It looms up out of the woods like a dormant beast. Grand, imposing… abandoned and deteriorating, the Danvers State Mental Hospital, closed down for 15 years is about to receive 5 new visitors.
Donning protective gear, the men of the Hazmat Elimination Co. venture into the eerily vast and vacant asylum that is filled with an evil and mysterious past. Rampant patient abuse, medieval medical procedure and rumors of demonic possession are some of the many dark secrets the hospital holds – but then so do each of the men.
Session 9 7.75
eyelights: its eerie setting. its gradual build-up of tension. its imperfect characters.
eyesores: its characters’ nonsensical behaviour. its slightly unsatisfying ending.
“I live in the weak and the wounded, Doc.”
A small crew lands a contract removing asbestos from the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, which is expected to be renovated in just a few weeks. Under self-imposed pressure to wrap up within just a week, in order to receive a ten thousand dollar bonus, strains begin to tear the team apart.
And pick away at their sanity.
Danvers, a former mental institution, is rumoured to have been home to controversial hypnotherapy procedures, which lead to all manners of allegations. Consequently, it was shut down in the eighties after they got sued by the parents of Patricia Willard, a former patient, for gross negligence.
As the men work, making their way through the building, they begin to reveal aspects of the asylum and of another case that had been buried for decades. It isn’t long before their behaviour becomes erratic and that strange things begin to happen. They will certainly not last the whole week.
‘Session 9’, which was released in 2001, came well reviewed at the time and has grown into a small cult classic. When I first saw it, inviting a friend to join me on its reputation alone, I expected something more sinister, more visceral, and had been mildly disappointed. Thrilling it is not.
But it is atmospheric. If there’s anything to be said about the picture it’s that it takes its time setting the tone and building tension. Which I adore – I just had different expectations the first time (plus which I was hosting and I became worried that my guest was bored to death).
This time, however, I really got into it: the mood its sets is mildly disquieting, right from the initial site visit (which echoes Jack Torrance’s interview at the Overlook Hotel). Though it’s an absolutely splendid piece of architecture, the facilities have become a maze of rot and decrepitude.
…as though a quiet evil were eating up from the inside.
Then there’s the uneasiness growing between the characters, which leads to tensions and violence. What’s interesting is that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, and, as we spend more time with them, we discover that there’s reason to question all of their intentions.
- Gord is looking unwell, both physically and mentally – something is clearly eating away at him. Is it just his financial troubles (he promised to do this three-week job in one week out of desperation)? Or is his home life contributing to his stress?
- Phil is on edge, and he’s pretty confrontational, constantly boiling under the surface. Is it just that he’s forced to work with Hank, who stole his girlfriend from him? Or is it the pressure of doing a job in a third of the time, seeing Gord make bad decisions?
- Hank is jerk. Not only is he sleeping with Amy to piss Phil off, he’s a selfish individual who only looks out of himself. He stumbles upon some valuable coins in the building’s guts and takes it upon himself to return at night to plunder Danvers’ secret riches.
- Mike is a former law student who becomes obsessed with some old evidence left behind in the basement. He not only takes breaks to go listen to the Mary Hobbes session tapes, he stays after work, listening to the doctor converse with Mary’s four personalities.
- Jeff, meanwhile, isn’t malicious or a risk – aside for the fact that he’s a dimwit who was only hired by Gord because he’s his nephew and Gord needed an extra hand who could work for cheap. He’s never done this kind of work and it makes him a liability.
You actually never really know who to believe, who to trust, and who you should be wary of the most.
‘Session 9’ builds up a mood with slow pans of the structure, forcing the audience to contemplate its possibilities, maybe even scrutinize the background for signs of trouble, and through an atmospheric experimental score by Climax Golden Twins, that swarms you gradually, like bees.
Before the sting.
An overdub of the Mary Hobbes sessions didn’t help because the dialogues make you feel uneasy: Entering someone’s mental disarray is never going to be a pleasant experience, but knowing that it was manipulated by the doctors and that someone is lurking in her psyche is pretty chilling.
By the end, I felt my heart rate increase, even though I wasn’t scared. It was strange: Though I didn’t feel it in my body, as with other films like ‘The Babadook‘, I was subtly affected by what was happening. I certainly couldn’t have fallen asleep at that point. Or immediately after.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
But the picture fell apart slightly at the end, when it attempted to shift our distrust from one party to the next. It felt very heavy-handed and wasn’t entirely successful. So there was little satisfaction in the final reveal – because, by then, one has already considered the possibilities.
I mean, there were only five of them, right?
Plus which there were discrepancies: Why would Phil pretend to talk to Amy if he’s not the killer? And if he’s not pretending, why would she tell him that Hank left for Miami when he didn’t? And then why would Phil freak out when Gord said he’d call Amy, trying to stop him from doing so?
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
In any event, ‘Session 9’ is a spookshow for those who like a slow simmer. Its visual and psychological claustrophobia tightens its grip on the audience gradually, until it’s nearly impossible to escape. It doesn’t quite go for the kill, but it prevents you from breathing long enough.
…leaving you gasping for air when it’s all over.
Date of viewing: September 3, 2016