Monday, October 03, 2016

31 DAYS OF FRIGHT: SESSION 9 And Its Inhabitants

"And Jesus asked him, 'What is your name?' He replied, 'My name is Legion, for we are many.'" – Mark 5:9

Originally built in the 1870's and then abandoned around 1985, the Danvers State Mental Hospital was intended to house 2700 patients, but at times more than 7,000 patients were contained within its sprawling hallways. This site was the setting for Brad Anderson's (THE MACHINIST) haunting film SESSION 9, made in 2001 and now released on BluRay with a batch of fascinating extras from Shout Factory.

If there ever was a location that screamed out to be used in a horror film, it was Danvers; located outside of Boston (MA), this was a place where horrible things were done in the name of humanity and therapy for those unfortunate souls that found themselves abandoned here.

As I watched this film, I kept thinking how similar it was to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of modern horror, THE SHINING. In both films the setting becomes an active participant in creating the overwhelming sense of dread, and Danvers was literally captured the way it was, with the filmmakers using natural light, the grounds surrounding the hospital, and even the abandoned papers and office furniture left behind to create the atmosphere of a haunted, damned place. Written by director Anderson and cast member Stephen Gevedon, this film relies on the Jacques Tourneur style of moody filmmaking using the existing structure, the abandoned equipment, and a slow, steady plot that builds to a nerve wracking climax. Often mentioned on many "best horror films you never saw" lists, SESSION 9's arrival on BluRay should result in more people seeking out the film.

The plot concerns the five men of a local asbestos removal company that puts in the low bid for the job; not only that, but owner and new father, Gordon (Peter Mullan, TRAINSPOTTING) states that they can accomplish the work in a week's time, but this is a completely unrealistic goal and his crew knows it. Phil (David Caruso, KING OF NEW YORK) is Gordon's project supervisor and while he knows that they are behind the eight ball on this job, he is willing to give it a shot. The other three men in the crew are: Mike (Stephen Gevedon, HAPPY ACCIDENTS) a law school drop-out that enjoys physical labor; Jeff (Brendan Sexton III, WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE), Gordon's nephew and a guy who is simply happy to be employed; and, finally, Hank (Josh Lucas, AMERICAN PSYCHO), a blue collar guy that likes gambling and enjoys busting Phil's chops because he stole his girlfriend. These five men are unwittingly about to make a descent into the madness that is Danvers State Hospital, a sense we get early on when Gordon hears a disembodied voice calling his name as he stares down an empty corridor. The use of the building as an authentic haunted place is quite striking thanks to its twisting stairwells, underground tunnels and cavernous empty spaces that are all utilized to create a sense of impending doom.

This film is a slow burn of a cinematic experience. Director Anderson makes the most of the set by having each of characters discover their own secrets while wandering around in the old building; this steady development is a pleasant change from the clichéd surprises of other horror films of the time. There are no chunk-blowing special effects or CGI; instead we get many beautifully framed long tracking shots, an excellent ambient score and worthwhile character development.

The tension mounts as the days pass and, in an obvious nod to THE SHINING, the days of the week are announced boldly at the start of each new day. The majority of the film was shot during the day and makes use of natural light; the outdoor scenes offer some creepy shots of nature at work with close up shots of insects and a reoccurring bird call signals when owner Gordon is fading in and out of reality. Just like in THE SHINING we get a hinted at paranormal experience without anything too blatant. My favorite scenes involve the use of voiceovers as we hear the doctor speaking to patient Mary Hobbes about something horrible that happened on Christmas Day in Lowell in 1951. As Mike listens to the various tape recordings, we too are sucked into the ongoing mystery slowly unravelling before our eyes. Another film that SESSION 9 pays homage to is Nicholas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW with its labyrinthine, fog-ridden alleyways in Venice providing that same sense of approaching dread.

Each worker is affected by the hospital differently: Gordon is concealing a secret regarding his new family while Phil is seething at Hank's overt romantic conquest of Amy, his former girlfriend. Mike discovers a box of old patient/doctor recordings that triggers the release of possible former horrors that happened years ago. Meanwhile, Hank discovers a hoard of possessions and hidden coins of the former inmates and thinks that he has struck it rich, and Jeff has a paralyzing fear of the dark.  Each man embodies the psychic toll that exposure to the ancient hospital is having on them, until the film's climax when all is revealed.

The title of the film refers to a series of old reel-to-reel sessions between an unnamed doctor and a patient, Mary Hobbes, a victim of multiple personalities. As Mike listens to each tape we hear the chilling discourse between patient and doctor and learn that Mary has three separate entities inside of her: Princess, a young talkative girl; Billy, an older boy that sees everything; and, Simon, a darker personality that finally emerges at the end. Throughout the film we hear various snippets of the taped conversations which are superimposed over various long shots of the building's abandoned rooms and fenced-in stairwells – which supply some serious chills. The suspense continues to build as we witness various incidents that aren't fully explained such as the disappearance of Hank, unexplained sounds that suggest that someone or something else is in the building, and other visual clues that all combine to create a truly horrifying experience.

The end of the film comes with a bloody payoff and we get some answers to many of the questions that the filmmaker has raised, but the true horror of the film is found in the many lingering images and general unease that one experiences while viewing the film. Like the haunted house featured in Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING, we too are left wondering if it was our collective imaginations at work or if there was the presence of an actual evil in the building. Unfortunately, only Gordon and, ultimately Simon, knows for sure. One of the lesser problems that other critics have pointed out is that not all of the pieces fit together nice and neatly and that there are some flaws in the story's logic. That may be true, but it wasn't a big deal for me at all. I don't expect a film to tie everything together in a nice, neat package, but rather I credit filmmaker Anderson with creating a haunting masterpiece of a film that should linger for a long time in the viewer's memory.          

Extras include 1080p High Definition Widescreen (2.35:1) DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo, Running Time 100 Minutes, Special Features: Return to Danvers: The Secrets of Session 9 Featuring Interviews with Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon, Horror's Hallowed Grounds, Audio Commentary with Director Anderson, Deleted Scenes/Alternative Ending, Story-To-Screen Featurette, The Haunted Palace Featurette and Theatrical Trailer. – Robert Segedy

This is Robert Segedy's first piece for ER. Look for his review of recent releases of Tinto Brass classics from Cult Epics in the upcoming Exploitation Retrospect #53 available later this month.

SESSION 9 is available from Amazon.

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