Movie Discussion: Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001)

  • Monthly Theme: Families in Perilsession_nine_xlg
  • 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.

Session 9’s idea of action: “Josh Lucas finds a bunch of money in a wall”

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.”

The movie’s best character: the ruins of Danvers State Hospital

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?

Kristine: Sure.

Sean: Lost Highway?

Kristine: No.

Sean: I give up…

Kristine: Umm, you gave one guess. Fine. Carpenter’s The Thing….

Sean: Um…..

Kristine: ….and I will tell you why. Ready for my awesome dissertation I just came up with 30 seconds after watching the movie?

Sean: Yes.

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.

Asbestos removal. It’s dangerous, dammit.

Sean: True.

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.

Sean: Though this is The Thing by way of The Shining (which I think is the movie Session 9 most “steals from”).

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 how 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: Well, 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.

Kristine: Weird.

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….

Sean: Go.

Kristine: You have heard about my nocturnal explorations into an abandoned and partially demolished hospital in Tucson, in search of a mythical mural, right?

Sean: Yes…

N.Y.P.D. Eww

Kristine: I think I was always suspicious that abandoned buildings really would still have all the equipment and files and personal effects in them – but this place was really like that. Walls were knocked down…but children’s artwork was still tacked in the walls and there were dead vases of flowers everywhere. It was seriously terrifying. Random wheelchairs littering the hallways whist 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.

Sean: Weird.

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?

Kristine to movie: “I’d like a scarier monster than just ‘patch of shadowy hallway,’ please.”

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. 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.”

Sean: Okay?

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: Well, I hate it. 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 to movie: “Your voices are terrifying and they need to shut up now.”

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?

Kristine: Naw.

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) a film 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.

Demonic entities that are the embodiment of pure madness? Skyscrapers are way scarier!

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?

Kristine: Yeah?

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.”

Kristine: Right.

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)?

Step out o’ line and it’s an orbitoclast in yer socket for ye!

Sean: Well, that basically the big “gross outs” revolve around eye trauma.

Kristine: True.

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: Really?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Why?

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 its Lynchian?

Log

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. Naomi Watts’ character has a violent, psychotic break… But it doesn’t have any of the – what was the Clive Barker turn of phrase I liked so much? ‘Repulsive glamor’ that Lynch films have. Lynch is all about repulsive glamor.

Sean: I totally, 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: Maybe our definitions of “glamour” are different.

Kristine: I think so.

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!”

Sean: Right….

Kristine: So, he has not yet achieved auteur status, and must abide by rules.

Ratings Round-Up

The Girl’s rating: Nice try, folks.

The Freak’s rating: Quit being a tone-poem, start telling stories.

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19 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001)

  1. I’m not even certain this qualified as horror. Psychological thriller, perhaps? I think Kristine’s right though, this is a monster in the house story, like The Thing of Alien. There’s obviously some force haunting these characters, but unlike other monster in the house stories, S9 loses its dramatic tension because they can just walk away. You can’t have a really scary haunted place work its magic if you can drive home every night at 5 after a long days work. Throughout this film I felt no sense of threat, no sense of jeopardy. These guys were just working a job in a creepy place and one of the dudes goes a little nutso. In the end he goes completely nutso, which feels very tact on to me. I had high hopes for this film, because it did seem to go into more character development than most horrors, but then did nothing with that.

    1. That’s a really good point about their ability to leave compromising the movie’s tension. I wonder how this would have played out if the whole film took place during one day of their week-long job, like towards the end of it. I think that would have been better! Genius!

  2. For being a film produced for the USA Network (if I recall correctly) this was one of the most impressive horror films of its day. Why? Because it wasn’t a remake. There are some really interesting things going on here…and I think you might have missed the point that Gordon had gone berserk and killed his wife and baby before his team ever visits or lands the contract to remove the asbestos from the institute. With that in mind, the film kind of reads like a psychoanalytical textbook. Gordo kills family, Gordo goes through denial, Gordo represses, Gordo kills Brendan Sexton III for eating his Oreos.

    1. Yeah, we didn’t really touch on that in our discussion, but I did catch it. That’s what I meant about the film really being about the pressures of masculinity. It also makes sense because Mary’s “tragedy” also happens before she comes to Danvers. I read somewhere an argument that Simon isn’t an alter at all but is a “malevolent genius loci” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius_loci) – I’d never heard the term before…. But the fact that Mary and Gordon’s incipient episodes happen before they’ve ever come to Danvers, I’m not sure how well that idea plays (as cool an idea as it is). I dunno, are you suggesting that Simon IS just an alter, and that the reason for Gordon’s descent into madness is entirely “normal” (by which I mean, non-supernatural)? I am dying that this was produced for USA. Sometimes tv productions can turn out great: the movie “Infestation” was made for SyFy and is pretty spectacular. Also, Oreos are disgusting.

      1. “Gordo kills Brendan Sexton III for eating his Oreos” !!!!! HAHAHAHAHA!
        Nick, I totally disagree on a minor point – Gordon indeed kills his family AFTER he lands the Danvers job (but before they being work there). The murders happen after he takes with the tour caretaker or whomever – which is when he first hears Simon croak out, “Hello, Gordon.” The film keeps reshowing the scene of him getting out of his truck with a grocery bag filled with, um, OREOS, and also flowers for his wife, ’cause they are celebrating landing the asbestos contract. When he walks in the house with the bag, wifey talks about how purty the flowers are and then accidentally dumps the boiling water on him and yadda yadda yadda – dead family. Then he starts work on the job the next day and is in complete denial. So, one could still make a case that Simon somehow corrupted Gordon’s mind – even though I still the correct reading is that Gordon cracked up cause of stress.

        1. Fine clarification, Kristine. And so it is! So that could explain the “genius loci” theory (if Simon “infected” Gordon on his initial visit to the grounds), but then how did Mary originally get exposed to the evil, since she only went to Danvers as a result of her killing spree….?

          1. I haven’t watched Session 9 in a long time, but I like the movie very much and feel it is truly spooky. I feel this is because many of us have been in buildings like Danvers and they do seem to contain negative energy… you can feel all the human misery and dread that went on before, so this is a familiar feeling. Second, while I do not believe in ghosts, I do believe in demons and so this story feels somewhat plausible.

            My take is that Simon is a absolutely a demonic being, I think that is the whole point of the “weak and wounded” phrase. And it did infect Gordon on his first visit to Danvers. Hard to say where Mary picked up Simon, but I think she brought it to Danvers, it liked having all the fresh (weak and wounded) meat at Danvers and just never left.

            I see some strong parallels between Session 9 and Alien and I don’t think paranoia of each other is really present in Session 9… as it is in The Thing… as the killings happen too fast, often in seclusion, and they are dead before they really even know what happened.

            1. Well put all around. I agree that the best thing about Session 9 is how it captures the way that a place can just ooze dread and negativity. I grew up in Rhode Island/Connecticut and I remember a lot of old houses giving off that feeling. And YES to the Alien/Thing/Session 9 parallels. Good call.

  3. ….. I loved this movie because of the sustained mood, which worked for me. The conversations with Princess as I recall got progressively creepier session by session, which heightened my discomfort totally and I liked the way those tapes sort of bounced off the events of the rest of the movie, or added enigmatic nuance or something (as opposed to dovetailing neatly with them or explaining them in any kind of exact way) … all that further heightened my sense of hideous dread somehow…. which leads to me my next question, which is why in the hell do I love movies that inspire creeping fear and dread…..but god knows I do. Also as aside, complete utter total nightmare about Rosemary Kennedy. I just wikipedia’d her and there’s a passage there from a book about her that makes you realize that when Tom Cruise goes off on insane-sounding rants about the evils of psychiatry, he’s really not far off:

    “We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards. … “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” … When she began to become incoherent, they stopped

    1. Yes, Sharon I agree the mood is really, really impressive. I only later realized that I might come off sounding more dismissive of the movie in the above discussion than I intended it. I actually admire the movie a lot, even though I have some issues with its approach to storytelling. But, I hope I made it clear, I LOVE the recorded sessions and all the different voices/personalities to pieces. We also didn’t get a chance to talk about the set-piece where Josh Lucas is in the asylum at night and he’s running from a vague shape, which I think is so good and creepy as fuck-all. I can’t believe I’d never heard of Rosemary Kennedy’s story! That quote IS FUCKING HORRIFYING!

    2. Sharon and Sean, it’s really interesting to me that the Rosemary Kennedy story is new to you guys, as her lobotomy was one of THE pivotal cautionary-tales for me growing up (this is what happens to “bad” girls who defy society’s rules of decorum). Anytime I encounter a woman-in-a-mental-hospital scenario, I think about RK. I know a lot of people think the obsession with the Kennedy family need to die now, but it’s shit like this that makes them so horrible, thus, fascinating! Joe Kennedy is one of the biggest real life villains of our time.

  4. I really love this film. It came along at just the right time, for me – I was seriously sick of cardboard cutout characters getting bumped off in the goriest way possible. Not that I don’t enjoy that as well!
    Have you guys read UK author Ramsey Campbell? This is the closest to his short stories that a film has come, imo. The settings of his stories almost become characters, and the supernatural elements are usually ambiguous – much like S9.
    We also had technical difficulties when we first watched – a cable had come loose on our DVD player, and we watched the entire film in black & white, not knowing that it was meant to be colour! This was back when rental DVD’s came with b&w photocopied covers. When I realised, I watched it again in colour. It really did work in b&w though.