Session 9. 2001. Directed by Brad Anderson. Screenplay by Anderson & Stephen Gevedon.
Starring David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas, Peter Mullan, Brendan Sexton III, Charley Broderick, Lonnie Farmer, Larry Fessenden, Jurian Hughes, & Sheila Stasack. USA Films/Scout Productions/October Films.
Rated 14A. 100 minutes.
In 2003, at a Blockbuster Video I came across a copy of Session 9. It was $5, that’s it. The same poster as I’ve got right here served as the cover. That tagline FEAR IS A PLACE haunted me. So I scooped up the DVD. When I watched it, the whole thing rattled me. I often say horror movies are creepy, or even scary, but I don’t always mean they make me scared as in feel like turning on the lights and worrying what every last noise could be around the house-type of scared. But this Brad Anderson film does, it frightens me, the finale is always unsettling. Genuinely, after each time I watch it – which is about 4 or 5 times a year, at least – there’s always a terrified feeling in my gut. The darkness is much more threatening. My mind races. And maybe it’s not for everybody; it certainly isn’t perfect. There are a few things which bug me about this otherwise impeccable modern horror, including a particularly hilarious David Caruso line. Overall, though, Session 9 is eerie, from start to finish. Let it wash over you, forgive its few blunders, and let this one get inside your head.
Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) runs an asbestos removal crew. Recently, he and his wife had a baby. The stress is getting to him, especially with a new job he needs badly on the line. He and his crew are tasked with cleaning up Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts. The team includes Phil (David Caruso), Mike (Stephen Gevedon), Hank (Josh Lucas) who are regulars, as well as their most recent addition, Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III).
Although, once the men get inside the hospital and get to work, things start to become sinister. Mike finds old tapes of dangerous patients. Hank discovers a ton of antique coins and collectibles fit for making a fortune. Phil has his secrets. Even Gordon has some, too. And the longer they’re inside the walls of Danvers State, a dark influence crowds their minds.
But who’ll be the first to slip?
One of the most excellent parts about this little horror flick is that Danvers State Mental Hospital is an actual location. The building itself is god damn horrific enough, let alone its history; Google it. Tons of information online. But that itself provides an excellent backdrop for the entire story. They could’ve used any building. However, this one leaves an indelible impression upon the viewer. On the Special Features there are a few great tidbits concerning the location, as even Peter Mullan admitted there was a strange atmosphere surrounding them while filming; he tells a very disturbing story about filming up on the roof and feeling as if some presence there was suggesting ‘things’ to him. It’s downright spooky shit.
Uta Briesewitz does a lot of good stuff here in terms of cinematography. Her best work includes serving as Director of Photography for over 20 episodes of HBO’s The Wire, and she’s also directed a few things like Orange is the New Black and HBO’s Hung (also D.P), plus lots more. There are so many shots that are both beautiful and nightmarish. Simple shots like one of Phil smoking a joint on the rooftop as the sun is rising become otherworldly through the eye of Briesewitz. Then, the monster of them all, she gives us a bloodcurdling shot of Jeff – who has nyctophobia- in the tunnels below the hospital, running fast as he can to try and get ahead of the darkness, as lights shut out one by one after the generator gives out; this particular shot is an absolute horrorshow. I personally hate the dark, though, I tolerate it. This moment almost makes me sweat, every time I see it. And then there are shots where Briesewitz captures Danvers State in such a macabre beauty, from the establishing shots of the exterior itself to the rundown, crumbling hallways filled with old artifacts of patients, medical equipment. Later in the film there’s psychedelic-like feeling of walking through the halls when Gordon is searching the floors – all the paint is peeling, then there’s the bright coloured walls, the different shades, it’s near surreal. So many great moments of cinematography, it’s hard to list them all. Down to the wonderfully executed little bits that fill out the movie. Above all else, there’s also a raw quality to the look of the film, which draws you into the reality of these characters and what they end up going through.
Peter Mullan is one of my personal favourites. Every film he’s in there is a new side to him I’ve yet to see. He has incredible range, plus there’s his awesome Scottish accent. There’s this hidden intensity in him that tears out now and then. Mostly, he is a subtle, thoughtful actor. The looks on his face can tell an entire story. His emotional integrity is something that makes this character Gordon a great one. The first time you see this film, Mullan’s Gordon will suck you in and by the end I’d bet you’ll find yourself at least a little surprised. And that’s partly because of how he’s this gentle, soft soul, whose journey becomes a horrific one after taking the job to clean out a mental hospital. Without Mullan this role might not have been so properly performed. Here, he gives us a nuanced performance that draws me in consistently.
Everyone else is fairly solid. Even Caruso. Except for one line that completely kills me, no matter how many times I’ve seen this movie – “Hey – fuck you!” You’ll know it when you’ve seen the moment between Phil and Gordon on the stairs. It’s not even a case of bad writing on the part of Anderson and Gevedon. It is all in the delivery, and Caruso botches it like a complete amateur. To be honest, I’m a fan of Caruso while many I know are not. He can feel hammy, especially on CSI: Miami. But there are some nice scenes with him in this film. He and Mullan are good together. Generally, Caruso just nails the semi-sleazy character of Phil. If that one line were done better, as well as a couple others (not even near as bad as that one), then I’d consider it a solid performance.
Further than that we’ve got some early Josh Lucas – his character is another sleazeball, even more so, but almost a loveable one whose faults are endearing. Then there’s Gevedon, who plays well as Mike and doubles equally as well on writing duties with director Anderson. And as always, Brendan Sexton III plays a good role, the interesting character actor that he is, so the cast is well rounded. We’re also treated to a quick Larry Fessenden cameo, always a treat.
While Session 9 is not perfect, and it isn’t hugely original, there is a fascinating terror about the movie. From the first scene forward, Brad Anderson crafts a menacing piece of cinema that brilliantly captures a haunting descent into madness. I can watch this over and over yet I’m always surprised by its effect. The lasting impact of its creepy qualities sits over me like a cloud. After each viewing I’m left thinking of its many dreadful scenes. Maybe it isn’t anything new and it’s reminiscent of other similar horror films, but either way Session 9 creeps under your skin, it latches onto your inner fears. It exists in a dark space that will fill you up for a little while. The whole thing is scary, in the sense that after I’m finished watching it makes me want to turn on all the lights, and keep them on while I go to sleep.
I don’t do that… but I think about it. And it still takes me ages to fall asleep.