Brad Anderson's "Session 9" is an ingeniously scary movie.
With the most effectively minimalist approach since "The Blair Witch Project," Anderson and his co-writer Stephen Gevedon took as their inspiration one of the most ominous buildings in America, the abandoned Danvers Mental Hospital outside Boston.
A sprawling, forbidding red brick complex, circa 1880, with various wings added over the decades, the institution, empty since 1985, once was overcrowded with more than 7,000 patients. It sits on the crest of a hill amid acres of wilderness like a rustic, desolate Versailles.
The local community's engineer (Paul Guilfoyle) hires Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan, memorable star of Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe" and Mike Figgis' "Miss Julie") of the Hazmat Elimination Co., to remove asbestos-panel drop ceilings from certain areas of the structure before its renovation.
A rugged, uptight 40-something guy, Gordon is feeling the pressure of recent fatherhood. His crew chief Phil (David Caruso) declares that the job will take three weeks; Gordon insists it can be done in two and then promises the town engineer he can complete the work in a mere seven days to gain a hefty bonus.
As if Gordon weren't edgy enough himself, his crew is problematic in the utmost. Phil seems a levelheaded pro but understandably resents the cocky Hank (Josh Lucas) to whom Phil has lost his girlfriend. Mike (Gevedon) is a distracted law student who has resisted following in the footsteps of his attorney general father. Rounding out the crew to Phil's dismay is Gordon's young, inexperienced nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III, one of the killers in "Boys Don't Cry").
The deadline pressure and stress associated with the hazardous task, combined with the psychological makeup of the crew, make them vulnerable to the overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere in which they are working.
There are huge rooms undergoing the cleanup process, long hallways and spooky subterranean tunnels, most in varying stages of decay. Scattered rooms are still fitted with devices for more extreme forms of therapy, and even some office equipment and file cabinets and boxes containing records on inmates were left behind.
The building is suffused with an aura of human suffering, of tormented individuals whose personal histories have been discarded.
Amid this debris, Mike stumbles upon a set of audiotapes containing sessions in which a therapist is subjecting a patient with multiple personalities and an apparent victim of sexual abuse to a relentless "recovered memory" treatment. (These sessions are based on material actually discovered by the filmmakers at Danvers.)
As the fascinated Mike sneaks away more often to listen to these creepy tapes, the viewer naturally begins to wonder whether these sessions have any connection to a member of Gordon's crew, each of whose behavior increasingly exhibits clues that something is dreadfully awry.
Anderson, his superb ensemble cast and inspired cinematographer Uta Briesewitz (shooting with the new Sony CineAlta 24P HD cameras) appeal at once to the intellect and the emotions as they build suspense and tension mercilessly, at the same time raising issues of class and the plight of the mentally ill.
Although "Session 9" plays out unflinchingly, it ends on a note of ambiguity: Just when it becomes gruesomely clear who among Gordon's crew is lethally unhinged, it emerges that he may well be but a pawn of someone far more sinister. In any event, "Session 9" is so effective that its sense of uncertainty lingers long after the theater lights have gone up.
MPAA rating: R, for language and brief strong violence. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations; too intense, disturbing and gruesome for children.
David Caruso: Phil Stephen
Gevedon Mike: Paul Guilfoyle
Bill Griggs: Josh Lucas
Hank Peter Mullan: Gordon Fleming
Brendan Sexton III: Jeff
A USA Films release of a Scout production. Director-editor Brad Anderson. Producers David Collins, Dorothy Aufiero, Michael Williams. Executive producer John Sloss. Screenplay by Anderson & Stephen Gevedon. Cinematographer Uta Briesewitz. Music Climax Golden Twins. Costumes Aimee E. McCue. Production designer Sophie Carlhian. Art director Roger Danchik. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
At selected theaters.