Here at Scream-A-Thon I want to shine a light on those horror films that might have bypassed the mainstream, hiding in the shadows while schlocky big budget affairs draw in the punters. I would be exceedingly negligent if I failed to unearth the gem that is Session 9 in our time together.
Directed by Brad Anderson, Session 9 appeared way back in 2001. Weirdly enough, the fact it was filmed digitally means that the film hasn’t aged, and it both looks and feels contemporary. You’d never think this low budget affair was ten years old. The visual quality and crystal clear picture also give the film a peculiar, almost documentary feel that sets it apart from the horrors or thrillers we see filmed on handicams or night vision cameras. Funny thing is, Session 9 never even claims to be based on true events. It just…is, much like the ever-present menace that wreaks havoc in the film.
Indie favourite Peter Mullan plays Gordon, who runs a business clearing asbestos from various properties. In this case, the job in question is the old Danvers State Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts. The film was shot on location in its abandoned buildings, which grants the film an eerie feel that couldn’t be achieved using sets. The imposing structure was built in 1874, and was rumoured to have been the birthplace of the pre-frontal lobotomy – unsurprisingly, Danvers is believed to have been the inspiration for Lovecraft’s Arkham. In the film, the hospital is to be turned into some sort of administrative centre, hence the need to remove the asbestos. In reality, the hospital closed in 1992 and was left to rot, before it was partially demolished in 2006. Its destruction makes Session 9 something of a documentary despite its fictional narrative, in that it preserves a structure that no longer exists in its original form.
Gordon is joined by the rest of his crew – his right hand man Phil (David Caruso), the dependable Mike (Stephen Gevedon), the rebellious Hank (Josh Lucas) and his nyctophobic nephew, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III). Tensions are already running high as Gordon struggles to cope at home with a new baby, and his money worries force him to promise to complete the job in a record amount of time. The straightforward job turns sour when Hank disappears after spending the night treasure-hunting in the tunnels below the asylum. Mike stumbles across a box of tapes from a former patient’s therapy sessions, and he listens to Mary’s multiple personalities chatting to her doctor. The doctor’s quest to discover what happened to the patient one Christmas in Lowell becomes all-important as the sessions play out as an accompaniment to the unravelling of the crew.
I’m not going to tell you what happens – not because it’s some massive twist ending, but because I think you should experience it for yourself. It’s not even a shock since the clues are planted throughout the film, but Anderson’s quiet and unobtrusive direction allows it a strength and impact that could have misfired in the hands of a gorehound or a someone lacking subtlety. Furthermore, the parallel between Mary’s other personality, Simon, and that of the afflicted member of the crew hints at Simon’s existence as something more than a extra personality. Is Session 9 the story of a mental breakdown? Is it an investigation into the effects that particular spaces can have upon human relationships? Is Simon an entity in his own right, making this a tale of possession? Or is Session 9 just a ghost story? Critics were divided at release, admitting that it was both creepy and dark, but hampered by its relative lack of gore.
For myself, I love the film. I love the fact that it doesn’t throw gore at the screen, and I love the fact that unfolding the story is equally as important as the ending, unlike those horror films where the story is simply a tacked-on means to get to the “twist”. Session 9 doesn’t want to shock you into dropping your popcorn, and nor does it want to put you off your dinner. No, Session 9 just wants to whisper dark words into your ear like an insistent yet insidious lover. Make sure you’re listening.