Haunted house movies offer a test for film­mak­ers.  Within the hor­ror gen­re, they rep­re­sent the kind of famil­iar arche­type that audi­ences know by heart and have cer­tain expec­ta­tions for (they usu­al­ly want an upscale ver­sion of hor­ror that finds a bal­ance between classy and creepy).  Thus, the test lies in how prospec­tive film­mak­ers Sess9-posdeliv­er on the core audience’s expec­ta­tions while phras­ing the deliv­ery in a way that brings out new and inter­est­ing nuances that make it worth sit­ting through anoth­er ver­sion of this arche­type.

Session 9 pass­es this test with fly­ing col­ors.  There’s no one mov­ing into an old fam­i­ly home or stay­ing in a creepy house on a dare here.  Instead, a group of blue col­lar men hun­gry for some work accept the gig to strip out the asbestos from a huge, long-closed men­tal insti­tu­tion.  They’re work­ing under a tight dead­line to get a big bonus that Gordon (Peter Mullen), the busi­ness own­er of the group, des­per­ate­ly needs to stay afloat.

Also in the group are Phil (David Caruso), Gordon’s con­cerned best pal, law school dropout Mike (co-writer Steven Gevedon) , glee­ful sleaze­ball Hank (Josh Lucas) and naïve new­bie Jeff (Brendan Sexton III).  As the gig gets going, Mike reveals some nasty secrets about why the insti­tu­tion closed down and a chill set­tles over the group, espe­cial­ly Gordon, who seems to get more rat­tled with each day.  They all begin to squab­ble and get dis­tract­ed by odd hap­pen­ings… but it is this because the place is haunt­ed or they’re all begin­ning to crack under var­i­ous real-life pres­sures?

The ambi­gu­i­ty sug­gest­ed by the above syn­op­sis is a key part of what makes Session 9 so effec­tive.  Director/co-writer Brad Anderson invests in the human dra­ma as much as he does the hor­ror, tak­ing the time to build an atmos­phere of ten­sion with­in the men and between them that makes us ques­tion how much of what we wit­ness is super­nat­u­ral or psy­cho­log­i­cal.  He also uses the institution’s his­to­ry to plant the idea that few things are as scary as los­ing your mind, which ups the audience’s con­cern lev­el for the ever-more-frag­ile pro­tag­o­nists.

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Excellent per­for­mances across the board help lock that ambi­gu­i­ty in: Mullen is rev­e­la­to­ry as a man whose decen­cy is slip­ping under pres­sure while Caruso pro­vides a con­trast as some­one who gets cold­er and more manip­u­la­tive as the pres­sure kicks in.  Lucas, Gevedon and Sexton III add their own sub­tle notes but all get moments where they make us won­der if they are trou­bled or pos­sessed.  There are also col­or­ful cameos by Paul Guilfoyle as the city rep who gives the men their job and indie hor­ror stal­wart Larry Fessenden as a work­er who joins the crew as things get real­ly intense.

However, hor­ror fans shouldn’t wor­ry about being cast adrift with Session 9.  Anderson shows a steady grasp of hor­ror atmos­phere, using styl­ish, nat­u­ral­ly-lit pho­tog­ra­phy by Uta Briesewitz and a sub­tle but gen­uine­ly eerie tone-poem score from Climax Golden Twins to bring out the unnerv­ing, des­o­late qual­i­ty of the insti­tu­tion.  Using the­se tools he’s able to cre­ate a com­bi­na­tion of human-scale anx­i­ety and a scary mood that dove­tail until they boil over in a nail-bit­ing third act that pays every­thing off.  Anderson is also to be com­mend­ed for some effec­tive edit­ing in the final stretch, includ­ing an inspired final reel that uses inter­cut­ting to provide a new spin on events seen ear­lier in the sto­ry.

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In short, Session 9 is one of the great mod­ern haunt­ed house films because it down­plays the usu­al bag of tricks in favor of root­ing the hor­rors in believ­able human foibles that remind us the spooky things in hor­ror movies are just a metaphor for the tur­moil and repressed feel­ings that haunt the minds of oth­er­wise aver­age peo­ple.