There are all sorts of ways to approach making a scary movie as well as methods to deploy when doing so. Eerie and/or suspenseful music is usually a given, as is an appropriately spooky setting. The latter can consist of the traditional haunted house or any location that either has a dark, foreboding or creepy air to it, or is a place where something tragic, bad or evil/supernatural occurred.
While not all old mental institutions fit that bill - as many are fine, upstanding establishments - the public has the notion that they do, no thanks due in part to how Hollywood has portrayed them in the past. Thus, if you drop a small number of characters into such an old and dilapidated building, where unknown and partially hinted at horrors occurred in the past, the stage should be set for a spooky, creepy and maybe even frightening ride, correct?
Well, that's the hope of writer/director Brad Anderson and his film, "Session 9." The sort of picture where various nebulous hints and clues are dropped regarding the spooky stuff that's transpiring during the course of the story, this effort offers some creepy moments and fun, haunted house scares, but isn't a completely successful or satisfying horror/suspense experience.
Part of that's due to the way in which Anderson ("Next Stop Wonderland," "Happy Accidents") and co-screenwriter Stephen Gevedon (making his writing debut while also playing a part in the film) have conceived and executed the plot as well as the various scare tactics contained within. While it is fun in films like this trying to figure out the root cause of the creepy moments based on those clues, the way in which the filmmakers drop and layer them in here is both a little too obvious and distracting.
As was the case with "The Others" starring Nicole Kidman, some of that can be blamed on the brilliance of "The Sixth Sense." Yet, if filmmakers are going to use such tactics in their films, they need to be as subtle as possible, not to mention cohesive with the main thrust of the film. Although such mystery elements - along with the creepy/spooky material - certainly keep the viewer interested or at least engaged, one is always a bit too aware of what the filmmakers are trying to do, even if one's guess about the outcome might not be correct.
As far as generating the scares, Anderson - influenced or not by similar material found in the remake of "House On Haunted Hill" - drops several people into the creepy confines of a dilapidated and now abandoned mental institution. Accordingly, they hear stories about the place and its former residents, all of which are designed to unnerve the viewer and set up various bits that later come into play. Those characters then occasionally find themselves in dark or dimly lit corridors or rooms, all while seeing and/or hearing bits from the place's sordid past.
For a while, such tactics are effective in a standard haunted house fashion, with Anderson doing the wise thing and allowing/making the viewer imagine what's around the corner or down the hall rather than explicitly showing them. Even so, the methods begin to lose their punch as the story progresses.
Part of that's due to the way in which the non-scary moments and material unfold and play out. While I understand and acknowledge that most horror films, like action/adventures ones, must contain some downtime and breathers between the genre's requisite material - lest they over stimulate and thus wear out the viewer - the "valley" moments here aren't that interesting.
The "drama" of the various characters - such as Phil despising Hank for stealing his girlfriend sometime in the past - never really engages the viewer. One also never really gets the sense that the small team is in much of a hurry to complete the job at hand. That's despite the size of the place and the short amount of time given to working in it, all of which would seemingly require that the team work nonstop around the clock.
Instead, the characters sit around and yack far too much and too often, thus dispelling our belief in their task at hand along with the proper and necessary buildup of suspense that should be occurring - often subtly - in such scenes.
As far as the performances are concerned, Peter Mullan ("The Claim," "My Name is Joe") is rather convincing as a man who's gone over the edge and is becoming progressively unstable, while David Caruso ("Proof of Life," "Jade") delivers another intense performance as usual, with that fun, punchy delivering of dialogue that's always compelling to hear. Josh Lucas ("You Can Count on Me," "American Psycho"), Stephen Gevedon ("Boys on the Side," "Paranoia") and Brendan Sexton III ("Boys Don't Cry," "Pecker") make up the rest of the team, and all deliver solid performances considering what's asked of them.
Then there's the mental hospital itself. While appropriately dark, creepy and filled with the usual assortment of equipment and furniture that looks like it was last used in a torture chamber, the place certainly offers enough locales for plenty of spooky events to transpire. In addition, with the film being shot on digital video - a la "Time Code" and "Bamboozled" - it does have an intimate, you are there feeling to it.
Yet, I kept waiting and hoping for it to take on something of a personality of its own - along the lines of the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining" - but that unfortunately never occurs. Of course, that's because this isn't a true haunted house type story, and the film's ending is likely to disappoint - and possibly confuse - some viewers looking for a different sort of conclusion and/or general film.
Overall, the film offers enough creepy moments to keep those who favor such material satisfied, at least until things begin to unravel at the end. If not for the superb entries of late in the genre, this might have come across as a rather good effort, but with the bar being raised along with our expectations of what can be delivered along these lines, "Session 9" comes off as just a moderately successful cinematic endeavor. It rates as a 6 out of 10.