I’ve always been oddly fascinated with abandoned structures. From the tiniest house to the largest factory (or, appropriately, mental institution), the idea of a place formerly inhabited falling into disrepair and becoming the home of a different kind of dweller—the homeless, the fugitive, the reclamation of nature in the form of burrowing animals and crawling vines—is intriguing, a little sad, but exceptionally threatening. Even the most mundane object—an old desk, a stack of files, or perhaps a wheelchair—take on a new, ominous appearance. These things that were once part of everyday life have been sitting dormant, waiting for their owners to come back and give them purpose again. That doesn’t apply just to these everyday things, but the structures that surround them. The more you think about it, the more you realize that an abandoned building is actually the saddest thing there ever could be.
There’s certainly a detectable sadness permeating Brad Anderson’s magnificent debut as a horror director, utilizing the abandoned Danvers State Hospital of Massachusetts as the setting for his film about a group of men each being affected by their interaction with the old crumbling building. Gordon (Peter Mullan), an exhausted new father, is on the verge of losing his business, the Hazmat Elimination Company. Phil (David Caruso) has recently lost his girlfriend to co-worker Hank (Josh Lucas), and has fallen hard on drinking and drugs to cope. Hank, meanwhile, has no real purpose in life, and he knows this, and he’s looking for his “meal ticket” to something better. Mike (co-writer Stephen Gevedon), who was once on a promising path to practicing law, didn’t make it through law school, and is now shucking asbestos to make ends meet. Finally there’s Jeff (Brendon Sexton III), Gordon’s nephew, a naïve innocent who simply finds himself in over his head, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.
As for the less traditional characters, okay, fine—the most important character is Danvers State Hospital itself, barely dressed up beyond a shock therapy room and the plastic-covered walls. It effortlessly exudes menace, mystery, sadness, and terror all at once. Also doing a lot of the heavy lifting are the audio recordings of a nameless doctor and his patient, Mary Hobbes, who presents in three different alternate personalities: Princess, Billy, and Simon. Once these recordings are discovered, Mike becomes obsessed with them, playing them in order, beginning with session one and ending with you-know-what. As eerie as the hospital that surrounds them, these different voices come together to tell one story, allowing a glimpse into both the kind of terror and sadness that must have been rampant in structures like this during the early 1900s.
Peter Mullan, taking the lead, pulls off a staggering performance as Gordon, father to a newborn trying to fix his broken marriage as he’s also dedicating his time to a poisonous, crumbling hospital. His transformation from beginning to end is slow, but at the last stop of his journey, his final scenes are heartbreaking. Caruso’s Phil is a wonderful prick—the kind he excels at playing. A bit too overbearing at times, his weed-smoking, bar-dwelling presence leaves the viewer constantly on edge, and unsure if he’s to be trusted. (And his epic "fuckyouuuuuuu" is already infamous.) Josh Lucas, in one of his earliest rolls, plays another kind of prick—the one even more obnoxious, but also the kind you can’t help but love. Rounding out the cast are Stephen Gevedon, whose knowledge of the history of the hospital provides the basis for an early disturbing scene (and which will sound familiar if you’ve seen the recent film Regression), and Brendon Sexton III, who offers the only weak performance in the ensemble, though it’s more inconsistent than outright distracting.
On the making of the film, director Brad Anderson talked about finding the location first and wanting to set a story within and around the infamous structure, but wanting to avoid the typical scenario in which teenagers break in to fuck around and end up in peril. His describing falling back on a group of men charged with clearing out asbestos simply as a device to set a story inside the hospital comes off almost as dismissive, which is strange considering that this same device is not only wholly original, but actually serves as an interesting dichotomy between the lives these men want to live and the lives they currently are. Being forced to “shuck fiber” is not only potentially hazardous to their health, but also represents to each of them just how low they have all sunk—from Gordon, who promises to pull off what would ordinarily be a 3-week job in just seven days, to the men who work alongside with him, all who’d rather be any place else. None of them are in particularly enviable positions in life, and despite their occasional camaraderie, leave them more susceptible to the influence the hospital has over them. As to what the hospital is doing to the men exactly—Is it supernatural? A form of cabin fever?—Anderson never makes it clear, which is just fine. Like the hospital itself, this thing that awakens when the men enter and takes hold of each of them in different ways is better left as mysterious. Like its patient room walls covered in old family photos and newspaper headlines, you’re given just enough of the story to reach its conclusion—and, like the ambiguity of all the awful things that may or may not have occurred in that hospital over the years, it’s better not to know, and it’s even more intriguing because we don’t.
A criminally under-seen horror thriller, Session 9 is one of the best horror films to come out of the 2000s. Don't look at the cover and dismiss it as just another haunted house kind of film, because it's not that whatsoever. Owing more to The Shining and Don't Look Now rather than Paranormal Activity or Grave Encounters, Session 9 is old-school, slow-burn kind of horror, made for (gasp--and starring) adults experiencing their own kind of horror--and more than just the obvious.