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“Just have an exit plan, dude.” —Hank, Session 9
Among the 10 tenets of Dogme 95—the late, not terribly lamented manifesto a group of Danish directors (Lars von Trier chief among them) authored to shape their resolution to embrace a simpler, more austere form of filmmaking—Rule No. 1 was this: “Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.” Like many of the Dogme 95 restrictions, the rule is needlessly extreme and arbitrary, enforcing discipline that a smart filmmaker might apply with more reasonable exceptions and flexibility. But the thought behind it has some merit: Real locations have a tactile quality that studio sets and props can’t always replicate. How better to achieve that “lived-in quality” than shooting in locations that have actually been lived in?
Any discussion of Brad Anderson’s queasily effective 2001 horror film Session 9 has to begin with its location, the Danvers State Hospital (a.k.a. Danvers State Insane Asylum) in Danvers, Massachusetts, an elephantine mental institution that was built in 1874, closed in 1992, and partially demolished in 2006. Like other such institutions, Danvers was home to many progressive/experimental methods, and it’s rumored to be the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy, a technique that perhaps not-so-coincidentally plays a role in the film. It’s also believed to be the inspiration for the Arkham sanatorium in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing On The Doorstep,” which in turn informed the more popularly known Arkham Asylum in from the Batman franchise. (In fact, photographed from above, the structure sprawled out unmistakably like a bat’s wings, with the towering main building as its head.)
The tagline for Session 9 was “Fear Is A Place,” and the film makes it chillingly clear from the start that Danvers—and the ghostly torments within its walls—is the star. Without it, Session 9 would likely be exposed as run-of-the-mill hokum, a standard haunted-house movie built around a whodunit twist that probably won’t play under different circumstances. Anderson and co-writer Stephen Gevedon (who also plays a supporting role) embellish on Danvers’ history where they need to, but the details of their story are so informed by the building that one becomes difficult to extract from the other. As much as a setting can have a “presence” in a movie, Session 9 exploits Danvers for all it’s worth; the characters all peel off into their own individual hauntings and obsessions, but Anderson and Gevedon let the place dictate the action, and hold everyone under its grip.
Taking its cues from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—and by “taking its cues,” I mean “ripping it off so shamelessly, it gets a little embarrassing at times”—Session 9 turns Danvers into the Overlook Hotel, and charts the growing madness as it progresses, day after day after day. The superb Scottish actor Peter Mullan, best known for his work in Ken Loach films like Riff-Raff and My Name Is Joe, brings a coiled intensity to his role as Gordon, the head of a Hazmat business that’s poised on the brink of bankruptcy. Desperate to stay afloat, Gordon drastically underbids for the job of removing asbestos from the abandoned Danvers facility, agreeing to finish in one week what would be reasonably scheduled for three weeks, minimum. The stress of the job is compounded by troubles at home, where his wife has just given birth and the two have had a domestic spat—the exact details of which are not teased out until later.
Joined by his number-two guy Phil, played by David Caruso (pre-self-parody), Gordon may be the Jack Torrance of the movie—Danvers even welcomes him with a “Hello… Gordon”—but his crew members are all driven a little mad by the job. The brash Hank (Josh Lucas), who stole Phil’s girlfriend for sport, pursues a cache of dollar coins from the late 19th century that are tucked into the walls, along with other treasures. Gordon’s mullet-headed nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is new to the business and eager to work, but Danvers proves to be a poor environment for someone with severe nyctophobia, fear of the dark. Meanwhile, the more intellectual Mike (Gevedon) steals away to a file room and listens to a series of case sessions from 1974 involving a Danvers psychologist and a patient named Mary Hobbes, who has multiple-personality disorder.
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What does the Mary Hobbes case have to do with Gordon and the gang? The connection between them cannot be drawn in a direct line, but requires a cognitive leap that’s much more difficult to pull off. It would be easy enough (if far-fetched) for Gordon to be, say, Hobbes’ long-lost son, but the sessions in Session 9 suggest the madness of people disconnecting from reality and the truth of their own identities. To carry this point across, Anderson gives Session 9 a different feel than the average horror movie or whodunit, which may partially explain why it frustrated so many critics at the time, and limped into only a few theaters. Its effects are more subtle, insinuating, and mysterious: Much like the terrible plumes of toxic dust inhaled by Gordon’s asbestos-abatement crew, the film takes root in your system over time, never leaning on shock efforts or hitting the expected horror beats.
Session 9 builds to something—and gets plenty of shocks in when it matters—but it sustains a level of unbroken (yet steadily escalating) tension that’s rare even in independent horror films. Here, the locale comes heavily into play, just as it does in The Shining. (Though both films overload a bit on mythology to sell audiences on the idea that their settings are awash in foul spirits.) Just like Jack Torrance, Gordon and his men are not repelled by this evil place, but drawn into its corridors like long-invited guests; given the urgency of the weeklong timeframe, it’s almost a joke how little work they can bring themselves to do. With the exception of newcomer Jeff, who’s probably too thick-headed to be affected anyway, the crewmembers fall into a collective trance, and only death can shake them from it.
Which isn’t to say Anderson can’t pull off a big horror setpiece when it’s called for. He and Gevedon have a strategy of sending each character off on separate missions at Danvers, which requires a measure of patience on the audience’s part, but when the multiple subplots start to coalesce, Anderson weaves them all together masterfully. Here’s just a piece of the long climactic sequence, when the men are about to hit on some major revelations—including the audio of Mary Hobbes’ ninth session—but the generator hits empty at an inopportune moment:
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Hank’s casual advice to Jeff near the beginning of the film, “Have an exit plan, dude,” winds up dripping with irony as the walls start to close in on these characters, Hank first. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining isolates the Torrances in mountains and snow, but that mostly just keeps people from accessing it from the outside. The characters aren’t going anywhere. Neither is Danvers, which seems to have its own magnetic field, attracting the men after working hours and in early mornings when they can’t recall exactly how they got there. Session 9 operates like a closed vortex, looping in tighter and tighter circles. Having an exit plan doesn’t matter. There is no exit.
December 9: Martyrs
December 23: Point Break
January 6: Real Genius