As soon Brad Anderson and Stephen Gevedon learned about Danvers State Hospital the Session 9 script probably wrote itself pretty durned quick. The place is so freakin' creepy that they didn't even feel the need to fictionalize it. In fact, there's enough nightmare fuel surrounding this real-life loony-bin to inspire an entire legion of scary screenplays.
Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is a man on the edge. As the owner of a struggling asbestos abatement team he's constantly surrounded by deadly carcinogens. To drive up his blood pressure even more, business is terrible and, as a new father, his finances are stretched to the limit. In order to keep his head above water, Gordon is forced to take on the unenviable task of cleaning out the condemned Danvers State Mental Hospital, underbidding the competition by promising faster and cheaper results.
This causes considerable strain amongst his already-contentious team. Phil (David Caruso) becomes particularly testy when Gordon retains the competent-but-cocky Hank (Josh Lucas) in order to meet the aggressive deadline. As it turns out, Hank stole Phil's girlfriend away from him and isn't shy about bragging about it. Thrown into this volatile mix is Gordon's be-mulleted, nyctophobic cousin Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) and Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a failed lawyer who's acutely aware of the hospital's dark history.
Almost immediately things take a turn for the weird. Gordon starts hearing voices and becomes increasingly contentious and distracted. As freaked out about the dangerous nature of the job as he is by their creepy surroundings Jeff is twitchier then a cat at a rocking chair convention. Frustrated by the unrealistic timetable and his close proximity to Hank, Phil becomes increasingly volatile. Only Hank lucks out, hitting the jackpot by finding a hidden cache of coins and jewelry. Unfortunately he's completely oblivious to the fact that this little treasure trove is the by-product of the hospital's in-house crematorium.
But it's Mike who makes the most chilling discovery: a series of audio tapes documenting an interview with a mental patient named Mary Hobbes. After suffering through some unspoken and traumatic event, Mary's personality has fractured into two innocent and child-like identities both of which seem terrified to manifest a third facet known only as "Simon". Over the course of the titular nine sessions, it's slowly revealed that Simon may very well be a strong presence in the hospital even though Mary is long-gone.
According to actor David Caruso the film's production designers had a relatively easy time of it because the interiors of Danvers State Mental Hospital came pre-decorated. There's a reason why so many horror-themed video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil use abandoned mental institutions as their settings; the peeling paint, gurneys, wheelchairs, isolation cells and stray orbitoclasts lying around provide enough unconscious bad karma to immediately establish the right mood. In fact, the hospital is, by far, the scariest character in the entire film.
Session 9 also has the distinction of being one of the very first feature films to be shot with Sony's new-at-the-time 24P HD digital video camera, beating out 28 Days Later by a year. This approach benefits the overall presentation, since it feels as if a sixth member of the abatement team was on hand to keep a video journal of the operation. What we're left with is a sweaty, claustrophobic, gritty final product that avoids the visual palsy of found footage films. Even with the obvious challenges posed by on-set lighting, director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz serve up an engaging and varied presentation that captures every fiber of asbestos dust, every flake of peeling paint and every creepy wall-collage.
The music by Seattle-based experimental outfit Climax Golden Twins is pretty much spot-on. There's no grand, florid orchestral score here just some atmospheric keyboard tones and jangly, discordant notes that supports the disturbing mood. It's a minimalistic choice but it succeeds in immersing the viewer deeper in the experience rather then jarring you out of the moment by being showy or self-aware.
Armed with authentic dialogue, the casts earns considerable plaudits. Brendan Sexton III is so perfect I'd be tempted to say that they pulled a fast one and hired someone right off a construction road crew and then paid to send him to Juilliard. Even though Jeff is pretty dim and slack-jawed, Sexton is so natural in his approach to the role that you instantly feel bad for the guy. Everybody knows someone like Jeff so we're immediately protective of the poor little dweeb.
The casting department also should be commended for retaining Josh Lucas as Class-A twat Hank. It's to his credit that we still don't want to see anything bad happen to him, in spite of his shabby treatment of Phil. This is due, in part, to the brief but memorable "exit strategy" dialogue he shares with Sexton during the early goings of the film. Lucas takes advantage of this pivotal moment to clearly delineate Hank's motivation while offering some precious insight into his co-workers.
Stephen Gevedon is note-perfect as failed lawyer Mike King. We get a taste of his intensity early on when he recounts a horrifying tale clearly inspired by the infamous Satanic Panic day-care abuse scares from the 80's. King's delivery will immediately have you dreading what's to come and on pondering the impact that hysteria can have on reality. From there on in we're left to wonder if Mike is legitimately curious about Mary Hobbes or if he's a little "Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs". Either way, Gevedon keeps his cards close to his chest.
In what can only be described as a moment of hubris, David Caruso abandoned the wildly-successful N.Y.P.D. Blue at its zenith back in 1994 for the promise of a movie career that never materialized. Anybody out there remember Kiss of Death? Jade? No? Didn't think so. To this day I'm convinced that the general public wanted to punish Caruso at the time for upsetting their so-so network cop show. As a result, people stayed away from his movies in droves.
Sadly, this also applied to Session 9, but to their own detriment. Caruso turns in an effortlessly natural performance, instantly becoming the character we relate to the most. He manages to switch gears between diplomatic, irritated, calming and irascible at the drop of a hat and each turn feels completely devoid of labor and pretense. I still maintain that this guy's been unfairly persecuted over the years and the fact that he hasn't gotten more quality film work is our loss.
The real laurels, however, should be reserved for Peter Mullen as Gordon Fleming. I'm not sure how method Mullen is but he starts out looking as if he hasn't slept in a week and eventually devolves into a twitchy, vacant, babbling mess. Despite his harrowing and authentic depiction of mental degradation, Mullen keeps us firmly in his corner. We want this poor, over-worked, stressed-out sad sack to be alright in the end but scripted and improvised throwaways unconsciously burden the viewer with the sort of unconscious dread that only a Greek tragedy audience member can relate to.
In fact, the actors are so good that they actually eclipse the characters as scripted. Frankly, I wanted to know more about these guys. For example, why did Mike fail to become a lawyer? Phil seems to be a pretty sharp dude so why is he languishing in a dangerous and dead-end job? What makes Hank so special that Gordon would hire him knowing how poisonous he'd be to the work environment? How did Jeff become "dark-o-phobic"? More details about Gordon's marriage would also have made the ending a lot more plausible.
I'm of two minds when it comes to this last gripe. On one hand the writers probably wanted to keep things nebulous in order to preserve the murder mystery aspect of the story. The downside is that these characters don't feel fully formed and, on paper, I'd be hard-pressed to give shit about them. Mercifully, just through the grace of inhabiting these roles with complete conviction, the actors really pick up the slack.
Half-baked characterization isn't the only issue. Allegedly the only impetus Steven King needs to begin a new novel is a high concept; it doesn't matter if he has an ending or not. That's all well and good if you produce a Misery or a Shining but not so good if the final results are It. I suspect that something similar probably happened with Session 9: Gevedon and Anderson found out about the hospital, immediately knew that it was the perfect setting for a horror movie, came up with a serviceable plot to hang this premise off of but then painted themselves into a corner with the ending.
In their defense, at least they didn't overextend themselves and make promises that the script couldn't keep. In the end we're still left to ponder if all the chaos was due to some sort of malevolent influence or if it was just good, ol' fashioned, bat-shit, head-case human nuttery. In other words, they didn't make the same mistake that the producers of Paranormal Activity made: invoking the threat of demons and then following through with a disappointing parade of creaking doors and billowing bedsheets.
Some might also gripe about the film's disjointed quality and muddy chronology. For example, it's pretty hard to determine exactly when Gordon had that pivotal encounter with his wife. And can someone please explain this whole Miami thing with Hank to me? Given the nature of the film, even these things feel like quibbles. The story is all about skewed perceptions brought on by mental illness so these flaws actually give the movie a weird, schizophrenic quality that succeeds in leaving the viewer feeling decidedly off-kilter.
Overall the film does a lot more right then wrong. Between the amazing setting, great cast, solid dialogue, low-fi sensibilities and atmospheric restraint, Session 9 held my attention and provided more then a few haunting images, unsettling twists and lingering chills.