The medium of film makes the telling of a horror story particularly difficult, as a careful filmmaker has to decide just what to show, and when. A good horror writer knows when the best moment to show the monster is... or if to show it at all. In film, this becomes even more of a problem, as it is a medium based largely on visuals. Not showing the Monster to the audience can either enhance suspense or increase frustration, depending on how its handled, but once the monster is seen it is almost always a disappointment. A film like "The Haunting" (the original version, mind you, not the recent remake) succeeds because it maintains suspense through sound and great cinematography, despite the fact that we never see what's making all the noise, while the aforementioned "Jacob's Ladder" works so well because while we are given glimpses of frightening things and creatures, they are never shown clearly. What we come away with is flashes of frightening imagery, leaving plenty of room for an active imagination to fill in the gaps. As Alfred Hitchcock put it, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
"Session 9" is almost nothing but anticipation, but it is masterfully handled and never becomes frustrating. From the first minutes of the film to the very end, the viewer is never sure what to expect, and often expects the worst. In a particularly good segment, near the end of the film, several points of view on the story are advancing all at once, independent of one another but intersecting at key events. The level of suspense maintained in this sequence is nothing short of intense, and yet it is done while showing very little graphically. In fact, we don't find out what actually happened in that sequence until several minutes later, and even then the answers come with only subtle visuals. Like an Edgar Allen Poe story, the entire purpose of "Session 9" seems to be to establish and maintain a level of fear and uncertainty in the viewer, keeping them guessing until the very end. And this it does, with surprising subtlety.
Perhaps one of the most important elements of a good horror movie for me is effective use of imagery, a task which "Session 9" accomplishes easily. This goes back to the earlier point about subtlety and anticipation. There are a number of scenes in "Session 9" which make excellent use of imagery to this end. A shot of a narrow hallway, for example, lit along its length by several bare lightbulbs. A young man is running through this hallway, and lights are going out rapidly behind him. The darkness overtakes and engulfs the young man in a matter of a couple seconds. What makes this shot especially effective is that we already know that he is afraid of the dark. The "signature" shot of the film, a beat-up wheelchair caught in a ray of sun at the end of a decrepit hallway, sets the mood early on in the film quite effectively. Other details, such as a shape moving in darkness, or a bloody handprint smeared on a door, or the plastic sheeting covering the walls in the old asylum, are all handled well. "Session 9" is a movie of exceptional detail in its imagery.
Another important element to good horror movies is sound. Perhaps even moreso than imagery, sound can convey fear and anticipation quite effectively if used correctly. In "Session 9," there are a number of uses of sound that are notable. In the old asylum, particularly, there are noises throughout the film. It drips, it scrapes, it creaks, it echoes. The asylum seems almost to have a life of its own, with all of the strange sounds it makes. And the taped recordings, from which "Session 9" gets it name, have a subtle yet creepy warble in them, in which the voices are periodically warped. It's a small thing that added to the overall effect, but then most effective elements of filmmaking are small things. While watching this film, it's just as important to listen as it is to look.
The devil is in the details, and in "Session 9," all the skillful details add up to a devilish movie indeed. The film makes no compunction about being simply a scary movie, one which is intended to unnerve its audience, and by the time it is over it has accomplished this goal admirably. Its ending touches on a subject which disturbs me pretty deeply, which is the reason I'll likely never watch it again. However, the way I see it, that is merely another testament to the fact that it remains a deeply effective horror film, in that it got under my skin so completely. Not many movies can do that, and those that do are worthy of attention.
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