A new entry in the recent trend toward more cerebral/psychological haunting movies that aim for something more than cheap, popcorn-spilling jolts, "Session 9" is blessed with a great concept but burdened by bland execution.
The hauntees are members of an asbestos haz-mat team hired to clean up Massachusetts' Danvers State Hospital, a vast loony bin abandoned in 1985 when Ronald Reagan slashed funding for mental institutions. Director Brad Anderson ("Next Stop, Wonderland") actually shot the film on location, and the eerie empty corridors of the joint are the film's most dynamic characters -- especially since Anderson props up his goosepimply atmosphere on the most incidental of chills, letting the viewer's cerebrum build tension all on its own.
It's an effective technique since the movie keeps you on edge for an hour and a half with very few genuine frights. One team member (Stephen Gevedon) takes his breaks in a basement storeroom, listening to tapes -- left behind by a doctor -- of a schizophrenic murderer cycling through multiple personalities.
Another team member (Josh Lucas, "The Deep End") sneaks back into the site overnight to abscond with a hidden stash of 19th Century silver dollars he discovered, only to be chased by something or someone through the pitch black labyrinth of hospital wards. He never shows up for work again.
These scenes build the foundation on which your mind runs wild, drawing its own conclusions. But the most tangible tension actually comes from the relationship between Peter Mullan ("The Claim") and David Caruso ("Proof of Life," "NYPD Blue") as long-time partners in the struggling asbestos removal company. They come to blows over outlandish scheduling fulfillment promises made in order to land this lucrative cleaning contract, and there may be double-crosses involved.
Danvers looks like a castle on the outside -- it seems luxurious, almost inviting. But inside its endless hallways of sterile tile walls are nothing if not foreboding. Anderson acknowledges this juxtaposition, especially in the picture's potently claustrophobic photography -- but he doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with it. He plants uncanny, obscure hints of ominous potential here and there as these men go about their work, sharing campfire-tale rumors about the place. But these signs and legends never build any momentum.
When Anderson finally pulls back the curtain in the last act, the biggest surprise is how anti-climactic the finale feels. This is in part because "Session 9" is ambiguous about how everything we've seen comes together, but mostly it's because when the action should be at a fever pitch, it's petering out instead.
Anderson inspires strong, composed performances from his cast (Mullan and Caruso are especially good) and his ambition to pull the horror genre away from histrionics and closer to real life makes the film an interesting experiment. But after all the understated yet carefully constructed shivers, there's just no payoff. "Session 9" ends with a shrug.