November 30, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: Session 9 (2001; Massachusetts)

Directed by Brad Anderson. Starring Peter Mullan ("Gordon Fleming"), David Caruso ("Phil"), Stephen Gevedon ("Mike"), and Josh Lucas ("Hank"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (USA Home Entertainment)
Running time: 01:39:42
Country: USA

A group of contractors are hired to remove the asbestos out of the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts. For reasons that are explained in the film (not the least of which is desperation), the contractors - namely the guy in charge of the Hazmat company, Gordon - agree to complete the three-week job in only a week. As the film progresses, tensions mount among the workers, a psychological breakdown ensues, and boredom and curiosity lead some of them to travel down a dark path that deals with the tragic history of the hospital.

As for the hospital, not only is it the real deal, but it's essentially another character in the film. Every once in a while you'll come across a movie that features a setting with such an overwhelming presence that it almost becomes a living object. Such is the case with Danvers in SESSION 9. This building is insane (excuse the pun). It's large, scary, empty, disorienting, and it's full of history and proverbial ghosts. It even has its own cemetery. In other words, this is not a place you'd wanna be alone at - day or night. Being the pussy I am, I'd even be reluctant to work in it as one of the contractors in this film, regardless of whether or not it has a history of unexplained activity. All of that said, massive props to director Brad Anderson for essentially leaving no room or hallway of Danvers unexplored when he made this.

As I alluded to earlier, there's some deep character stuff going on here. One of them is going through a difficult time with his wife. As the film goes on, there's a lot revealed regarding his fragile state of mind that isn't initially established. Aside from that, two other characters have a personal beef that's slowly fleshed out in the film until it reaches an inevitable boiling point. And there's another character who begins to explore the bowels of the hospital and develops an interest in its history - particularly as it pertains to a female patient with Multiple Personality Disorder, whose disturbing therapy sessions were recorded on tapes and left to rot in the hospital. All of that being said, SESSION 9 is a film that truly blurs the line between "haunted house" and psychological issues, whether those issues be mental illness or the work-related side effects of being exposed to hazardous material. Once everything builds and builds and reaches a turning point, the characters descend into a dark place, literally and figuratively, to the point where one could argue that the hospital chose them. One of the things I love about how everything plays out is that, initially, we're seeing a bunch of individual incidents rather than something happening to the group of guys as a whole that would cause them to stop and collectively address something; each person has their own shit going on, which is one of the reasons why SESSION 9 is paced as well as it is.

I wouldn't go so far as to call SESSION 9 "masterful" (it has stock screams for fuck's sake) despite the fact that it's a lock for what I'd consider to be the best horror movies of the 2000s, but it's pretty outstanding in a lot of ways. It's effective as both a ghost story and a heavy-duty psychological horror movie. The chemistry between the actors is terrific and they're believable as a group of blue-collar guys who work together and are comfortable around each other. Peter Mullan's performance in particular is amazing. And of course the hospital itself is a motherfucker. It's a shame that director Brad Anderson's subsequent films have declined in terms of quality (VANISHING ON 7TH STREET is one of the worst things I've ever seen), but he's sure got a beast of a film listed on his resume thanks to SESSION 9.

Score: 8

1 comment:

  1. I saw this for the first time last year, pretty fantastic film and proof that you can make solid atmospheric horror even on a meager budget. Despite my Masshole status, I never got the chance to check out the Danvers State Hospital before the majority of it was torn down. There are plenty of spooky spots in the Bay State in which to film. Hopefully we'll see a second round of your "States" project! I've really been enjoying this.