DIRECTED BY: Brad Anderson
FEATURING: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III
PLOT: A hazmat crew removing asbestos from an abandoned asylum uncover secrets about the long-dead but deeply disturbed residents—and, arguably, more chilling secrets about each other.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The weirdometer registers only trace amounts of bizarrity in this eerie, complex psychological horror. It’s worth a viewing for fright fans, but not thanks to its strangeness.
COMMENTS: Before Session 9, director Brad Anderson was best known (if he was known at all) for his romantic comedies. Anderson co-fashioned Session 9‘s complicated, haunted script to take advantage of the availability of an abandoned mental institution, a dream location to shoot a horror movie, and wound up finding a more successful niche as a specialist in psychological suspense. Disdaining shock violence and other teen horror tropes, Session 9 hoes a tougher row by creating its suspense through characterization, hidden secrets, and (for the most part) by encouraging the audience to imagine unspeakable carnage rather than to get off on seeing it laid out in splattery crimson glory. The idea here is to throw five average Joes into a pressure cooker situation (finishing a three-week asbestos removal job in one week) inside a suggestively creepy locale, and let the tension build organically as they begin to crack under the stress. Gordon is the most preoccupied of the bunch: he may lose his struggling business if he doesn’t complete this contract on time, and he’s got a newborn baby back home to feed. Phil, his right hand man, has his own tense dynamic with the obnoxious Hank: they share an uncomfortable history with a common woman. Mullet-headed young Jeff is the neophyte kid who gets picked on by the others, and Mike is the thoughtful guy who’s too good for this job (for unknown reasons, he’s dropped out of law school to schlep around in a hazmat suit). The characterizations aren’t deep, but they’re efficient; we know these guys, we get their conflicting agendas. Mike’s discovery of old tape recordings of hypnotherapy with a schizophrenic woman—reels labeled sessions 1 to 9—provides a parallel dramatic line, as we periodically hear a tranquil doctor probe the mind of a psychopathic woman with buried issues that may continue to haunt the hosptal’s halls to this day. Like the Overlook Hotel in Session 9‘s closest ancestor, The Shining, the empty spaces of the asylum are virtually a separate character (there are plenty of tracking shots down abandoned corridors to remind us of Kubrick‘s horror). The grounds are full of memories of the departed: Satanist graffiti scrawled on the walls by the teens who broke in to party there on weekends, old mementos and clippings pasted onto the walls of the patients rooms, and broken bric-a-brac left there by the long-gone staff and by homeless squatters. Everything is linked by dark, dank underground tunnels connecting the various buildings. It would be almost impossible to shoot a film in this setting that didn’t raise at least a couple of hairs on the back of your neck, and Anderson’s restrained direction and the ensembles’ paranoiac acting ably amplify the institution’s inherent creepiness. The ending is too obvious to qualify as a twist, and I wish Anderson had shown Kubrick’s courage to go shamelessly over-the-top every now and then, but Session 9 satisfies as a mature, eerie, and mostly quiet horror—a type of film that’s all too rare nowadays. What could be scarier than an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of ghosts? The answer: an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of schizophrenic ghosts.
The asylum in the movie, Danvers State Hospital, was a real abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts. It holds the dubious honor of being known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy (a fact referenced in the movie), and later became infamous for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of its inmates. Most of the buildings on the sprawling campus were torn down in 2006 to construct an apartment complex. The units burned down in 2007 in a mysterious fire, though they were soon rebuilt. A 12-minute featurette on the DVD documents the cruel history of the institution.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Save for the disappointing finale, Session 9 proves to be a remarkably spare journey into the confines of the mind and a unique evocation of just how terrifying it is to loose one’s mind.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Jack Mort.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)