Collins’ Crypt: SESSION 9 Scares Me Even More Now

BC thinks Brad Anderson's film is better than THE SHINING - how about you?

One of my biggest regrets in life, at least the part of it that relates to my appreciation of horror films, is neglecting to visit the Danvers State Hospital before it was torn down and turned into condos (quite nice ones, from what I understand). I grew up only twenty miles away from the abandoned institution, and was in Danvers often (mall + theater + a good buffet place = frequent destination), but for one reason or another I never got around to taking the detour, always driving right past the route that would take me there in favor of the entertainment options that awaited on the main road. Of course, part of the hesitation was due to its condemned and "private property" status - more than one friend had entered and either gotten hurt and/or caught by the security, the latter of which was hired mostly to prevent the former. It was not an easy place to get into, and it was even less easy to get around due to its decrepit condition.

But the hospital lives on in Session 9, which (per the IMDb, don't yell at me if this is wrong) is one of only two films that were ever shot at the notoriously creepy location*, which was old enough to be named the rather un-PC Danvers State Lunatic Asylum at one point, and is rumored to be the birthplace of the pre-frontal lobotomy technique. As explained in the film, the structure has a bat-like design, with the main admissions building forming the "head" and the two wings with all the patient rooms spread out like, er, wings. The hospital was shut down in the '90s due to budget-cutting and a 30+ year decline in patient numbers due to alternative treatments, home-care, etc. The building was mostly hazardous by the time director Brad Anderson and the cast and crew of Session 9 descended on it, which leads to an unintentional side effect on the film's narrative - the heroes (an asbestos removal team) supposed to be racing to get the job done in half the usual time in order to get a bonus, but it seems they're only working on like four rooms! That's because the rest of it was off limits due to safety concerns - the sort of fear some film crews get while filming in notoriously troubled urban areas (think Cabrini Green in Candyman) or actual warzones - not a place in suburban Massachusetts with a Texas Roadhouse located 800 feet away.

I bring this up because the movie is terrifying, anyway, so I can't even imagine how much scarier it might be if they had free run of the place and let the actors roam hazardous sections where the roof might collapse on them in the middle of a take. As we learn on the Blu-ray's bonus features, the crew did almost no set dressing - apart from the obvious things they brought to the table (the characters' cleaning equipment, photographs that end up on walls, etc.) the rooms and tunnels were pretty much filmed in the same condition they were found. The graffiti, the old patient files, the majority of the medical implements - all of that was just lying around, ready to be filmed and used to scare the few horror fans who saw it during its unsuccessful theatrical run in August of 2001. Luckily, it proved to be a hit on video (I saw it for the first time on "glorious" VHS!), and now has received the highest honor a horror film can achieve these days - it's getting its very own Scream Factory release (the first on Blu-ray) with a few new extras to round out the already solid collection (all of the old extras are present on the Blu) and a solid transfer that does justice to the film's "early days of HD" imagery.

Watching again, and for the first time in years, I realized I might actually like the film more than The Shining, a similar story about an infamous location's history worming its way into the fragile mind of our protagonist. Stanley Kubrick's adaption of Stephen King's classic novel is rightfully acclaimed, but there's one thing that's bugged me even before I read the book: Jack Nicholson's version of the protagonist is scary even on the drive to the hotel. It's hard to sympathize with him almost from the get-go, let alone by the end, something that does not affect Peter Mullan's Gordon in Session 9. As the boss of the asbestos cleanup crew, he is an easy guy to care about: he's got a wife and newborn daughter that he's trying to take care of while also focusing on his struggling business - an everyman if there ever was one. Especially for the horror genre, which tends to make the female characters the more well-rounded ones, particularly in psychological/supernatural types such as this - the studio version of this movie would focus on Gordon's wife, alone at home while her husband went off to some hazily-defined job. And now you're entering spoiler territory, so go the hell away if you haven't seen this movie yet (and shame on you - it's fifteen goddamn years old at this point!).

So when the end of the movie comes and you discover that it's a cracked Gordon that's been offing the other crew members - and not a ghost or former patient or whatever - it's legitimately sad; I know he just murdered five guys who hadn't done anything wrong (including his own nephew), but I still felt bad for the poor guy, sobbing into a broken cell phone and asking his wife - whom we now know he also killed**, along with the baby daughter - to forgive him and let him come home. His delivery of "I miss my baby" breaks my heart every single time I watch the film, whereas I never once felt any real sympathy for Jack Torrance (in the movie I mean; the book - which I eventually read - is a different story). Now, that may have been an intentional choice on Kubrick's part (and thus not a "failure" of his, or Nicholson for that matter), it did keep their movie slightly at bay for me - when I watch it, I find myself admiring the production design and Steadicam work more than I feel myself letting the movie get under my skin the way Session 9 does. If they hadn't torn the building down, I'd be pushing for the (seemingly defunct) Stanley Film Fest, held at the famous Overlook Hotel, to relocate to the Danvers State Hospital. Not only would it be a fun passing of the torch, but it'd have the same unsettling effect on attendees as the Overlook while also perhaps helping them discover an underappreciated horror film that I like more every time I see it.

Indeed, the film's Blu release was almost scarily well-timed for me personally, as I now have my own wife and young child who I'm struggling to provide for, and I am beyond stressed to boot. We were forced to move out of our place (a rental that the owners decided to sell and we couldn't afford to buy from them) this past weekend and move into a smaller place that costs a lot more money - not exactly the sort of thing that puts my mind at ease. In fact, it was the last movie I watched in my now-old home, framed by a mostly emptied entertainment center and (don't tell anyone) watched through a few tears when Gordon was looking at all of his baby photos and I realized that almost all of my favorite photos of my son were taken in a home we didn't want to leave and would never see again. I ain't gonna kill my family or co-workers, far as I know, but I definitely "felt" Gordon more than I ever have in previous viewings - I can definitely see myself talking to a broken cell phone pretty soon if I can't finish unpacking everything and knowing where the hell my clean socks are (OK, I actually found them yesterday - but we moved on Saturday). It's not a requirement for any horror film, certainly - but for me personally, due to my inability to really get scared at most of the horror films I see (Horror Movie A Day-ing will do wonders for desensitization), being able to relate to the character on more than a basic level (like "Hey, we both like beer!") goes a long way into making that movie effective for me. In those sadly rare instances, the film can produce the effect that comes naturally to people like my wife, who tensed up at the mere sight of the Blu-ray case when it came in the mail (she frequently cites it as one of the movies that terrifies her - and she once took a trip to the hospital prior to us dating).

I bring up the personal connection this latest viewing offered because the film unnerved me even at 21, without a real job or family to worry about. The location was creepy enough that they could have filmed the shittiest slasher movie (or, sadly, Anderson's later horror/thriller efforts like The Call) in there and it'd be pretty terrifying, but the effective blend of psychological horror and haunted house tropes (there's even a possible hidden treasure!) worked like gangbusters on me. And it didn't hurt that the film actually DOES have a slasher-esque feel in its third act, as the crew is picked off one by one by an unseen assailant - Jeff's death even has a Harry Manfredini-esque screech playing over it (and dies like Friday the 13th's Steve Christy, recognizing a friendly face and even greeting his killer). Anderson and co-writer Steven Gevedon (who also plays Mike, the guy who spends most of the movie listening to the tapes that give the film its name) were smart enough to show all of the guys cracking in their own way - Gordon is the only one who turns violent, but Phil's (David Caruso, in one of his last roles before CSI) paranoia and resentment gets worse over the course of the week, Mike seemingly abandons his work duties entirely to listen to the tapes, and Jeff... well Jeff is just afraid of the dark and the place does that fear no favors, especially when he's trapped in a long tunnel as the lights go out around him (one of the film's few "trailer-ready" scare moments). 

If you're reading without seeing the film yet you might have noticed a distinct lack of female names in these descriptions. I'm not sure if it was that first viewing or a later one that I realized that the film was almost exclusively populated by males. We see Wendy and the baby (also a girl) in a few very quick flashbacks, but the actress playing Wendy has no on-screen dialogue (and what we do hear from her, in voiceover, sounds very unnatural), and the only other living female "character" is Amy, a former girlfriend of Phil who is now dating Hank, played by Josh Lucas. We don't see her at all, just hear about her existence and, in one scene, watch Caruso talk to her on the phone - sans her voice (a necessary device for a later scene where Caruso is accused of never actually talking to her). That leaves the (presumably deceased) Mary Hobbes, the girl on the "session" tapes that Mike listens to, in which she talks to a psychiatrist about something BAD that happened on Christmas some years back. Mary speaks as different characters, and even those are almost all male, including "Simon", the one who committed the murders (of Mary's family) and is the one possessing Gordon in the present. Like I said earlier, these sort of movies usually focus on a female character (or at least a husband and wife pair), so the all but non-existent female presence makes it not only rather unique, but scarier in a way - when alpha males like John Kelly and Craig McDermott are quickly subdued by the film's villains, what chance do the rest of us have?

Will people start coming up with insane theories about Session 9 like they do for The Shining? Probably not (well, there is one that David Caruso's character is just a hallucination, but it's easily debunked), but I think it lends itself to that kind of "Let's watch it again and look for clues" kind of appreciation. With the film's deleted material inadvertently adding to the film's creepy quality (it leaves a couple unexplained moments until you watch those cut scenes), and answers that are there but not as spelled out as we've gotten accustomed to, it finds that perfect balance of being "off" in a way that can jangle the audience's nerves, but not so much that it's eventually inaccessible. It is, in many ways, a kind of perfect horror movie for those who can appreciate the slower pace and cast of adults as opposed to the usual teens (if this movie was made today, there's no doubt in my mind it would concern a group of kids with video cameras). Will it ever reach the same levels of acclaim as The Shining? Probably not. But so what? When I need my mind put at unease, I know which one I'll grab off the shelf - hopefully some of you feel the same.

*The other is Home Before Dark, which I have not seen but from what I can gather from its IMDb and Wiki pages, the hospital is more of a kickoff location for the story, about a woman who LEAVES the hospital and returns to her home life. Session 9 is filmed entirely at the location save for the occasional brief shots of the characters at home or at a bar.

**This subplot was inspired by a real case in Massachusetts, where a guy killed his wife after she burned the ziti, and then seemingly blocked it out of his mind - he went to work the next day as if nothing happened. They mentioned this on the original DVD but if I'm not mistaken the man's name (Richard Rosenthal) was never given until this new Blu-ray. So the movie is set in a real insitution and based on a real murder case, and yet there's no "Based on a true story" credit! For once it wouldn't be total bullshit!