Few things are creepier than the horror-standard abandoned mental institution. While this spooky setting is a common ploy in horror films, few have made such perfect use of it as 2001’s release Session 9. The plot is simple enough: a team of hazardous waste disposal workers take a job removing potentially hazardous material from the historic Danvers Institution (formerly a real place in Massachusetts, only adding to the appeal) as it is rehabbed for public use.
Immediately, there is tension among the five men; the boss, Gordon (Peter Mullan) had put in a low-price, quick-finish bid to acquire the job, leaving his three regular workers and newly hired nephew little time to complete the job. More strain becomes apparent when it is revealed that second-in-command Phil (David Caruso) had recently lost his girlfriend to co-worker Hank (Josh Lucas). The strained relationships among the men prove perfect breeding ground for truly terrifying psychological horror, the likes of which haven’t been seen in film to any decent degree in many years.
While resentments and worries boil under the surface, the five men try to get their job done. Not an easy task with quiet man Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a lawyer turned hazmat worker, slipping away to the records room where he had found nine reels of audio tape of therapy sessions with a former patient, Mary Hobbes. He begins listening to the first tape, Session One, and there the story begins to unfold.
It becomes obvious that more is going on beneath the surface than is being told. Bossman Gordon has a new baby at home, and yet he is never shown with his family, only staring at them from his parked van. He is found at the institution early in the mornings, before the others have even arrived, and when nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) asks about his aunt and newest cousin, Gordon’s answers are rushed and ambiguous
Through it all, a creepy atmosphere pervades. Gordon hears whispers from a darkened hallway, where only the silhouette of an ancient wheelchair is visible. A lunch break alongside the Danvers’ patient cemetery is wrought with creepy commentary on a patient scandal that had taken place in the infamous institution’s history. Throughout it all, we see more and more of Mike slipping away to listen to the audio tape reels session by session.
The story of Mary Hobbes unfolds with frightening clarity, revealing a woman with several personalities: Billy, the protector, and Princess, the childlike innocent. The persisting doctor pushes for an explanation of a traumatic event in Mary’s past, stemming from an incident involving her brother, a knife and her new doll on a Christmas in her childhood. Throughout it all, the doctor repeatedly asks to speak to an elusive personality: Simon.
This film features one of the best bone-chilling scenes in recent horror movies. Hank, who often speaks of get-rich-quick schemes, finds an old and valuable coin jammed into a wall during his work, and returns that night to hunt down more valuables. In the darkened tunnel, with only a flashlight to guide him, he returns to his treasure spot and gleefully pulls more coins from the wall, removing a brick to reach in deeper and pull out jewelry, eyeglasses and even surgical tools – including a long handled needle used for lobotomies – along with thick grey silt. It’s an edge-of-your-seat moment, watching as Hank pushes his arm as far as he can into the unknown lurking behind the removed brick, leaving the audience wondering what will happen next. The horror reaches a crescendo when a spinning through-the-wall camera shot reveals that the cavernous darkness from which Hank pulls his treasures is, in fact, a crematorium.
Keep in mind that this film is no standard schlock gorefest. Fans of the hack and slash horror flick beware: This one makes you think, and after the first viewing you will definitely want to follow it up with a second or third to catch the subtleties you may have missed the first time around.
That in itself is a problem, when Hollywood and the teenage horror crowd seem to prefer watching pretty people getting killed in comically ridiculous manner or be inundated with over the top CGI. Still, Session 9 stands out. Director Brad Anderson weaves a frightening tale of the human psyche through beautifully gothic camera shots and a purposefully disjointed yet horrific ending. The creepy atmosphere has few equals in films today; it seems almost as though the hulking institution is a character in its own right.
Eventually, the big reveal comes and we finally hear the voice of Simon: I live in the weak and wounded… a voice that sounds terribly familiar to those paying attention. The last half hour of the film is a gauntlet of horror, leading to a final realization that is just too good to be spoiled. The running back-story of Mary Hobbes comes to climax just as the tale of the five hazmat workers reaches its end; well-written and beautifully filmed, Session 9 is one of the best psychological horror films to be produced in the last two decades.
Session 9 (2001)
Starring: David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas
Director: Brad Anderson
Writers: Brad Anderson & Steven Gevedon
Studio: USA Films / Universal Pictures