“Scary” is subjective, just like “funny.” I can tell you I find The Three Stooges hilarious and you can tell me I’m dead wrong, and you can tell me Freddy vs. Jason is the height of terror and I can believe you need a cranium adjustment. But we’d both be right, because it’s all about what works for you.
Session 9 works for me. It’s not perfect, but it delivers on so many levels, that you can forgive a little of the over-the-top sound design (and this film is all about sound design) because the script, the acting, and the direction, for the most part, are excellent.
Director Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland, The Machinist) combined two big elements to tell this story of an abatement crew’s slow mental deterioration while working in an old, abandoned insane asylum. Anderson’s discovery of a real abandoned sanitarium, and a local Boston killing spree, both inspired this exercise in bone-chilling horror
There’s no question Session 9’s predecessor is The Shining – and while Anderson definitely uses some of the same grammar to lure us into the setting and the geography, he “borrows” from other films and filmmakers (Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Antaole Litvak’s The Snake Pit come to mind) to perfect advantage. The film was considered a box office flop in 2001 (its initial release took in less than a half million) but it has since garnered deservedly strong critical acclaim and cult status.
The casting is pretty remarkable, looking back only 13 years. Peter Mullan (an extremely recognizable face today for his intense persona and well-known appearances since, in The Magadalene Sisters, Children of Men and the underrated UK series Top of the Lake) is supported by David Caruso (right before he became a parody of himself on CSI:Miami) and a then barely known Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama, A Beautiful Mind) as the owner of an Asbestos Abatement company and his team. What makes them all stand out is their ability to make subtle choices, not go for the obvious, play everything “close to the belt,” and keep their characters “reined in” until the shocking conclusion. And it is shocking. In fact, if no one has told you anything about the film, don’t let them; just watch it.
Gordon (Mullan) bids for an abatement job, against the wishes of his business partner Phil (Caruso), for much less money with an impossible turn around time – one week – just to land the job. He’s a new father, in a tense relationship with his wife, and needs this job to keep his company afloat. The job; abating the aforementioned mental asylum in just a week, demands that he and the crew dig in, and work non-stop. The rest of the crew includes Hank (Josh Lucas), Mike (co-writer Stephen Gevedon) and Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) as Gordon’s cousin. Hank and Phil are enemies, since Hank is now dating Phil’s ex-girlfriend, and Mike had been studying for the bar, when he lost the drive to become an attorney, and just started floating. Phil has become wary of Gordon’s irrational deadline, and visibly growing anxiety, but works to whip the team into shape. All this backstory is established early on, and sets everything in motion, so the tension is palpable right away.
As the crew works, time ticks off with title cards for each day of the week, stamped in a “label maker” font, like you would see typed on a file folder. The creeping dread that permeates everything; the atmosphere, the rooms, the persistent chug of the generator, begins to take its toll on the men. Mike finds a small room with files and unearths a box marked “Evidence” that holds reel-to-reel tapes from psychiatric sessions with the institute’s doctor and a known murderer, patient Mary Hobbes, dating back to the mid-seventies. Mike steals away from work and spends his lunch hours listening to the tapes, starting with Session 1 and moving on. In each, it’s evident Mary has multiple personalities, as the psychiatrist is able to talk to “Princess,” little girl, and good little boy “Billy”, and guilt ridden, hysterical Mary, who slaughtered her whole family. The psychiatrist on the tapes keeps trying to pull another personality, “Simon,” out of Mary’s sub-conscious, but all the personalities are resistant to allow “Simon” to appear until Session 9.
Meanwhile, Hank has found a treasure trove of coins; gold fillings and silver secreted in the back of the institute’s crematorium and makes plans to return late one night and steal it all. In fact, each of the crew has their own little secrets: Phil sells drugs to nearby gang bangers, and Gordon is on the phone, begging his wife forgiveness for some unknown offense. All the while, the sounds of the taped sessions, the drip-drip-drip of leaking pipes, whispered voices and other unsettling noises permeate every inch of the asylum. As Mike listens further into the tapes, and finally reaches the dreaded Session 9, we are consumed with curiosity and fear for what secrets will ultimately be revealed.
Director Anderson happened upon the real-life abandoned Danvers State Hospital in its decaying state and made the most of the setting. There was no need to build a set, and set design had to do only minimal dressing. For a film with such a limited budget, Danvers is a goldmine of possibilities. Its’ massive structure, labyrinthine halls, claustrophobic cells and dark corridors are all character, much like The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. And like that edifice, the question is raised, is it haunted, or are our characters’ losing their minds?
One of the first films shot on 24P HD video, it’s interesting that the format has advanced so much since then, as some of the camera moves and aftereffects reveal the limitations of the then nascent technology. But all this aside, Session 9 is a surprisingly understated, suspenseful tale of madness and possession, with downplayed gore to the point that when there is violence, it delivers an incredibly visceral punch.
However you feel about what constitutes “scary,” very few horror films can top Session 9 for well constructed story and jump-out-of-your skin suspense. Put it on your Halloween party playlist, and leave it for the last – you and your friends will be creeped out for weeks to come. Promise.