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“I live in the weak and the wounded.”
The quote above is the last line from writer-director Brad Anderson’s 2001 indie horror film Session 9. For the sake of those of you who haven’t seen the asylum-set movie, I’ll leave the subject of exactly who is weak and wounded in the story a mystery, but what makes it so unsettling is that it’s about breaking points and how an abandoned institution frays the nerves and batters the psyches of a six-man asbestos removal crew.
Toxic surfaces aren’t the only things they uncover, though, as something comes out of the darkness to begin butchering them one by one.
Strapped for cash and with a new baby in the house, contractor Gordon (Peter Mullan, Trainspotting, Red Riding Trilogy) makes a bid to remove asbestos from an abandoned institution. But to get the job, he’s over-promised on how quickly he and his team can get the job done, much to the surprise of his crew including no-nonsense manager Phil (CSI and NYPD Blue’s David Caruso). The rest of the crew is made up of likeable academic Mike (Stephen Gevedon), cocksure lottery addict Hank (Josh Lucas, Hulk), and Gordon’s dimwitted but well-meaning nephew, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Killing).
The closed Danvers State Hospital near Boston provided the setting for Session 9, which was written by Anderson and Gevedon, framing a lot of the horror around a series of tapes Mike encounters from the therapy sessions for a former patient named Mary, whose doctor probes the sources and manifestations of her multiple personality disorder. Voiced by Jurian Hughes with a shaky creepiness, we learn with the increasingly obsessed Mike that Mary has a malefactor living in her head named Simon who may or may not be supernatural in origin. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew starts to suspect that someone–or something–else is lurking in the asylum. Maybe it’s a homeless person, having infiltrated the space via the tunnels that run underneath the building or perhaps even one of the former patients.
The scares here aren’t really about things going bump inside and underneath the asylum, but Anderson does use the it to great effect as a haunted place, particularly in the way that he sets of the darkness as this kind of creeping thing which opens up in some shots into this yawning mouth threatening to swallow up our leads. This is appropriate–the movie is very much about things creeping up out of the darkness of a man’s mind and swallowing them whole. It’s really about the character work from the assembled cast, particularly the Scottish Mullan’s decency and stress. With the exception of Caruso, who can’t resist overplaying this pre-comeback part, the other actors are easy to relate to even when they’re not likeable. The ending is so effective because by the end, a human being has essentially been unmade and left a monster, and it works because it’s so very lonely and leaves the world of the film feeling hollowed out.
Anderson and his crew actually filmed inside the asylum without permission, breaking into the dilapidated and crumbling space for the shoot. In interviews, Anderson has said that the location was actually kind of dangerous for his crew and the actors, which, itself, feels like the basis of a horror movie. Shot on the Sony CineAlta HDW-F900, Session 9 has that not-quite-film look that a lot of early shot-on-digital movies had, with an almost aggressively ugly brown and black palette once Gordon’s crew get inside the building. It had the effect of making the movie look like it was set in some perpetually overcast purgatory, and when the action gets deeper into the dark and underground, the low light makes what happens even more unreal and yet still very uncomfortable.
Anderson’s name might be familiar to some of you as a regular director on Fringe along with stints on acclaimed series like Treme, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire. His resume is peppered with other horror and thriller work, but nothing in his horror work has matched the impact of Session 9.
Session 9 is readily available on a 2002 DVD from Universal, although a part of me would almost recommend unearthing a VHS copy from somewhere to watch the movie in the most low-resolution, ugly format–although I think the image on tape is pan and scan, meaning you’d lose cinematographer Uta Briesewitz’s expertly-framed compositions, so strike that as a silly idea and stick with the disc.