As much as I adore the horror genre, very few films tend to actually get under my skin and stay there. I can count the number of scenes and images that send shivers down my spine on my fingers, and when a film is able to do so with just one phrase that makes me stand up and take note.
Session 9, co-written and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), presents itself as the living embodiment of its setting: an old, decrepit mental hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts. The film focuses on a small team of asbestos abatement cleaners sent into the abandoned asylum before the planned refurbishment, lead by friends Gordon (Peter Mullan) and Phil (David Caruso) as they go about cleaning up the decaying corridors and rooms of the center, as slowly the evil within the building begins to take hold of them. If you’re expecting the typical psychological-killer or extensive paranormal imagery then you’re fresh out of luck, as Anderson spends the 100-minute runtime going at his own pace to build a clear sense of dread throughout. A dread which, much like the air within the fungi-filled corridors, is thick and warm, an atmosphere not commonly seen within the horror genre.
Amidst the copper-fuelled slowburn is a small cast of game performers. Mullan, as Scottish as ever, delivers another layered subdued performance throughout most of the film whilst occasionally being allowed to let loose for a more hammy moment. Caruso on the other hand tears up the scenery a little more, which is fair considering his character is the more hot-tempered of the two, but at times it feels as though he doesn’t realise what kind of film he’s in. The rest of the team works well in supporting roles, from Steven Geredon as Mike, the aspiring-lawyer who becomes infatuated with the session tapes of one of the asylum’s inmates, Josh Lucas as Hank, the cocky opportunist who stole Phil’s girlfriend, and Brendan Sexton III as Jeff, Gordon’s nephew brought onto the job for extra manpower (and also the owner of the world’s worst mullet). Each of them bounce off of each other well and quickly cement the professional bond that Anderson and the script take glee in dismantling piece by piece.
Session 9 was inspired by a real-life murder within Anderson’s hometown years before, where a husband slaughtered both his wife and child and dismembered their bodies simply because she burnt his dinner; however, the film doesn’t focus on anything as trivial or gore-related. The horror within Session 9 is mostly minimal, with small dark ambient musical cues by the Climax Golden Twins that come rising up at pivotal points and let you know the dangers of whatever is about to occur on-screen. The plot prioritises the declining relationships between the members of the asbestos team, all from different areas of strain within their personal lives. Whether it be Gordon struggling to adjust to life with a newborn at home, Phil’s hang up over his ex-girlfriend who’s now with Hank, or Mike’s realisation that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and leave the renovation business altogether, everyone carries their own personal demons no matter how small. The script delves into the conversations quickly and naturally, with nothing feeling out of place allowing the film to immediately begin playing with conventions. When first exploring the asylum, Gordon becomes transfixed by the image of a rusted wheelchair among a decaying corridor (according to Caruso, much of the set didn’t need to be dressed at all because of the state of the decaying building) at which point we’re introduced to the first instance of the disturbingly-performed voiceover as it greets him like an old friend.
Upon first viewing this is an incredibly jarring experience, and the first time I watched Session 9 I admit I had very little knowledge of what was going on until the film’s final act. This isn’t a passive watch, and an active knowledge and memory is required for the film’s full potential to take effect. In fact the only sequence of Session 9 that feels traditional is a nighttime sequence involving Hank revisiting the pitch-black corridors underneath the building after finding treasure within the center’s old crematory, only to be met with strange sounds and a shadowy figure to be following in his footsteps. It’s here where the strange editing choices begin to show their face, as shots are cut off with the sound of television sets dying out, reverberations of tape players plague the film’s sound design like clockwork, and it all adds up to a unique and mystifying atmosphere. The only real comparison I can think of is that it feels like a rougher, DIY-version of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining (check here tomorrow for Nick’s review) so much so that the two would make a rather good double-bill.
“She wanted to do it, doc”
The lasting power of Session 9 comes from the synergy between its main plot and the secondary threads splintered throughout the asylum. Mike soon finds the therapy session tapes of patient Marry Hobbes, a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder who encapsulates multiple entities within her body – Mary, ‘Princess’, a childlike naive personification of her youth who lives in Mary’s tongue, ‘Billy’, a playful soul who’s protective of Mary and shelters her from what she’s seen as he lives in her eyes, and ‘Simon’, an entity which none of them know about and refuse to talk to. Mike becomes engrossed as the staff member questions Mary and her alternates about an incident that happened one Christmas twenty-two years earlier, and Jurian Hughes does a remarkable job at conveying a split personality through audio alone. The tapes are arguably the strongest aspect of the film, as the viewer is drip-fed slithers of information from each session (working up to the ninth and final one) each becoming more and more disturbing thanks to some economical writing and Hughes’ performance as Mary/the alters. Where a lesser film would make the parallels between Mary and Gordon’s experiences obvious, Session 9 continues to merely hint at them, offering up a slew of different interpretations on the fates of the team.
On the film’s DVD and Blu-Ray release, certain plot points do go into more detail, but I’d argue that the final cut offers the perfect amount of ambiguity, especially in regard to the notion of whether or not the film includes any reference to the paranormal. Personally the idea of a deity preying on the weak-minded is one that slightly counteracts the tone the film goes for, but there’s enough evidence within the story to suggest otherwise and that’s where the brilliance of it all comes in.
Brad Anderson sadly succumbed to the more tired (but still slightly effective) tropes of the genre with his later work Stonehearst Asylum, but it’s in this film where his passion lies. Session 9 is an often-underlooked psychological chiller with a foreboding atmosphere thicker than any asbestos you could find within the walls of Danvers Mental Hospital. Bolstered by a good performance from Peter Mullan, it’s a rough tale of mental torment designed to leave a lasting impression with those in a similar situation as Gordon, and a film I’m happy to introduce to friends old and new.
Just try not to think about Simon’s voice greeting you out of nowhere in the middle of the night…