“We have to talk about Gordon”, like Phil (David Caruso) tells Mike (Stephane Gévédon) shortly before all hell breaks loose Session 9.
But before I do, I have to mention that it won’t be a spoiler-free review, but a closer look at this edgy cult movie. Normally I wouldn’t issue a spoiler alert for a twenty-year-old movie, but Session 9 has only slowly gained its audience in the years since its release. Needless to say, this is a movie that I hope will only grow in popularity. So with that out of the way …
We need to talk about Gordon. Gordon, played by Peter Mullan, is a calm and seemingly unfazed man with a lovely wife and a brand new baby girl, Emma. Of course, his business has had a rough time – there is less and less need for asbestos removal – but he seems to have kept a cool head. Like Hank (Josh Lucas) said to Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), Gordon is “the Zen master of calm”. But there is something in this work.
Danvers State Psychiatric Hospital looks a lot like Gordon. On the outside, it’s an awe-inspiring sight – a massive architectural wonder and not lacking in structural integrity. Like his spiritual cousins Hill House and The Overlook, Danvers “has been for eighty years and could hold on for another eighty more.” But like these other landmarks on the horror landscape, there is something “nonsense” about the building itself. Unlike them, Danvers’ interior is rotting and cracks are starting to appear. Just like Gordon. Just as Danvers has decomposed over time, too: slowly, gently, almost imperceptibly. The building itself is an outward expression of the erosion occurring in his mind, heart, body and soul.
But Gordon isn’t the only one we need to talk about. While his actions are the most shocking, he’s not the only one affected by Danvers. His unraveling is perhaps the most extreme, but the five men of this crew are gradually separated. For much of the film, we have no idea who, or any of them, is responsible for the chaos that will ensue. Even in the end, it is questionable whether the responsible party acted alone or not. All are weak. All are injured.
Phil is filled with anger, especially against Hank. Before the events of the film, Phil’s girlfriend Amy left him for Hank and her rage constantly boils inside him. Hank is greedy and takes what doesn’t belong to him even if he doesn’t really want to, even if it makes him miserable. At first we see that he is not happy in his relationship with Amy, but he stays with her simply out of spite towards Phil. Jeff, Gordon’s nephew, is just young, brash and inexperienced. Its fault is a simple fear: nyctophobia, fear of the dark. But it is absolutely crippling fear.
And then there’s Mike. Mike is kind of a conundrum. He is incredibly intelligent and, because of that, a distant and cold man. He studied to become a lawyer, but chose to work as a laborer, removing asbestos for Gordon’s business instead. During the week at Danvers, he became obsessed with listening to a series of tapes of psychiatric sessions with patient # 444, Mary Hobbes, a patient in the early 1970s with what was then called multiple personality disorder. He often takes time out from his job to listen to the tapes called Session 1-9. He notes the various personalities exhibited on the tapes and analyzes them for their meaning throughout the film.
Mike is also a source of information, allowing us to uncover some of the history surrounding Danvers, the institutions and deinstitutionalization movements of the early 1980s. The true stories of Danvers are woven into the fabric of Session 9of the plot, giving an impression of semi-documentary to the elements of the procedure. While only tangential to the plot, Patricia Willard’s Mike story (a fictional story created to illustrate an actual trend) makes an important thematic point. It deals with the controversial topic of satanic ritual abuse, the recovery of repressed memories, and the questionable credibility surrounding such stories and practices.
All of this brings us to the central questions of the film. Where does evil come from ? Is it an external force which influences and constrains? Or does it come from the human heart of darkness? These questions are similar to the questions asked in The brilliant. Is it The Overlook that drives Jack towards murder, or was the motivation already in him, heightened by the frustrations of his writer’s block, alcoholism, and cabin fever? In another connection thread, it’s interesting that Jack Torrance and Gordon both have women named Wendy – one escapes, the other doesn’t.
The fact that the evil comes from outside is the fact that Gordon hears a mysterious voice on his first tour of Danvers. This voice is later revealed to be “Simon”, one of Mary Hobbes’ personalities first heard on the tape called Session 9. Is evil somehow within the walls of Danvers himself? Is “Simon” some sort of ancient entity who seeks out “the weak and the wounded” and forces their hands to kill and destroy? On the tape, the doctor asks, “Why did you do that Simon?” referring to Mary killing her family. “Because Mary left me, doc. They still do. This ambiguous answer leads to the second, and perhaps scarier, possibility that the evil is coming from within.
Perhaps beneath all this calm, Gordon was already hiding in his heart a nastiness that he refused to address or even denied existed. When Gordon confesses to Phil that he slapped his wife the night they got the job from Danvers, he is unable to admit the full reality of the situation. He had come home with a bottle of champagne to celebrate, but when he leaned over to say hello, a pot of boiling water on the stove fell on top of him, severely burning his leg. “I don’t know if it was the barking dog. I don’t know if it was Emma who was crying, but I slapped her. He adds, dismayed and barely believing in his actions: “I hit my wife. I love my wife. It was an accident. But I slapped her for it. We soon learn that he has done much more than that.
So what exactly did Gordon take? The film lets us decide. It is one of the beauties of Session 9– ambiguity. It can be seen through the prism of supernatural horror: a dark, creeping terror with spirits and ghosts in the lore of Innocents (1961) or The haunting (1963). On the flip side, the movie can be seen as completely naturalistic with the shadows of human psychology as the real villain.
The art of film emphasizes the tensions of its themes. It was one of the first movies to be shot in HD rather than film, but it’s far better than many movies shot in that format at the time. Director Brad Anderson and director of photography Uta briesewitz makes great use of natural and available light as well as the dark and claustrophobic hallways of their location, making Session 9 an unusual mixture of daylight horror and oppressive, gloomy atmosphere. Scenes of dialogue and monologues are interspersed with images of the peeling paint and crumbling structures of Danvers or the dying grass and buzzing insects on the ground. The sound design and music only add to the untouched nature of the story and visuals. The score is unlike anything found in horror films of the time, which usually came from either Bernard Herrmann Psychosis tradition or the John Carpenter / Alan Howarth synth-laden school. the Climax Golden Twins (Robert millis and Scott Colburn) created a score drawn from the sparse and rediscovered sonic tradition of John Cage and other mid-20se composers of the century. This is something akin to the atonal music used in the original Chainsaw Massacre, which falls somewhere between the score and the sound design, the two often blending into each other.
Session 9 is very different from anything that came out of horror cinema at that time. It was the era of J-horror, big budget movies like Annibal and Others, and the tail of the To cry out imitators. As a result, the distributor USA Films was unsure of what to do with it. Today, Session 9 surely would have been ripped off in the blink of an eye by A24, SpectreVision or some other like-minded independent studio. Instead, he was forced to take the long cult movie road: obscurity, progressive discovery, and lists of the “scariest movies you’ve ever seen.” The film was released in a few small theaters in August 2001, but quickly faded away. It was slowly discovered on DVD over the past few years from rental stores and in the heyday of Netflix DVD. Today, it enjoys cult status as one of the most disturbing films of the century to date.
It is a distinction which Session 9 is worthy to receive, at least from those who have seen it. It’s a constantly overwhelming horror film, deliberately paced but constantly engaging. It slips, almost undetectable, under the skin and lingers. It’s a rare movie that somehow manages to get scarier on repeat viewings. The more the film is viewed, the more details are noticed. The more details we notice, the more the Devil who lives in them reveals himself.