‘Session 9’ review

25 10 2010

[written by author, Gary McMahon]

Overactive Curiosity: A Brief Examination of Session 9

It has been said that the essence of good drama can be pared down to the basic elements of two people in a room. In Session 9 we actually have five people in a series of rooms, but the drama this scenario creates is none the less for this slight extension of the rule.

For a long time I have believed that the best ghost stories are those that involve the collision between a haunted person and a haunted place. In Session 9, the haunted place is the near-derelict yet hugely imposing Danvers State Hospital, an old insane asylum that is even mentioned in H P Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model. The identity of the haunted person is one of the many mysteries presented to viewers of the film.

The real-life location of the Danvers Hospital is as important a character in the film as the human protagonists, and its presence permeates every single frame of footage that was shot there. We are acutely aware of the ghosts that roam these empty rooms, and of the stains of madness that remain on the bricks and mortar.

It is difficult to discuss a film like Session 9 without giving too much away, so please forgive my clumsy attempts to conceal important plot points and character arcs. I will also shy away from revealing the identity of the main character in the ensemble.

The picture opens with a team of men from the Hazmat Elimination Company working to a tight deadline to rid the building of asbestos and other poisonous fibres on behalf of the state.

The team consists of the following people:

Gordon – the boss, who is exhausted from the rigours of being a new father and stressed to the limit by the demands of keeping his small company afloat.

Phil – seemingly level-headed, he is Gordon’s right-hand man. Phil has secrets of his own, and holds a grudge against another member of the team, who stole his girlfriend.

Hank – the man with an “exit plan”. He is desperate to find a windfall to fund his dream of attending “casino school” and becoming a casino croupier. Hank stole Phil’s girlfriend, a fact that leads to constant tension between the two.

Mike – the bookish member of the team, he is fascinated with old medical records he finds in the basement. Mike failed his first year of law school, but has ideas to return and complete his studies.

Jeff- Gordon’s young rock-dude nephew, who is drafted in to help the men achieve their seemingly impossible deadline. Jeff suffers from nychtophobia, a fear of the dark, and is slightly gullible when it comes to the ribbing and bitter jokes played upon him by the others.

It’s worth mentioning here that the performances are uniformly excellent, particularly from the great Peter Mullen (Gordon) and David Caruso (Phil), who expertly sketch angry working class characters who are both layered and sympathetic, even when the final revelations are known.

Aside from the obvious job-related stress, there are other factors at work within the group. Gordon is physically and mentally exhausted, and has had some kind of argument with his wife. Hank and Phil are endlessly bickering, and seem constantly on the verge of violence. Mike slowly becomes obsessed with the recorded psychiatric sessions of a schizophrenic ex-inmate called Mary Hobbs. Jeff is the new kid on the block, and struggling with his own phobia as well as trying to fit in with the long-established team.

And there is a presence in the building; something that stalks the men from a distance, examining their weaknesses. This entity is never fully defined, and may even be a product of the men’s stress and paranoia but it is present in every scene, evidenced by snaking camerawork and subtle sound effects.

Director Brad Anderson (who in 2005 gave us the equally exceptional The Machinist) takes the typical haunted house set-up and turns it on its head, avoiding every cliché possible to produce something genuinely terrifying, a work that ruthlessly plays with an audiences preconceptions regarding such a film.

Scare scenes take place when outside it is broad daylight – it is only inside the Danvers Hospital where perpetual night reigns, constant shadows crawl. The recurrent image of an antique wheelchair is a glorious and haunting piece of misdirection. The most blatant sequence involves nothing more than a succession of lights being turned off as a character runs along a subterranean passageway. When one character relates the horrific facts regarding a case of “satanic abuse syndrome”, the camera casually roams the grounds, offering us glimpses of insect life disassembling and consuming their prey in the lazy sunlight – a visual reference to how the building eventually takes apart and consumes the minds of those who spend time in it.

Although the supernatural elements of the story remain ambiguous throughout, the genuinely unsettling final line leaves no doubt in my mind that the ghosts of Session 9 are very real. It is their meeting with, and impact upon, the ghosts rattling around inside the haunted psyches of the team that prompts the devastation that follows.

As Mike sits in the dark and listens to Mary Hobbs’ tapes, sessions 1 through to 9, the team falls apart and dark secrets are slowly uncovered. The audience is made to work through these tapes with Mike, and the rest of the story unfurls simultaneously, the whole thing peeling away like the layers of an onion.

Things eventually come to a head when Hank goes missing after returning to the site after nightfall to steal valuable belongings of the old inmates left behind in the morgue. This is a very frightening scene, and as we approach the recording of the eponymous “session 9” there is much more to come. From here on in, the intensity is cranked up and the scares come thick and fast, but at no point are we allowed to stop caring for the characters that we have come to know in the more sedately paced earlier scenes.

I tend to view Session 9 as a modern, masculine and very working class reading of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and to this end, I will finish by noting several intertextual parallels that I have drawn between the two works.

A group of psychics is sent to Hill House to rid the place of possibly malevolent, toxic spirits; in Session 9 we have a group of professionals sent in to gut the building of toxic fibres and materials which are a metaphor for the spiritual decay that has occurred in the past. Hill House calls to all and the most damaged character responds; the Danvers State Hospital calls to all, and a single fractured mind responds more than the others. The underlying feminist subtext of Jackson’s book is echoed in the examination of the fragmentation of the male psyche as depicted in the film. Eleanor, the main female protagonist in Jackson’s work, has created a relatively glamorous fantasy life to hide the truth of her existence; in the film, each character has constructed his own reality to hide the truth of his life, and the main character fully inhabits his own fantasy in order to hide his madness even from himself. At the end of the novel, Hill House consumes Eleanor; in the film’s finale, the main protagonist is consumed by the Danvers building– everyone else is just eaten.

The extra features on the Region 1 DVD of Session 9 reveal several interesting experiences the cast had while filming on location in the Danvers Hospital. Peter Mullen relates one particularly disturbing moment when he was sure that he heard a voice whisper his name. This sense of the ghostly, of a place that has seen so much human torment, seeps into the film, helping create a mood that otherwise might have rang hollow. It is this that gives an extra dimension to what is surely a superb piece of modern ghostly cinema.

[Originally posted in: All Hallows: Journal of the Ghost Story Society]

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26 10 2010
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