Monthly Theme: Families in Peril
- The Film: Session 9
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. release: August 10, 2001
- Studio: USA Films, et al.
- Distributer: USA Films
- Domestic Gross: $373,000
- Budget: $1.5 million (estimated)
- Directors: Brad Anderson
- Producers: Dorothy Aufiero, et al.
- Screenwriters: Brad Anderson & Stephen Gavedon
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematography: Uta Briesewitz
- Make-Up/FX: Peter Kuran, et al.
- Music: Climax Golden Twins
- Part of a series? No.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? No.
- Other notables?: Yes. Character actor John Lucas. TV star David Caruso.
- Awards?: Best Director at the 2001 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
- Tagline: “Fear is a place.”
- The Lowdown: The film follows a small demolition crew (David Carusuo, Josh Lucas, et al.) who’ve been hired to strip the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital, a massive abandoned mental asylum (also a real-life location whose history inspired the film). As the five men struggle to complete the massive job in only a week strange things begin to occur, perhaps linked to some old reel-to-reel recordings that one of the men stumbles upon. The tapes chronicle the therapy sessions of one of the asylum’s former inmates, a disturbed woman named Mary who suffers from multiple personality disorder as the result of a childhood tragedy. The team’s foreman, Gordon (Peter Mullan), seems to be undergoing a strange shift in his own personality that may or may not be connected to Mary’s story. Soon, the men begin to mistrust and turn on each other, and tensions build towards a surreal and shocking climax. Session 9 didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s since become a cult movie (in fact, it was included in the AV Club’s “New Cult Canon” series). Anderson went on to direct The Machinist (that movie Christian Bale starved himself for), Transsiberian (that movie where Woody Harrelson plays a vodka-swilling missionary) and many episodes of the TV show Fringe (that show that’s sort-of like The X-Files but is not The X-Files).
If you haven’t seen Session 9 our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: Well… Session 9. What did you think?
Kristine: My feelings about it are all over the map – there were points in the movie I thought the whole thing was beyond stupid and boring, then it would pull me back in. I did like the ending. There were some “technical issues” with Netflix Instant Streaming while I was watching, which I know you also experienced. But for me, during the last half-hour-or-so of the film the image started pausing and buffering or whatever…but the audio would keep going…then the video would sped up to quadruple speed to catch up with the audio. The frames it paused on were always super-creepy, and then the speedy up parts had the characters, like, zooming through the asylum.
Sean: Um… God. I also had a million Netflix problems, but I’ve seen the movie before. But the movie kept re-looping the visuals while the audio from later scenes played, and it was a horrible nightmare. I think, basically, that the movie is haunted and it doesn’t want us discussing it.
Kristine: Hmmm. Maybe. Let’s just cut to chase here: Did you think “Simon” was scary?
Sean: I thought Simon was totally creepy and effective, when deployed properly. I don’t think he was always deployed properly though, especially near the very end with that whole “I live in the sick and the weak” or whatever line.
Kristine: See, I thought he was creepy at the end, but not when Mike was listening to the tapes. Do you think he was a personality of Mary’s, or a separate evil force who “got” Gordon?
Sean: This leads into the question I was going to ask you, which was “What subgenre of horror would you place this movie in?” Haunted house? Demonic possession? Or just serial killer?
Kristine: I’d say, “Psychological.” You could make a case for the others, but I think… psychological. I actually thought that, given how creepy and great the setting of the mental asylum was, the film could have done a much better job with haunted house type scares. And I thought the whole coin thing was so dumb.
Sean: Yeah, the coin was supposed to be… what exactly?
Kristine: Hank finding the dead patients’ possessions and greedily taking them, could have been a cool plot point, but, no… It felt like it went nowhere. I actually kept noticing that, in the movie, interesting possible plot points got brought up and dropped with abandon.
Sean: Right. I mean, I guess I’ll say this – the movie is more of a mood and not really a story, and I like stories.
Kristine: I accept that.
Sean: So even though I wish it had been more of a story, I still think that as a mood, it really is wonderfully creepy. I love the location and the sound design. And several of the performances, namely Peter Mullan as Gordon.
Kristine: The only real story that pans out is Gordon losing it, possibly because of demonic possession but more likely because of stress, and killing his family.
Sean: See, I actually think it totally is supposed to be a monster and that “Simon” made Mary kill her family and also made Gordon kill his.
Kristine: I don’t have a problem with that reading. I thought the end was really good. How Gordon is in one of the patients’ cells/rooms with the photos from the christening tacked to the walls, with the whatever it was – asbestos ID-ing solution? – smeared on them like blood. That was pretty good. I need to point out that I saw in the credits the music was done by someone called “Climax Golden Twins.”
Sean: Weird. Were you struck by David Caruso’s totally bizarre line reading of “Fuck you?” Fuck YOOOOOOOU!
Kristine: I did notice that FU weirdness. The hell? But overall, the acting didn’t bother me. Is it notorious or something?
Sean: Maybe? My boyfriend and I just died laughing when we first watched it, and we always say it like that to each other and think of Caruso.
Kristine: That’s awesome. Do you want to know what movie this reminded me of the most?
Sean: Wait. Can I guess?
Sean: Lost Highway?
Sean: I give up…
Kristine: Umm, you gave one guess. Fine. Carpenter’s The Thing….
Kristine: ….and I will tell you why. Ready for my awesome dissertation I just came up with 30 seconds after watching the movie?
Kristine: Both are movies about groups of men, in isolated locations that are dangerous by nature, doing a dangerous job. Both groups quickly degenerate into paranoia and suspicion of one another. No one is sure who is good and who is bad.
Kristine: In both films, there really is an evil presence (The Thing/Simon)…
Sean: I see that, though Session 9 is a bit ambiguous about that.
Kristine: …but even so, a lot of the film is taken up with the interpersonal relationships of the characters and their mistrust of each other.
Kristine: Well, sure. But still. The paranoia in a group. That is the common link with The Thing.
Sean: I like it. So, my personal connection to this film is that I was so taken with the location, which is real…
Kristine: It is quite lovely.
Sean: …that when I visited New England two summers ago my friend Jim and I drove up… to Danvers (the abandoned mental hospital in the movie). It is just outside Boston, like 20 miles north, in a weird little town and hidden away. It took us forever to find it.
Kristine: I love that this is how you plan your summer vacation.
Sean: Oh totally. In fact, I want to do a massive road trip of haunted locations some day.
Kristine: I am going with you.
Sean: Well, get this. They filmed Session 9 just a few years before they demolished Danvers and now it has been converted into… Luxury condos.
Kristine: It’s gone?? That is scary and awful. Maybe those condos are where the next season of American Horror Story will be set…
Sean: Well, some of the buildings are literally parts of Danvers, and then others are their own thing made to look like Danvers.
Sean: It was sort of chi-chi also. Very weird. Lots of expensive cars in the parking lot.
Kristine: Who would want to live there? I mean and pay gazillions of dollars to do so?
Sean: I wonder if they have to disclose that it used to be craycray.
Kristine: Yes. Well, I have many things to say….
Kristine: You have heard about my nocturnal explorations into an abandoned and partially demolished hospital in Tucson, in search of a mythical mural, right?
Kristine: I always had this fantasy that abandoned buildings really would still have all the equipment and files and personal effects in them – but this place was really like that. Some walls were knocked down…but on others, children’s artwork was still tacked up and there were dead vases of flowers everywhere. It was seriously terrifying. Random wheelchairs littering the hallways whilst a live wire sparks overhead. No lie. We never found the mural we were seeking.
Sean: Horrifying. Did you have permission to be there? Or were you trespassing?
Kristine: Good question. I was working as curator of a local arts foundation, and one of our board members had heard about this mural, and knew some foreman-type person who was working on the demo of this hospital. So he was the one who let us in. But I doubt we were “officially” allowed to be there, and we had to do it after hours.
Kristine: I really thought Session 9 could have done more with that loony bin, man.
Sean: Were there any legitimately scary parts to the movie, did you think? What about Mullethead trying to outrun the darkness?
Kristine: I thought Mullethead’s nyctophobia was one of the dum-dumiest parts of the movie.
Sean: Really? I think that scene is beloved by lovers of this movie. I liked it…
Kristine: If you really have that disorder, and you are working in an abandoned building, wouldn’t you duct-tape like 50 flashlights to your body?
Sean: I don’t know, he is just a Mullethead. What about when Gordon performs the lobotomy on the new worker at the end?
Kristine: I’ll tell you this – the whole idea of lobotomies is 10,000 times scarier then that scene. Which brings me to the next thing this movie made me want to discuss…
Sean: Wait, so you’re saying that scene didn’t work for you? The lobotomy? When he pulls it out of Josh Lucas’ head and his head pulls up off the ground and it sticks for a second?
Kristine: As soon as they started talking about lobotomies, I thought of Rosemary Kennedy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and in my mind equated the “Mary” character with her.
Sean: I know fuckall about the Kennedys.
Kristine: Okay, back to the scene for a sec – the thing I did like about Hank being lobotomized was that it explained his behavior when Mullethead found him – alive but just repeating a phrase over and over, with sunglasses on. I liked that. Another tangent – did you get around to reading Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie? Because that is what that book is all about.
Sean: No. [Editor’s Note: Sean has since read the book and Kristine was right and it was one of the most traumatizing reading experiences of Sean’s life.] So do you think this movie is trying to grapple with mental illness in some sense?
Kristine: I do think that, which is why I made the Rosemary Kennedy conection. Everybody knows that the real reason Rosemary Kennedy was lobotomized was not because she was “retarded” or “mentally ill.”
Kristine: But because her father didn’t like her rebellious behavior. Anyway, I think Mary’s story is related to Rosemary Kennedy’s. That was all I was trying to say.
Sean: Do you think the movie is seriously trying to say something about mental illness? Because if the asylum is haunted, it’s haunted by the specter of “craziness” right? With all the weird rooms and pictures on the walls and stuff.
Kristine: As I said, I buy the Simon theory – that he exists and is evil. But I do think the movie leaves it open to interpretation, that Gordon could have just gone nuts. Mental illness often rears up after life altering events, like the birth of his child.
Sean: Right…. Did you think Billy and Princess were scary? The voices?
Kristine: No, Billy and Princess are not scary.
Sean: You didn’t think the voices were creepy?
Sean: So basically this movie didn’t scare you at all?
Kristine: Nyet. Do you think this this movie is a commentary on mental illness?
Sean: I don’t know, but I also sort of think it’s a) about masculinity and b) trying to grapple with domestic violence. I mean, the whole part where Caruso is talking to Mike about how Gordon didn’t want to be a father and the pressure of bills and working for a living.
Kristine: Yeah, I agree.
Sean: I think the movie is trying to grapple with the horror of not being able to cope with the responsibilities of the “modern man” and breaking and going crazy.
Kristine: Ideas of masculinity – that ties into the rivalry between Caruso and Hank over the girlfriend.
Sean: Oh totally.
Kristine: I agree with all that.
Sean: And that weird scene of Josh Lucas in his tighty-whities watching tv?
Sean: Just, bizarro. I feel like this ties into the Carol Clover book I’ve been reading [Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film] and the idea that occult movies are really all about getting men to “open up” literally and figuratively.
Kristine: Like, relinquish control?
Sean: That the possessed bodies of women in occult films are just metaphors for the intense need that men have to “open up” and develop an interior space. I mean, admit to having feelings, to not being brutes and to possessing “interiority,” which is culturally maligned.
Kristine: Well, part of not being a brute is relinquishing control.
Sean: Men aren’t supposed to “have a lot going on inside.”
Sean: But Session 9 is weird. I mean, it does use Mary as the metaphor for that pressure, just like The Exorcist uses Regan’s body.
Kristine: I don’t think it sees it all the way through. For me, there is something missing from this movie. I feel like the Gordon/Mary pairing is both too obvious (her photo is superimposed over his face when he stands up after a slaying) but also not really seen through at all.
Sean: Movies about men coming to grips with their feelings always need a sacrificial female body to “open the doorway” or something and this is why Hellraiser is such a queer movie, because it is a movie that kicks off with a man’s body being “opened” and then Frank is skinless for nearly the whole running time. Exposed, naked, all of his insides visible. I also thought Session 9 was interesting in how much of the “horror” revolved around damage to the eyes. And I wondered what that was all about….
Kristine: How do you mean, other than the lobotomy, and the ‘Billy’ personality (Billy says he lives in Mary’s eyes)?
Sean: Well, that basically the big “gross outs” revolve around eye trauma.
Sean: I don’t know, it is a part of a man’s body that is “open” to being penetrated and is “soft” and “vulnerable.”
Kristine: Well, Caruso keeps telling Gordon he needs to “wake up,” and open his eyes, I guess.
Sean: It sounds like you’re bored by the movie. True?
Kristine: At the risk of being labelled a hater, I was not blown away by this movie.
Sean: Would you recommend it to someone?
Kristine: Probably not.
Sean: I’ve ran into random people and chatted them up about the best horror of the past 20 years, and lots of people immediately name this movie as a favorite. Which I think is weird.
Kristine: They do?
Sean: I don’t know. I think maybe just because of the sustained tenor of dread the movie invokes and that it goes for creepy things more than jump scares or gross-outs. But I sort of think the ambiguity in the movie is a shortcoming and not a strength.
Kristine: Maybe our technical difficulties interfered with the mood more than I realized.
Sean: I think it is very similar to David Lynch movies, which is why I thought maybe it reminded you of one before.
Kristine: I did like how there were no visible ghouls or gore through most of the movie.
Sean: It has a tone similar to Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, like the “dumpster” sequence in Mulholland; that pressing, maddening hysteria.
Kristine: Right, yes.
Sean: Do you agree that it’s Lynchian?
Kristine: I don’t know about that. I think it might have been stronger if there were more indications that the men were cracking up, other than the movie telling us so.
Sean: I can’t believe we’ve never discussed this, but how do you feel about David Lynch? Are you a fan?
Kristine: I am a fan, yes. He is allowed to be ambiguous.
Sean: Do you think maybe Anderson had Lynch in mind when he made Session 9? The sound design had some Eraserhead-type ambiance, I thought.
Kristine: I don’t know. maybe. But it doesn’t have any of the – what was the Clive Barker turn of phrase I liked so much? – the ‘repulsive glamour’ that Lynch films have. Lynch is all about repulsive glamour.
Sean: I totally disagree with your characterization of Lynch. “Repulsive glamour”? I don’t see it. Lynch is, like, anti-glam… He’s like, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit-meets-noir-meets-melodrama-meets-hardcore porn.
Kristine: Umm. Severed ear in Blue Velvet? Frank in Blue Velvet? The opera singer in Lost Highway? Really lush scenes that are about really horrible happenings?
Sean: I don’t think of these things as “glam” I guess.
Kristine: But there is also super-saturated color and texture in all his films, and haunting beauty contrasted with grim brutality.
Sean: I’ll agree with “haunting beauty.” Why is Lynch allowed to be ambiguous and other people aren’t?
Kristine: He is allowed because, in my opinion, what makes an auteur is someone whose work has great worth beyond the story. In Lynch’s case, it’s the visual look and mood it inspires, that you could look at one his movies and know it was him.
Sean: Ok. But I would argue that the one area Session 9 actually succeeds in is “visual look and mood,” right? I mean, that feels like the main strength of the movie to me.
Kristine: Maybe mood. But this is just one movie. If you saw one scene from Session 9, you wouldn’t immediately say, “Oh! This must be a Brad Anderson film!”
Kristine: So, he has not yet achieved auteur status, and must abide by rules.
The Girl’s rating: Nice try, folks.
The Freak’s rating: Quit being a tone-poem, start telling stories.