvers State Hospital for renovation into the proposed Danvers Town Hall. Built in 1871 with humane mental health reform in mind, the massive gothic monstrosity (with wings extending from either side of the central building like outspread "bat wings") was shut down in the eighties due to budget cuts – along with a lawsuit over false repressed memories of Satanic rape – and the patients turned out into the streets. The small crew of Gordon's business partner Phil (David Caruso, JADE), Gordon's inexperienced twenty-year-old nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III, WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE), introverted closet intellectual Mike (co-writer Stephen Gevedon, BLUE IN THE FACE), and ball-busting troublemaker Hank (Josh Lucas, AMERICAN PSYCHO) is fractious from the start. In addition to needling his coworkers – particularly Phil whose girlfriend he stole, which he continues to lord over the other man simply because he can be provoked – verbose Hank astutely observes that all but Gordon have "exit plans" and ways to cope with stress while "Zen Master of calm" Gordon is beginning to show cracks. If he was not stressed out enough with the new addition to his family and the deadline, Gordon is further disturbed by hearing voices in the SHINING-esque environment; voices which may not all be in his head since the other men are also effected by the place in different ways. Phil is justifiably stressed but becomes more aggressive with Hank and questions Gordon's leadership, Hank is enticed into the bowels of the hospital by the discovery of a cache of patients' valuables, Jeff's immaturity amps up along with his phobia of the dark, and Mark is drawn to the patient files, particularly reel-to-reel tapes of sessions with schizophrenic Mary Hobbes whose multiple personalities may include a murderous one that may have survived its host's death and is looking for a new one.
One of the more underrated turn-of-the-millennium horror films that preceded the more recent J-horror-influenced turn towards more restrained filmmaking (which actually substituted gore for jump scares), SESSION 9 works its way under the skin and manages to do so again with repeat viewings even after one knows the ending. Filmmaker Brad Anderson (STONEHEARST ASYLUM) and crew get much mileage out of the Kubrickian visualization of the genuinely creepy and authentically decrepit Danvers State Hospital while also providing us with characters that are not always likable but sympathetic as the cracks in their personas become more evident. In one sequence early in the film, the gang are taking a break and reading over entries from an admittance ledger, noting the diagnoses of "mortified pride" and "disappointed expectations" and joke that such diagnoses would qualify any of them for the looney bind; indeed, "mortified pride" and "disappointed expectations" are very descriptive of this increasingly volatile bunch (with young Jeff possibly limiting his own potential by signing onto Gordon's sinking ship out of familial loyalty). The fact that we see next to nothing of the men's lives outside of their work at the site also uncomfortably calls back to Public Works supervisor Griggs' (CSI's Paul Guilfoyle) description of the hospital as "a self-contained town" with church, movie theater, morgue, and a cemetery (in which the patients headstones are marked with their numbers). Filmmaker Larry Fessenden (HABIT) has a cameo as a potential hire.
Given scant release by October Films, SESSION 9 gained most of its fanbase via USA Films in 2002 but survived the company's absorption into Universal Pictures with a 2003 reissue from that company. Scream Factory's high bitrate 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen encode of this Arri Alexa-photographed production still looks more like video than film but attractively-so with in which the textures of peeling paint, wrinkled clothes, as well as ruddy and rugged faces looking better than most contemporary digitally-lensed horror films because of the largely naturalistic color timing over the current desaturated, contrast-boosted, and green-tinged edgy looks. Some blown-out highlights may be the result of the original photography or some boosting on the transfer (Caruso really should stay out of the sun). An early Dolby Digital production, the film has always been available stateside in stereo surround while some imports have had 5.1 tracks (possibly upmixed). Scream's disc has a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track that more than adequately conveys the film's sound design (relatively restrained compared to the bassy, jump-scare riddled surround tracks of more recent horror films) and highlights the unusual score. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
Carried over from the DVD is an audio commentary by co-writer/director Brad Anderson and writer/actor Stephen Gevedon in which the director recalls being inspired by the location driving past it almost daily on the way to work, as well as his desire to make a film around it without resorting to the usual horror film trope of teenagers breaking into a haunted location (which they were able to see the inside of with the help of some urban explorers). He and Gevedon discuss the development of the script around historical events associated with the hospital and integrating aspects of their own personalities into the characters, the casting – particularly the "raw and real" Mullan and Caruso (quite low-key compared to his much parodied cheesy CSI: MIAMI persona), and the visualization of the location with its Kubrickian long shots and bucolic beauty (with reference to Nicolas Roeg and DON'T LOOK NOW). They also discuss shopping the project around and being given a budget of one million by USA Films who went on to indifferently distribute it.
Also carried over from the USA/Universal DVDs are the extras "The Haunted Palace" (12:54) – in which artist Mike Ramser and photographer Jeremy Barnard discuss the location's tragic history with the aid of photographs and expressionistic paintings – along with some talking heads by Mullan and Caruso and behind the scenes footage including a shot from the alternate ending – deleted scenes and an alternate ending with optional commentary by Anderson (9:40) focusing on the subplot of a derelict woman lurking around the property (abandoned because audience members wondered if she was supposed to be Mary Hobbes even though the actress was black and Mary was established as having died), Story-to-Screen Comparisons (10:01) – minus the optional director's commentary that was available on the DVD edition – and the film's theatrical trailer (1:53).
Although there are only two new extras, they both prove worthy. In "Return to Danvers: The Secrets of SESSION 9" documentary (48:53), director Anderson, actor/co-writer Gevedon repeat some of the same facts and anecdotes from the commentary track with elaboration and additional insight from cinematographer Uta Briesewitz (TV's THE WIRE), "Climax Golden Twins" composers Robert Millis and Jeffery Taylor, as well as actors Lucas and Fessenden. Briesewitz and Lucas elaborate on a shooting accident in which the cinematographer nearly gave herself a lobotomy running into a dental drill with a handheld camera while Fessenden comments on the film as actor (noting his "cameo" casting as a character referenced throughout the film who shows up late in the film to get killed) and as a filmmaker on the setting, photography, and sound design. Composers Millis and Taylor recall getting involved through Gevedon, the work Anderson did in transforming their cues in post-production, and being asked to score Jennifer Lynch's film CHAINED based on their score for this film. In "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" (20:13), we discover that only the central wing of the hospital survives, having been renovated and transformed into upscale apartments (surrounded by snow-caked lawns against an overcast background, it looks pretty depressing); however, host Sean Clark visited the location several years before conceiving of the series and has a goodly amount of home video of his unauthorized visit. (Eric Cotenas)
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