Released to little fanfare in 2001, Session 9 is an amazing and too-often-overlooked psychological horror flick that would feel right at home rubbing shoulders with today's modern slate of "elevated horror" pictures - just as much as it felt oddly out-of-place in a post-Scream 2001. To know what makes Session 9 stand out, you can start with the answer to the question, "Where was Session 9 filmed?"
Making extensive use of the abandoned Danvers State Hospital - a real hospital for the mentally ill that was in operation from the late 1800s until the 1980s - and drawing from real stories, Session 9 didn't have to add much to make things scary. Fortunately, it goes above and beyond, telling the tale of an asbestos abatement team who go into the eerie halls of the derelict hospital only to be slowly drawn into their own darkness. Is it because of the hospital itself? The ghostly echoes of its former patients? Or is someone in the building with them?
As the men all begin to fragment, one of them finds a series of taped interview sessions with a former patient whose story has a chilly parallel with events taking place within the walls. This eerie gem from 2001 might just be one of the best horror movies you've never seen.
'Session 9' Oozes Dread From Every Frame
From the very first frame of the movie - an image of a lone chair, sitting in a beam of light in a decaying hallway, the whole frame turned upside-down - Session 9 sets out to make the audience ill-at-ease. Owen Gleiberman, writing for Entertainment Weekly, said of the film's unremittingly unsettling tone that director Brad Anderson, who was a newcomer to horror films, "seems to be bending over backward to stretch his wings."
"Stretching his wings" in this case translates to "freaking the audience out." Gleiberman went on to refer to Session 9 as a "marvel of vérité nightmare atmosphere." The director put it another way: "We weren't going for jolts (things jumping out of closets and stuff) as much as we were creating an atmosphere of dread or menace that lives with you."
Anderson and his crew had an able partner in that enterprise in the form of the film's setting - the decaying hulk of the abandoned Danvers State Hospital which, just as in the movie, had housed the mentally ill for more than a century, until it was closed down in the 1980s. But the building alone could only do so much, and the film's roving camera and ominous soundscape take over from there, showcasing the contrasting beauty and isolation of the location and creating a sonic landscape that heightens tension at every turn.
Session 9 does a lot with very little. There are few special effects. Instead, we get eerie images of the abandoned hospital, recordings of an interview with a patient that turns increasingly chilling, portrayals of human psyches fracturing apart in ways that make it seem like any one of them could be behind the strange goings-on within the walls, and in one particularly effective sequence, a series of images of insects crawling on grass set to a monologue about the hospital's sordid history.
The Movie Was Filmed On Location At The Abandoned Danvers State Hospital
Originally built in 1874, the abandoned Danvers State Hospital is basically the perfect location for a horror movie. Not only is it a derelict hospital for the mentally ill with a litany of unsettling stories associated with its long history, but it was actually built on the spot where one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials once lived. Hard to get a more perfect horror movie pedigree than that.
The hospital is also said to have been the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham Sanitarium, which in turn, lent its name to the infamous Arkham Asylum where Batman's rogues gallery spend much of their time. According to the cast and crew of Session 9, the hospital more than lived up to its eerie reputation.
"It was a terrifying location," actor David Caruso said of the hospital. "It was a place we never got comfortable in. It wasn't like it was day three and you were throwing water balloons because it was so much fun to be there. It was always scary, and you could really feel the pain of the people that were at Danvers. It's a rough environment. But, I mean, it's on the film. You can see. They didn't have to dress any sets or anything, all that stuff was already there."
The crew were only able to use a small part of the hospital because much of it was unsafe. In the film, the man who is hiring the crew to remove the asbestos describes the building's Kirkbride Plan, an architectural and philosophical approach to constructing such hospitals, in a suitably gothic manner, comparing it to a giant bat. Today, what remains of the Danvers State Hospital has been converted into pricey apartments and condos - for those brave enough to live there.
It Was A Horror Debut For The Director, Whose Previous Credits Were Romantic Comedies
Technically, director Brad Anderson's debut was a 50-minute short filmed on Super 8 in 1993 called Frankenstein's Planet of Monsters! According to B.C. Sterrett of the Lost Media Archive, it was "ultra low budget and the costumes and the sets and the whole design is very homemade but very charming and ingenious and you'll never see anything like it." Between that and Session 9, however, Anderson stayed away from the horror genre, directing the romantic comedies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents.
Session 9 marked Anderson's first foray into this kind of big-screen horror - but not his last. He followed it up with the thriller The Machinist starring Christian Bale in 2004, and by 2006, he had a slot in the roster of the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror, where he was rubbing shoulders with more established veterans of the genre, like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, and Stuart Gordon.
Whether Or Not There Are Supernatural Forces At Play Is Left To Interpretation
A lot of classic horror movies get mentioned as influences on Session 9. Titles like Don't Look Now and The Shining are thrown around. One less obvious one is John Carpenter's classic The Thing. Sure, there's the fact that the movies both feature pretty much all-male casts stuck in an isolated location as the paranoia begins to ratchet up, but they have something else in common, too: an ambiguous ending that has kept audiences guessing and fans coming back to interpret and reinterpret the available data.
According to the film's commentary track, the original script of Session 9 made it quite a bit clearer what was real and what was supernatural - and what was all in someone's mind. It was "very much a clinical interpretation of mental illness," as Anderson and company said on the commentary. You can even see some of these moments in the film's deleted scenes, which include an old woman who might be the former patient Mary Hobbes hiding in the building. However, as they were putting the film together, they "realized audiences wanted it to be a little more spooky and ghostly."
The final words in the film are the voice of Simon, one of Mary's multiple personalities, on tape saying, "I live in the weak and the wounded, Doc." This could mean that everyone has the potential for mental illness and/or violence. Under the right circumstances, anyone can "snap." Or it could mean that, as some have theorized, Simon is an actual entity, the "malignant genius loci of the gothic building."
"Session 9 can be interpreted in different ways," director Brad Anderson told AMC. "You can get the sense that Gordon breathes in an evil spirit, but can also be read as a much more clinical movie that shows a man who becomes unhinged, or may be going mad."