Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Session 9 ( 2001)

Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon
Cinematography: Uta Briesewitz
Original Music: Climax Golden Twins
Gordon: Peter Mullan
Phil: David Caruso
Mike: Stephen Gevedon
Hank: Josh Lucas
Jeff: Brendan Sexton III
Bill Griggs: Paul Guilfoyle
McManus: Larry Fessenden

Session 9” is a chilling psychological thriller with some elements of horror. It was filmed at the real Danvers State Mental Hospital, near Danvers, Massachusetts. This massive, gothic structure was built in 1878 and was intended to not only house patients (and staff) but to provide humane and progressive therapy. Part of its reputation was as the place where the lobotomy was perfected. Go figure. Overcrowding and inadequate staffing led to increasing neglect and abuse. It was abandoned in 1985 and left to rot for nearly 20 years.

The director and screenwriter were so taken with this creepy, dilapidated building that they wrote their story to fit its atmosphere, and it is the real star of the movie. As lovely and peaceful as the exterior is, the interior is a maze of rooms in multiple wings with dank tunnels underneath. The windows are boarded up, the walls crumbling and covered with graffiti. Much of the original equipment and even books and patient files were left behind and were used in the film.

An asbestos abatement crew is hired to clean out the facility and get it ready for demolition. Gordon, the hazmat owner, is a new father with a rocky marriage and a terrible secret. He needs this job desperately, as well as the $10,000 bonus they will get if they can finish the massive job in one week.

Phil is Gordon’s friend and right-hand man. Hank is a slacker who is not going to spend his life inhaling asbestos, because he has an “exit plan”. (Well, yes he has an exit, but not the one he planned.) Jeff is Gordon’s nephew who is frequently called “Mullet head”, because of his… can probably figure that one out. Mike is the smart law school dropout who is doing manual labor until he can decide what he wants.

From the first visually deceptive shot inside the facility, we know that things are not going to be as they seem. Much like “The Shining”, or “The Haunting”, the spirit of an evil building gets inside the characters and exerts influence. Each man is affected in a different way, according to his particular weakness, and is led to his doom. One has a paralyzing fear of the dark; one is tortured by family tragedy; one becomes increasingly paranoid; one is lured by greed and found riches, and one becomes obsessed with the history of one homicidal patient.

Session 9” refers to the tapes that are found by Mike, which document a psychiatrist’s nine sessions with this patient, who also suffered with multiple personalities. As the tension builds between Gordon and his crew, we are treated to the sound of the interviews as the doctor tries to unravel the patient’s complicated, tragic life. When we get to the last session, we are introduced to “Simon”, the murderous personality, and possibly the entity inhabiting the very walls that are being torn down. The men are wearing full protective gear to prevent the asbestos from invading their lungs. But there is nothing they can do to prevent the invasion of their minds.

This film starts slowly, introducing us to the characters and giving us the impression that we know pretty much what is going on with each of them. The director lets the pressure build as he reveals the weaknesses and flaws of each man. You need a little patience with this one, but the pay off is worth it. The final 30 minutes or so are almost unbearable in the horrific revelations and murder.

The actors are all fine, giving completely natural and realistic performances. Peter Mullen is especially good, painting a picture of a man tormented by extreme despair, but going to elaborate lengths to live in denial. David Caruso plays his character with uncharacteristic restraint, showing us a regular guy in an increasingly insane situation.

Compared to most horror films these days, there are few scenes that would be called horror by many. What we witness is the horror these men experience as their minds deteriorate. When the scares come, they have been earned. Two scenes in particular were pretty nerve racking; one character is alone in the basement tunnels and sees something that shouldn’t be there; and in another, also in the tunnels, a row of lights which are providing the only illumination go out one by one as the man tries to outrun them and get to the safety of light. He doesn’t make it, and we hear his bone-chilling screams in the total darkness.

They filmed at 24 frames per second with HD digital video, instead of the regular video 30 frames per second. This gives each scene a more natural look. Ambient light appears to be used much of the time, which gives a richness and depth usually seen only on film, not video.

Since the filming, Danvers State has been demolished and apartment buildings have gone up on the site. In other words, no more horror movies will be able to take advantage of this remarkable setting. That’s a shame.

Can a building house within its walls memories of the collected suffering and horrific abuse which occurred there? Are these five men actually being “possessed” or guided by a malevolent spirit, or are they simply succumbing to stress and the dismal atmosphere. You can make a case either way. I like to think that they are being affected by not just the atmosphere but a truly evil presence. But that’s just me.

I wish there were more movies like this one – thoughtful and terrifying at the same time. In our own minds we can conjure up more horror than could be filmed in a dozen slasher flicks. As “Simon” is heard on the tapes being asked the question “Where do you live?” he says, “In the weak and the wounded”. All of us have been weak or wounded at some time or other. How would each of us react when pushed to the limits of our sanity?

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