Asylum horror, while not the largest subgenre, is full of some insanely fun, and terrifying films like Stonehearst Asylum (2014) (made by the filmmaker of this piece’s topic), Grave Encounters 1 & 2 (2011 & 2012), and House on Haunted Hill (1999). Ghastly things can happen when you descend into the decrepit halls of abandoned institutions left to be vandalized by Mother Nature, and phew! is that is exactly what ensues in Brad Anderson’s haunting opus, Session 9 (2001).
Though it didn’t have success at the box office, Session 9 is a taut, dark, and supremely unnerving horror film that has gone unnoticed for far too long! There are many aspects of this film that make it stand out among the asylum subgenre and the horror genre as a whole. In this thrilling tale, a desperate-to-stay-afloat asbestos removal crew arrives at Danver’s State Hospital, an abandoned psychiatric hospital chock full of that deadly fibrous material. After their walkthrough with Bill Griggs (who’s just a walking product placement for Fruit Stripe gum) Gordon is offered the large scale job, on a short time limit. The unstable crew takes on the hulking job with hopes of a $10,000 bonus if their short deadline is met.
“Session 9 is a taut, dark, and supremely unnerving horror film that has gone unnoticed for far too long!”
The job starts normally, besides the voices in Gordon’s head, until one of the crew members, Mike, stumbles upon (and opens) a box marked ‘evidence’, the trials and tribulations of a former patient Mary Hobbes are revealed through nine anxiety-inducing audiotapes. Tensions rise when Hank, who in a fit of lust and greed goes to the hospital at night to steal tons of valuable items he found, completely disappears. Phil convinces Gordon to call in Craig McManus (Larry Fessenden!!!) to help them finish the job–poor Craig.
Once Hank is seen by another member of the crew, after his disappearance, the team splits up to try and find him (right after a particularly intense standoff between Gordon and Phil). Phil and Jeff (Gordon’s nephew), take the basement, which nyctophobic Jeff is terrified of, while Mike and Gordon go upstairs. This entire montage of mayhem leads to the brilliant denouement, with Craig’s arrival and the actual antagonist’s realization of what he has done. What ensues is nothing short of some of Anderson’s best work.
Filmed on location, Session 9 takes place at the real, rundown, mental institution Danver’s State Hospital. As you suspect looking at the movie, the building has a sordid past, filled with pain and suffering. In fact, in a behind-the-scenes featurette Peter Mullan (Gordon) recounts getting ready for a scene by isolating himself, and heard someone whispering in his ear from inside the room, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of his encounters. The building has a presence.
Construction on The Bat, which is how Bill Griggs describes its winged architecture, started in 1874 under distinguished architect and failed mayoral candidate, Noah J. Bradlee. The land couldn’t have been more ominous, as it was partially built on Hathorne Hill, former home to John Hathorne one of the prominent judges during the Salem witch trials. When he designed the building the winged arms of the building were purposeful, to provide proper sunlight and flow of air to the rooms, ensuring patient satisfaction. The beautiful architecture of Danver’s is a horrifically exquisite contrast to what took place within. Even though the building was designed to be self-sustaining with a reservoir, farm, and crops, things went downhill very soon after. Overcrowding soon led to this 2,400 patient facility, to holding 4,000 patients–making some (a lot) of them sleep in the snake pit, which is heavily used in the film.
“Danver State Hospital is the birthplace of prefrontal lobotomies […] leaving many pained souls roaming the halls of Danver like zombies.”
Danver State Hospital is the birthplace of prefrontal lobotomies, which was an incredibly inhumane process of severing the connections of the patient’s prefrontal cortex. Though it severely calmed patients down, it stripped them of their humanity. Not everyone got lobotomized at this institution, though it was a fairly common practice. This lead to many controversies, as well as leaving many pained souls roaming the halls of Danver like zombies.
In Session 9 the institution is just as much of a character as anyone, it envelopes the evil that resides within its walls; without the building, the evil would be nothing. Part of the spooky charm Danver’s gave off was due to the fact that this “Domestically Gothic” building was actually a state hospital, which was built in 1874, opened in 1878, and finally devoid of all patients by 1992.
Some positivity has come out of Danver’s thankfully! In 1948 Danver’s was met with a new patient, Marie Balter. At age 17 she was committed as psychoneurotic and suicidal. She spent her next twenty years of life in and out of Danver’s, and other hospitals. A life of tragedy lead her to a catatonic state at one point, leaving her speechless for 18 months. After finally checking out of the hospital in 1966 she jumped from job to job. Eventually, she went to college, graduated with an associate’s degree. She soon went on to be an administrator at Danver’s and tried to promote healthy changes, though it was a bit too late at that point. A few years later in life she opened the Balter Institute, and became widely renowned within the mental health community. Marie Balter took her negative experiences and turned them into something positive for the world. There’s even a very compelling TV movie about her life Nobody’s Child (1986).
Session 9 is the fourth feature film in Brad Anderson’s repertoire, and one of the most impressive–especially because his first three features were all comedies. Session 9 is the catalyst for the macabre movie making over the years to come. His most notable feature is The Machinist (2004) where Christian Bale gives one hell of a performance, but Anderson’s directing chops on Session 9 is nothing short of brilliant.
The script, while alone can stand on itself, is enhanced dramatically in part to Anderson’s subtleties and understanding of the genre. This is evident from the calmly ominous upside down shot of Marry Hobbes’ wheelchair, as it slowly spins around placing the wheelchair right side up, and the audience hooked. Anderson graces us with grandiose, steady, preplanned shots, which slowly transitions into handheld shots, creating that extra sense of urgency, without the shakiness of a found footage film (no hate!). He takes such care and sprinkles the perfect amount of visual storytelling; in the scene where Mike finds the ‘evidence’ box, as he is cutting through the crimson ‘evidence’ tape Gordon cuts himself on accident, too. It’s brilliant! It’s one of those moments where you can miss it and it won’t affect the overall experience of the [first] view, but if you do catch it then your view will definitely be enhanced.
“…so underrated it hurts.”
Like the walls of The Bat, Session 9 stands the test of time; despite Gordon’s Nokia brick cell phone. The cast is delightfully incredible, and they’re supported by a very well written script, and a director who really knows his way around a great scare. If you haven’t seen it I cannot recommend it enough! This is a film that is so underrated it hurts. While David Caruso doesn’t remove his sunglasses in slow motion, you can rejoice in a terrifying psychological horror film with and Jiff and Oreo product placements.
Have you seen Session 9? Planning on revisiting it soon? Let us know what you think of this Asylum Horror gem on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!