Session 9 (2001)

Session 9 is a 2001 psychological horror film directed by Brad Anderson. And when we say psychological, we mean it’s heavy on the psychological. The damn thing takes place at a mental institution. It’s a tale as twisted as the bat-winged halls of the Danvers State Hospital itself, and when we take the plunge below the break rest assured, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen this movie, consider this your official warning. Simon says check out the trailer, give it a watch and then come back. We’ll still be here. And by “we”, we mean our words. It’s the internet. That’s how this shit works.

 
 

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Mark: Session 9. I first saw this movie 7 or 8 years ago when it was freely available on Netflix. I paid very little attention to it at the time and as a result remembered almost nothing of it. Why’d you pick this one Jake? How’d you know about it?

Jake: Jesus. Has Netflix been around that long? I think I’m more scared by how frequently I hear/see things that make me feel old these days than I am by any horror movie. Scare factor rating for Jake’s mortality: 9.5... Anyway, though I can’t remember where I saw it, I’m in pretty much in the same boat of having seen this awhile back. It likely happened during one of our October horror-a-thons we did in college, but I can’t confirm. I was drunk that day. In general, I like themes and I’m still going for the autumnal thing here, so it seemed to fit the bill.

Mark: Figures that you wouldn’t give mortality itself a perfect 10. Beyond that, where do you get that this is autumnal? I’m pretty sure this movie happens in the middle of the summer. So congratulations on your lovely summer romp of a pick. Anything you can do to prove me wrong?

Jake: How’s this?

Mark: So David Caruso drinks at a bar that lazily leaves its Halloween decorations up year long. This proves nothing. To keep things moving, the movie follows the asbestos abatement crew of Phil, Gordon, Hank, Jeff, and Mike as they clean out the guts of Danvers State Insane Asylum for future development. The head dude of the group is down-on-his-luck Gordon who needs this job to keep company afloat, which causes him to cut corners on his quote. Tisk tisk.

Jake: For those unaware, Danvers is a real place… or at least it was until was essentially demolished and turned into apartments in 2005. It is a historically significant haunted place and was a source of inspiration for both HP Lovecraft and Stephen King. Pretty sweet place to film a movie, but I definitely would not want to live in those apartments. In fairness, It’s probably not much different from the apartments where I do live, which brings up an interesting point. It feels like every fucking horror movie takes place in a rough 100 mile radius around where I currently reside. Truth? Or confirmation bias?

Pictured: Jake's apartment complex, probably.

Pictured: Jake's apartment complex, probably.

Mark: Well you live in a nightmarish hellscape so I’m going to go with true. Much like where you live, the psychological weight of this script takes its sweet time to build. There is an incredibly slow build in this movie. Literally nothing of note happens until about 50 minutes in, and even then it’s basically just a dude yelping after seeing a shadow move around in the background of a shot. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good sequence, but no one is going to call this movie “high octane.”

Jake: Definitely not, but that was never the point. This thing’s bread and butter is in the use of its dilapidated insane asylum of a setting. Its general calm works to build a sense of dread. Flat out, the place just starts to get under your skin.

Mark: Helping matters is a set of reel-to-reel recordings that Mike finds early in the film, documenting rehab sessions for a woman with repressed traumatic memories and multiple personality disorder. There are 9 recorded sessions (hence the title of the movie, dickass), and Mike makes sure to listen to each while in the asylum’s deep, dank basement away from the others. That’s how you get mileage on your creep factor. Smooth.

Jake: And multiple personality disorder may be the technical explanation for what you hear in the session recordings, but holy mackerel this stuff is creepy. You have the woman and her three other “personalities”, Princess, Billy, and Simon. They all “live” in different parts of her body. Princess lives in her mouth (like Tony in the Shining), Billy lives in her eyes, and Simon is just this vaguely defined character that appears to be in hiding. It all ramps up the atmosphere quite well.

Mark: I think the best thing that this movie has going for it is the editing, and the way that it fed into the cinematography. There are some incredibly long takes in this movie. It directly contrasts the composition you usually see in most horror films (or just most films) where the shots are so quick and frenetic that it creates a chaotic, fast-paced effect. It’s useful for establishing “action” in films, but it also contrasts with how we see things in our day to day lives. The way this is shot and edited does a lot to make this feel more down-to-Earth, and in so doing creates a very creepy vibe. When you’re watching, pay attention to how long the shots go for… in fact just start paying attention to that in general when you watch movies. It’s a fun game to play. If nothing else, this movie gave us this…

Don't even try to tell me that's not expert cinematography.

Don't even try to tell me that's not expert cinematography.

Jake: Can’t disagree there, bud. On the whole, things just linger in this movie. And while I can’t praise the score too much, it doesn’t get in the way either and knows when to let the creepy silence of the setting take the wheel. The only detraction I can really make here is that I feel like some of the establishing shots, and really anything shot outside the walls of the asylum, are over-exposed and feel cheaper. It’s counter-intuitive because it both helps things feel a bit more surreal and at the same time looked noticeably bad by comparison, breaking immersion. And a lot of the early part of this movie had me focusing on that aspect of the film because there’s just not a lot else going on.

Mark: Like I said, the first real thing to happen is Hank getting attacked by some unseen force at night as he is sneakily attempting to steal a literal pile of treasure out from underneath the old crematorium. He doesn’t show up the next day to work and it falls on Phil (David Caruso) to call Hank’s girlfriend to figure out what the fuck happened to this guy. Turns out he figured the treasure punched his ticket to the high life and he left for Miami to attend “casino school.” What an asshole.

Jake: Yeah, he’s a real greasy prick. But I kind of love the character. The porn stache. The Kenny G he listens to while he walks around. All of it’s outstanding.

Jake: Anyway, this sets off a stress bomb because time is running low and these unproductive fucks have been doing very little other than taking lunch breaks and yelling at each other about stealing girlfriends. The anxiety is clearly starting to get to Gordon (aka Gordo, Gord, Gordie, Gordinski, Gordaroonie etc.), who is desperate to get the job done and collect a bonus that will help his floundering mom & pop outfit. Plus he’s having some issues on the homefront and there is a lot of time spent on lingering scenes either flashing back to him outside his house or of him trying to get his wife to speak with him on the phone.

Mark: Everything comes to a head when Jeff, or mister McMullet as he is affectionately referred to, stumbles across Hank loitering about in the stairwell when he is supposedly off majoring in “I dunno, money ‘n’ stuff” at casino school. Clearly, something is amiss, especially considering Hank was finger painting blood on the windows when Jeff found him. The remaining crew splits up (always a good idea) to try and find their missing compatriot. Jeff and Phil end up following the traces down into the basement and find Hank huddled in the most recessed, dark corridor of the place rocking back and forth in the fetal position in his skivvies.

Jake: At this point, a lot starts happening. And I mean A LOT. All at once. Especially for how slow the movie has progressed to this point. Phil finds Hank, Mike listens to more of the session recordings and causes the power to go out, Jeff has a full on meltdown because he suffers from nyctophobia and gets stuck in the basement when the power drops, and Gordo finds some weird shit upstairs. Next thing you know, BAM! POV shot of someone/something killing Jeff, then Mike.

Mark: It’s a Lake Mungo level of acceleration. The whole point is to achieve a bit of disorientation while the audio of the ninth session plays in the background. You get the rest of the story of the old mental patient and finally meet that fourth personality, Simon. Simon…. well, let’s just say he’s not a people person.

Jake: It’s here that the timeline gets a little hard to follow. But the basics are that Larry Fessenden rolls in (they called him in to help when Hank disappeared) to find Gordinski in a room with Hank on the ground. He then proceeds to remove an orbitoclast from Hank’s dome and shove it in ol’ Larry’s eye. Afterwards, we learn that he has murdered everyone on the crew, and that those flashbacks were of the day he arrived home and proceeded to slaughter his wife and infant because some boiling spud water got spilled on him. Talk about a loose cannon. If the Gordinator were a cop, the over-worked chief would, at this point, be telling him to hand in his badge and gun.

 
 

Mark: And as the movie plays out we get the final piece of the puzzle. As Jake highlighted, we had previously learned where the individual personalities “lived” inside the mental patient’s psyche. Princess lived in the tongue because she liked to talk. Billy lived in the eyes because he saw everything. At the close, we learn that Simon simply lives in the weak and afraid or something to that extent. The implication being that he’s not so much a dissociated identity, but instead that he’s actually some type of murderous spirit who inhabits people when they’re at their worst.

Jake: It really isn’t until the end that the film’s surreal aspects come together and make sense, which is a testament to how the reveal was handled. Add to it the stellar job done by Peter Mullan of going bananas, and it makes for a pretty good mind-fuck of a flick for the first time viewer.

Mark: That basically sums things up. Don’t fuck with asbestos. Don’t fuck with murderous demon spirits in insane asylums. What’s so hard about that?

Jake: Hard to tell, man. Rate the damn thing?

Mark: Ratings.


RATINGS (1-10):

For 1 think of how Bill O’Reilly would rate the quality of his teleprompter:

 
 

And for 10, think of how you’d rate the chord-knowledge of Guitar George:

 
 

STORY:

Mark: 7 - This is a good story at its heart. Down-on-his-luck fella tries to do one last job to make ends meet and the stress of everything ends up driving him crazy. Hang on that a few other dynamics, including a homicidal personality ghost (maybe), and you get a recipe for a very good story. What ends up making this just “better than average” is the preponderance of plot holes that break down once you start asking questions. Nothing too glaring, but also too many to allow it into the upper echelons of story ratings.

Jake: 7 - Pretty much in full agreement with Mark, here. This is a pretty unique concept and it comes together in a good way, but some of that ambiguity leads to questions that don’t hold up perfectly under close scrutiny.

WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Mark: 5.5 - Almost all of this comes from the setting. The long take editing style also helps this out a lot, because it makes the viewing angle seem more realistic than the more hollywood-esque views we generally get of scripts. I think they did a good-not-great job of establishing the characters as well. In the end, this category ends up suffering from the tectonic level pacing.

Jake: 6.5 - Unlike Mark, I think the pacing actually helped this movie. The surreal aspects helped bring me in by putting me off balance, and the use of the real Danvers as the setting was crucial. Sets would not have worked well here. And on that score, the world building was pretty great as well considering it was as close to real as possible. My issue goes back to the shots outside the hospital, which ripped me out, and some of the acting (see earlier “Fuck you” gif).

SCARE-FACTOR:

Mark: 6 - This movie is very creepy. The setting is great. The score is a bit on the nose, but get’s the job done. Ultimately my gripe here lies with the fact that the movie spends so much time building up to something, but then the ultimate reveal is more of a psychological twist than anything that will actually stick with you. It leaves the table with a lot of money in its pockets, instead of blowing it all on one big payoff. It’s sensible, but not exciting.

Jake: 6.5 - I’m in almost full agreement with Mark, but I don’t think he is giving enough credit to the layer of ambiguity delivered by the session recordings, and more specifically, the “character” of Simon. This is a creepy flick that can get under your skin.

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Mark: 7.5 - This certainly falls into the judicious lack thereof category. That being said, shooting on site at Danvers adds a lot to the ambiance. If I had to pinpoint something that didn’t sit right it would be that the “shadowy figure” that Mike sees in the basement looks a little chincy, and in general I am unwilling to go very high for a movie judiciously not doing something.

Jake: 6 - I didn’t care much for the score but the judicious lack of effects was appropriate. The filmmakers simply used Danvers and let it do the work for them.

OVERALL:

Mark: 7 - I think this is a bit of a tilt up for me. This movie is a slooooow burn with not a lot of payoff at the end, but it’s also a sublimely creepy ride. Maybe it’s just that shooting at Danvers provides a high floor on creepiness, or maybe the story is good enough to bolster the glacial pacing. What you end up with is a very solid movie that is better than the sum of its parts.

Jake: 7 - There are definite synergies going on here. In fact, outside of the use of the real-life insane asylum as their set, I don’t think this movie did anything to a stellar degree. What you have instead are a bunch of factors that add up and play nicely with each other to deliver a creepy ride with a genuinely good payoff, though it is one that some might not find satisfying in its solidity.