Session 9 is one of my favorite examples of a psychological, cerebral horror film.
It was written by Stephen Gevedon, best known as biker inmate Scotty Ross on HBO’s OZ series, and as a child molester Eliot Stabler has to travel to Prague to find on Law and Order: SVU.
I like Session 9 for how unique it is: in a genre glutted with gore and naked teenagers, Session 9 follows Gordon, a middle aged Scottish immigrant who runs an asbestos removal company.
With his company in trouble, Gordon makes a desperate bid for a job, and underestimates the time necessary to finish it for his 4-man crew. The job is to clear the asbestos from the abandoned Danvers State Mental Asylum, a gigantic facility with a troubled past closed down in the mid-80’s.
What I like about this film is how mature and intelligent it is–it assumes intelligence on the part of its audience, which is always refreshing–I think I lost 10 points off my IQ watching the reboot of Clash of the Titans.
Although the main conflict of the film is the ‘bewitching’ effect of the asylum on the five main characters, the characters’ own conflicts add layers to the story.
Gordon, whose business is already struggling and who will lose it if he doesn’t deliver the goods on this job, is also dealing with the stress of being a new parent at an advanced age. He and his wife Wendy have been trying for years to have a baby, and now caring for little Emma while busting his ass at work has begun to take its toll: he’s tired, distracted, and the first to start feeling the effects of their surroundings.
Mike, played by writer Gevedon, is the blue-collar intellectual, a man who left law school and has been working in ‘fibers’ ever since. Mike, with his ‘book-learning,’ is seduced by the session tapes of a former inmate of the asylum named Mary. Mary suffered from disassociative personality disorder, and in her interviews with her doctor begins to manifest other personalities in response to his probing questions; she witnessed something awful during her childhood and has repressed it, and her doctor questions her mercilessly as to its nature. This is part of the troubled past of the asylum–inmates were given brutal punishments that caused more harm than good. Mike listens to these tapes with a mixture of fascination and horror–it’s a trainwreck, after all, and he can’t look away.
Jeff, Gordon’s nephew, is young and immature, but amiable enough when it comes to the job. A little dim, he suffers from nyctaphobia, and also the deplorable condition of a mullet. He functions for the most part as an opportunity for the audience to meet the other characters and hear a little of their backstories.
Hank (Josh Lucas) is a douchebag. From his sunglasses to his haircut to his facial hair to his weird vocal cadence, he’s a douchbag. But even so, he’s something of a sympathetic douchbag. He’s full of swagger and bravado, and his dream is to be rich enough to be a whale in a Vegas casino, but there’s a moment when you see Hank at home, being screamed at by his girlfriend, where you see how isolated and sad his life is.
Phil, played by David Caruso, is the ‘boss’ of the bunch, under Gordon. He wrangles the other three guys and seems to handle the day to day operations of the business. He is aware of the strain Gordon is under and frets about the job (and their bonuses) being lost.
The movie is also interesting to me because most often in atmospheric horror movies, it is women who ‘feel’ the effects of their surroundings, based on that Victorian ideal that ‘chicks feel stuff more than dudes.’ Men, if we believe pop culture, are rational and less prone to being swayed by their emotions. This is bullshit, as anyone in the mental health field can tell you. Men are just as irrational as women are, but are usually trained from an early age that showing emotion is unmasculine and therefore unacceptable. Men have emotions, but they don’t often show or address them. Men repress–and that is the meat of the story, repression.
In the scene mentioned above, where Hank is being yelled at by his girlfriend, we see something interesting: Hank is only dating Amy (who we never see) because he stole her away from Phil, a point Hank always brings up. But in the fight, he’s not even listening to her, he’s staring dead-eyed at the television while she storms in the background. Is this what he won? Is this his prize? It indicates to me that Phil’s anger is more precious to Hank than Amy’s happiness, and that’s a real tragedy when you think about.
There’s also something innately horrific about the setting: I believe on some primordial level, people are aware when their surroundings have had a traumatic past. I don’t believe in ghosts or ‘vibes’ or anything, but maybe something pheromonal–layers and layers of terrified, enraged sweat absorbed into the walls, floor and ceiling, or the evaporated exhalations of a thousand screams sunk into the plaster and wood.
Session 9 is a fascinating movie not just because it’s a great atmospheric horror film–it works on many layers, and it presents a revealing glimpse into the male psyche–the REAL male psyche. Not the bullshit Maxim or Cosmopolitan or any other magazine would have you believe, but instead the basic human thoughts and feelings that anyone -male or female- could experience. I think Session 9 is so successful because it shows that anyone would react to horrific stimulus the same way–regardless of what shape your genitals are.
For a good scare that doesn’t insult your intelligence or fall apart after the first act, you can’t beat Session 9. Its dilapidated imagery inspired much of the imagery of horror video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, as well as the recent trend of horror movies with that gritty, industrial feel. It’s not so over the top though–the setting feels real because it IS a real abandoned psychiatric facility.
Session 9 was made in 2001 and is available on Instant Watch. I can’t recommend it highly enough.