A disappointment but worth the experience.
I came across Session 9 when I was researching the inspirations of Team Silent (the group who created the original Silent Hill games at Konami). Session 9 is a USA Films production written and directed by Brad Anderson. The film is set in the former Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, MA. The plot revolves around a small hasmat team hired to remove asbestos for the institution’s renovation as a community center.
Session 9 has got some great ideas, the most important one being the usage of the actual, real life Danvers Hospital. The complex itself is the central character and its natural allure, mystery, and disfigurement permeate the film so effectively, I could just watch a film touring the structures. Unfortunately, the setting is really where the virtues of the production stop. Session 9 could have been so much more, but really, what it comes down to is a lack of craft.
Directing. It’s obvious, from the first 5 minutes of the film, something is lacking in the character relationships. They just don’t feel connected. Some may say this is intentional, to show their familial dysfunction. If that was the case, it was too soon. My feeling is that so much more could have been brought out if the director focused on building the relationships before the first scene, like The Shining, and then letting the plot unravel the connections. From the very beginning, I just don’t believe in the characters’ histories with each other. They feel stilted. If you can’t believe in the characters, you can’t believe in the film.
Cinematography. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous the set is, if the cameras don’t see properly, all that production value is lost. In the first few minutes of the film, I became skeptical. Two characters, Phil and Gordon are sitting in a van in daylight. The outside is blownout so badly it detracts from the van interior where dialogue is happening. Very often, depth of field is overlooked. There are many shots where it would have lent much more dramatic effect to focus on the foreground character elements and leave the background blurred and then rack focus to elements of interest as they enter the character’s attention. This would have better placed the audience in the film, allowing them to see things only when the characters themselves see them. Finally, a more realistic image would have been captured with a different selection of lenses. There were many close up shots (and I’m going back to the opening scenes in the van) where the lens was too wide and the shot was suffering from optic distortion.
Preproduction and Post. However the script was written, it felt too simple in the end. The resolution and meaning of “Session 9” just didn’t fulfill me as a viewer. I didn’t feel a build up in rising action or a real climax in the plot. There were disjointed events that should have been better brought together. In watching the “alternative ending” and other deleted scenes on the DVD, I get the idea there were other possibilities as far as the film’s protagonist and climax. In a plot, these elements are the real cornerstones. If there were other possibilities being shot then I wonder if the script was really fully baked. I understand if there are elements left to improv and inspiration (David Lynch is my favorite director), but this film is really a ghost story, and as such you can’t afford to go in without a well defined map. Maybe these decisions were made in the edit room. In any respect, I was let down by the simplicity of the resolution. The significance of “Session 9” was little more than a voice over, which is a last ditch device to tell the audience the film’s meaning, as opposed to really allowing them to experience it.
Though I’m pointing out areas to improve, I’m glad I watched this film. There were moments when I was pulled in to the set, the lighting, and mood and my heart got moving. However, these moments of trance would be broken again by lack of attention to craft. Visually, there are some gems well worth seeing, but I think they are much more to the credit of the hospital than to the production. If you are a student of the genre, do watch this. It’s worth the experience and analysis. If you are looking for a good ghost story, though, Tale of Two Sisters is still in the top of my list.