"Session 9"

by Sean McTiernan

Everything about Session 9 feels wrong. Every moment feels a little off and every exchange of meaningless work banter is loaded with a little more tension than you’d expect. Every shot of an abandoned room or a tree seems to be concealing or foreshadowing. It’s like watching “Friends” without the laugh track: it makes you want to claw your eyes out.

There’s little explanation of what’s going on. For most of the movie’s running time it genuinely appears to be no more than the story of tension between asbestos removal men in an abandoned mental asylum. And it sort of is. There’s no killer or ghost. Except for… something. Something about the way the camera lingers over the long hallways and the filth. The idle conversations the men have about the ex-patients of the asylum and what became of them seem to hold a lot more weight than they should.

As Session 9 progresses, the asylum starts picking away at every member of the crew. Each of their weaknesses become more and more pronounced, as does the gulf between them. The movie lets you know, in little snippets here and there, that something is wrong. The audience is only slightly more aware of what’s going on than the characters. The plot actually becomes less clear as it progresses… until the final ten minutes, which provide not a twist so much as a moment of clarity. When it comes, it feels inevitable. It is the moment when reality must be addressed, no matter how brutal. This movie doesn’t deal in out-of-nowhere shocks: its currency is crushing, suffocating inevitability.

Oddly, Session 9 takes place mostly in daylight (an uncomfortable, dried-blood shade of daylight, but daylight nonetheless). The only conventional horror scene in the film does involve darkness — but not in a way you’d expect. The true source of dread is Danvers Asylum, the genuine mental hospital the movie was filmed in. Danvers is the real deal, with a history of lobotomies, shock-treatments, straight-jackets and general inhumane behavior towards the mentally ill. Usually in horror movies, 1) people arrive in impossibly creepy places, 2) one panicky person is quickly told to shut up, and 3) the rest of the cast remains blissfully oblivious to the theatrical creepiness of their surroundings until a masked man leaps from behind a heavily cobwebbed lampshade and tries to get up in their mix. Not here.

Every room, every area in the asylum, exudes a sort of violent menace. Danvers is so thick with natural atmosphere that it feels as if the depredations performed upon the mentally ill have made themselves part of the surroundings. There’s no discovery of exaggerated torture racks or fetuses in jars, there’s just peeling paint, orange light and pure misery. One shot in particular, of a wheelchair built to restrain patients, is particularly distressing. As the movie progresses and we continue to cut back to this chair it stops being simply a disquieting reminder of the history of the building and becomes something far more terrible: a threat.

Mike, one of the team, discovers audiotapes early on in the movie. They are of a patient named Mary Hobbess, a woman with multiple personality disorder who killed her brother and parents when she was fourteen. Each day we hear Mike listening to more and more tapes. Mary has three other personalities but only two are talking. It quickly becomes clearly they are mortally terrified of the third, Simon, and will not let the doctor speak with him. The tension escalates along with the the tapes. It’s telling that the tapes are, for the lion’s share of the running time, the most overtly scary thing in the movie, when they are simply audio of a woman battling with her own personal demons. These realistic depictions of psychiatric interviews coupled with the footage of the asylum helps the film go deeper inside your head than any normal psychological horror would.

Session 9 is rife with double meaning. From the most obvious, where the men are constantly taking about the “shit” in the building “getting inside them” to the most oblique, where every instruction and accusation made in the last stretch of the movie could apply to the psychology of the characters as well as their literal actions. It is a masterclass in the power of suggestion and the conversational rings people run around each other. None of the men want to admit they have a problem, but all of them suspect the others of approaching the breaking point. They know something is wrong but they can’t verbalize it.

Speaking of awkward, I should tell you David Caruso of “CSI: Miami” infamy is in this movie. This is probably why Session 9 is not widely hailed as a taut masterpiece of psychological horror. But Caruso’s seemingly psychological inability to act is weirdly mimetic in the scheme of the film. Like Caruso’s oddly aggressive lack of talent, Session 9 makes you wildly uncomfortable. It is a movie that wakes the butterflies in your stomach the moment it begins and will soon have you covering your face in fear of seeing another hallway or yellow room. Most importantly, despite some vague hints at supernatural forces, everything you see could actually happen. Worse still: it has.

Sean will continue to review horror movies (and other lost genre classics) at his blog Zombies Eat Human Flesh.