Halloween-time, or at least part of it, is about going back to your shelf of movies and re-watching some of your favourite horror films, and that’s what I did here, revisiting one of my favourite paranormal films of all time, and one of the standout horror films of the 00’s in general, in my view, Session 9.
Written by Brad Anderson (The Machinist) and Stephen Gevedon (who also starred in the film as the character Mike), and directed by Anderson, this film is memorable for many reasons, and one of those is its setting. Filmed in the now-destroyed and then-derelict Danvers State Hospital (also known as The Danvers State Insane Asylum) in Danvers, Massachusetts, an old psychiatric facility for the criminally insane that was rumoured to have been the birthplace of the infamous pre-frontal lobotomy, it is an evocative and terrifying looking place, it’s sheer magnitude and implied history offering an instant hit of discomfort and horror that would have been lacking had the asylum not been one with a genuine history. The building itself becomes a character during the film, and you can’t help but feel like there is something truly dark inside the walls of the place, possibly even beyond the film itself, giving it an aura unlike any other film of its kind. I love that about Session 9, and while some might write off the “real asylum” setting as a gimmick, it’s far more than that, it truly does offer a feeling of intense dread that takes the film to a hauntingly different level. Hell, it’s even been said that the actors themselves were deeply uncomfortable in the hospital, and have even made mention of seeing and hearing bizarre things. Yikes.
The plot, or story, is simplistic, and deep, at the same time. I don’t say things like that often. The whole “you’ll love it or hate it” thing is over-used, but this really does take a simple concept and turns it into a deeply unsettling and psychotic hallway of turns that you just never see coming, and because of that I won’t go too deeply into things, because I urge you to check this out for yourself and experience those moments organically, without me laying them out for you here. A group of guys are hired to remove asbestos from a mental asylum that has been left derelict and crumbling. They begin their job and as they spend more time inside the walls of the peculiar and spooky building, they begin to become affected by it, all in unique ways. One of them discovers recordings from one of the former inmates and begins to listen to the tapes, opening a story that plays inside of the main story itself. This is the best way to explain things, and I’ll leave it there in terms of the story. Watching the men unravel in different ways, the asylum affecting them and causing them to feel, see, hear and do things that are out of their ordinary provides some genuinely scary moments.
The cast do a remarkable job here, each bringing their own style of character to the table. David Caruso (CSI: Miami), Peter Mullan (Tyrannosaur), Gevedon (Hellbenders), Josh Lucas (American Psycho) and Brendan Sexton III (Empire Records), as the working men who become increasingly disturbed by the hospital that they have been hired to work in, all do a top notch job. Mullan, for me, steals the show though, his gritty, intense and disintegrating humanity makes the whole experience that much more unnerving. Caruso, who has received plenty of bad reviews for his work, even in this film, is fine, and though he over-acts from time to time, I didn’t find that he ever distracted me in a way that blemished my enjoyment of the movie. Their conversations feel genuine, and the way they juggle friendship and conflict is really interesting to watch.
It is one of those films that slowly builds, and with its quiet nature and growing tension, it becomes genuinely frightening, bringing good old-fashioned goose-bumps to the skin of anyone who allows themselves to be taken into the story and the setting of the film. There are no tricks used here, no girl ghosts with long black hair flicking across the screen at a hundred miles an hour, no flickering lights that eventually stop flickering to reveal a giant ghostly apparition dressed like a Victorian banker. Nope, this is tense stuff, and the use of sound and the excellent cinematography creates a distinctive film, and one that I always point to when I want to get that unfailingly creepy feeling.
It ends in a way that Hollywood horror wouldn’t, and for that I am also thankful. This is a hard one to pick fault with due to the fact that I loved it back in 2001, and I still do some thirteen years later. Sure, it isn’t perfect, it isn’t a big budget film, it won’t quench the blood-thirst of gore-hounds, and the acting, while very good much of the time, isn’t always on point. But man, these are the scrawling’s of a man who is struggling to find problems with one of his favourite horror flicks. If you’ve seen it, you’ll hopefully share my appreciation for it, if you have yet to see it, go right to amazon, Netflix, or wherever you buy or watch your films, and give it a shot. It’s perfect for this time of year.