Session 9: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th December 2021).
The Film

Best Director: Brad Anderson (nominated) and Best Film (nominated) - Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival, 2001

With business competition and a new baby, asbestos abatement company owner Gordon (Miss Julie's Peter Mullan) 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 (Jade's David Caruso), Gordon's inexperienced twenty-year-old nephew Jeff (Welcome to the Dollhouse's Brendan Sexton III), introverted closet intellectual Mike (Blue in The Face's Stephen Gevedon who also co-wrote the script), and ball-busting troublemaker Hank (American Psycho's Josh Lucas) is fractious from the start. Verbose Hank, 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 – 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' (C.S.I.'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). While the film resolves itself, it does leave elements open to interpretation; for instance, whether Simon is an actual demonic entity or just a psychological response (with different names) to trauma among certain of the "weak and wounded." It is also interesting to ponder whether the men – at least through the eyes of one character – represent different aspects of one personality. Just as Mary splits into different personalities to shield herself from trauma, it may be one character physically killing others who figuratively represent other personalities, only able to confront the reality and gravity of his own "trauma" when there is no one left to deflect blame onto other characters. Filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Habit) has a cameo as a potential hire who arrives and quickly departs in almost The Shining-like fashion.


Released theatrically in 2001 in the United States by USA Films – who then put out a special edition DVD in 2002 – and direct to DVD in 2003 in the UK by Universal Pictures – who eventually owned the world rights through the acquisition of USA Films – Session 9 did not make the bump up to Blu-ray until 2016. The film was an early 1080p 24p production shot on the very first Sony CineAlta production camera and scanned to anamorphic 35mm film for projection. Given the source limitations, it is understandable that neither Universal nor Second Sight tried to do a UHD upscale in the fashion of some other early 1080p production with significantly higher budgets. Second Sight's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray uses the same master as the earlier DVD and Blu-ray editions. While colors are well-saturated and there is a sophisticated use of light and shadow, the video "limitations" show upon close scrutiny; however, this has never been an distracting issue to the dramatics or even the aesthetics of the story. The film feels "cinematic" for the most part, and the "videography" aspect at times makes scenes more unnerving with a "not found footage but nevertheless you are there" feeling.


In the U.S. and the U.K., Session 9 has always had a 2.0 matrixed surround track on home video while a re-channeled 5.1 mix appeared on DVD releases overseas. While Scream Factory's U.S. Blu-ray release retained the original track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo, Second Sight utilizes the 5.1 track in DTS-HD Master Audio. The difference is not very significant – and it should not be given the intimacy of the story and its conservative use of jump scares – but the subtler use of the environmental (and "other") sounds in the rear channels does seem more "distant" than just lower. Optional English HoH subtitles are also provided.


First up is the 2001 audio commentary by director/co-writer Brad Anderson and actor/co-writer 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.

New to this release is an audio commentary by The Projection Booth's Mike White and author Jed Ayres who expand upon the notion of the "broken American Dream" among the characters from Gordon's Scottish immigrant to the other characters – none of whom are happy in their work and ostensibly just resting while planning their next move – as well as describing not only the artwork in the "seclusions" but also the halls of Danvers itself as representing a collage of therapy "fads" that culminate in repressed memory therapy amidst he "Satanic Panic" hysteria and the ultimate failure in which the institute is closed down and the patients simply dumped onto the street. They also note the double meaning of the film's original title "Hidden Altar" (or "alter"), visual rhymes and foreshadowing visual cues, real life inspirations behind some of the case cited in the film, narrative parallels in Anderson's earlier indie "romantic comedies" and recurring through his subsequent filmography, remnants of the deleted subplot, as well as the film's possible unacknowledged inspiration drawn from William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration.

Ported from the Scream Factory edition is "Return to Danvers: The Secrets of Session 9" (48:57) in which 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.

Also ported from the Scream Factory edition is "Horror's Hallowed Grounds: Session 9" (20:13) in which we learn 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.

Also from the original DVD release is "The Haunted Palace: The Ghosts of Danvers Hospital" (13:01) 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. Also carried over are the story-to-screen comparisons with optional commentary by director/co-writer Brad Anderson (10:01) – note that the commentary was left off of the Scream Factory Blu-ray – deleted scenes and alternate ending with optional commentary by director/co-writer Brad Anderson (9:39) 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), and the theatrical trailer (1:49).

Aside from the new commentary, the bulk of Second Sight's new extras are on a second disc starting with "The Darkside" (36:38), an interview with co-writer/director Anderson, who recalls the opportunities for inexperienced filmmakers in the nineties independent film scene with small companies like October Films and Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival, how he wanted to break from his earlier romantic comedies with a horror film but Miramax was not interested in it as part of his three picture deal – inked after they picked up Next Stop Wonderland – while genre arm Dimension Films was interested in franchise horror. He recalls initially planning the film as a small production with a company that had jumped on the digital bandwagon and provided $100,000 for productions with little development but found that that 35mm-scanned MiniDV was insufficient for capturing more than talking heads. The involvement of USA Films as financer and distributor did mean having to compromise and entertain certain ideas like uncredited producer Carson Daly's suggestions to cater to the hipster market with roles for music stars such as Kid Rock, Anthony Keidis, or Method Man.

In "Mike's Session" (23:25), actor/co-writer Gevedon recalls starting as a production assistant in New York at a bad time between the studios leaving and before Law & Order started production, getting noticed in some of his work as an actor by college friend Anderson who cast him in roles in some of his films, and getting together to work on the horror project Anderson had been thinking about for some time, exploring the location with some urban spelunkers, and being affected by the location and the remnants of patient files with such outdated and defunct diagnoses as "distemper." In "Invisible Design" (23:32), production designer Sophie Carlhian discusses her reaction to the location, the idea of putting visual remnants of the presence of people who were once there in every shot – from papers to the iconic restraint chair shots – and wanting to visually contrast evidence of the characters' cleanup work on the location against the decrepitude while also preventing various additions to the dιcor like the art collages from "standing out."

In "The Sound of Dread" (26:05), Climax Golden Twins composers Robert Millis and Jeffery Taylor discuss their approach as treating organic sounds and piecing them together in manners that evoke either dread or "aural pleasure." Although both had performed in bands, they describe their work at the time as being for an experimental art project, and that Anderson had apparently already been inspired by their work before college friend and bandmate Gevedon approached them about scoring the film since the rough cut they received already had some of their music as temp track. In "Back to the Bat" (60:31), producer David Collins recalls that his company was having a horror script contest at the time, and that Anderson was already on the radar for his previous work. Director of photography Briesewitz recalls her belief that Anderson's intended Dogme 95 MiniDV approach could not do the location justice and doing tests with the Sony CineAlta and scans to 35mm film in conjunction with Sony and Technicolor.

The disc closes out with the visual essay "A Twisted Collage: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Session 9" (20:25) in which she focuses on the art therapy collage aspect of the film and how the film not only utilizes it in the narrative but how the film visually engages with the materiality of art, suggesting that the compositions themselves in which the characters inhabit are collages of textural and material differences which are taken in by the eyes and ears and seep into the other senses as an overall sensorial experience.


The discs come in a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Christopher Shy with a softcover book with new essays by Charles Bramesco, Simon Fitzjohn, and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, as well as 6 collectors' art cards (none of which were provided for review).


Twenty years on, Session 9 remains one of the more underrated turn-of-the-millennium horror films (and every Halloween there are a number of viral "reaction videos" to the film by people who were either not alive at the time or too young to see it to attest to that).


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