Who knew that in the land of the curse of the Bambino there existed a building haunted by more demons than Fenway Park? The main character in the new film Session 9 is a sprawling, menacing, bat-shaped former mental hospital located just outside of Boston in the city of Danvers. Director and co-writer Brad Anderson, a Boston native, has used the city's suburbs as a film venue before, in his romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland. In Session 9, which contains no romance and very little comedy, Anderson gives us an engaging thriller that delivers scares.
The Danvers mental institution, which opened in the 1880's and, before closing in the mid 1980's, was home to more than 7,000 patients, is now in a state of decay. Local officials have secured the services of the Hazmat Elimination Company to remove asbestos as a first step in refurbishing the building. The boss of the Hazmat crew is Gordon (played by Hank Peter Mullan) who labors under the dual strain of previous job failures and marital tension. Gordon's chief and most reliable assistant is Phil (played by David Caruso), but Phil has troubles of his own. Even as he angles for Gordon's job, Phil still bristles in the presence of Hank, a co-worker who not only stole Phil's girlfriend but is also fond of reminding him of it. The other workers are Mike, a law student, and Jeff, Gordon's naive nephew. Desperate to secure the Danvers job, Gordon promises to finish a three-week job in two weeks, and then, lured by the prospect of a bonus, agrees to complete work in one week.
In the opening frames, we see down a dark hallway, into which light emerges from an odd angle and partially illuminates what appears to be an electric chair. We soon learn, as the asbestos elimination team tours the building, that this is an area for the treatment of the most violent and psychologically disturbed patients. We also learn that the hospital was on the cutting edge in its experiments in repressed memory retrieval and in its performance of therapeutic lobotomies. Drawn momentarily away from the group, Gordon hears a voice call to him.
The title is taken from a series of nine audiotapes that Mike, the most intellectually curious of the workers, discovers in the basement and begins to play. As the tensions between the crewmembers mount and they become increasingly isolated, Mike repeatedly returns to the basement to listen to the tapes. Each time he does so, we learn a little more about the case of Mary Hobbes, whom a doctor is questioning about events long ago on a Christmas day in her family home in Lowell, Mass. The doctor has identified multiple personalities in Mary and seeks to interrogate each in turn. At one point, Mike sketches on a notepad the names and identities of the personalities: The Princess is innocence and Billy is the protector. A third personality, as yet unknown, is Simon, next to whose name Mike writes a question mark. When Simon finally emerges, his voice is recognizably the same one that spoke to Gordon early in the film.
The film begins with a set of neat divisions — sane vs. insane, the law abiding vs. the criminal, and civilization vs. the madhouse — and then proceeds slowly and deliberately to demolish them. One of the opening scenes contains a subtle foreshadowing of the way ordinary human beings can be drawn to the dark side. When Gordon and Phil first arrive at the hospital, a guard greets them at the gate. When a perplexed Gordon inquires whether there's anyone left for the guard to keep inside the gates, the guard responds, "Not in, out." Kids are drawn to the place for parties and destructive exploits. Just as his desire to listen to the tapes consumes Mike, so too does the building exercise a mesmerizing effect on the other crewmembers, who find themselves back at the building late at night or at the crack of dawn. It's not as if they are hypnotized by the building; they all have reasons to return: insomnia, the desire to explore of a hidden stash of old coins, and the need to finish a job under a very tight deadline. The film does a marvelous job of balancing the suggestion of human and supernatural agency, although the latter may be merely a metaphor for the dark possibilities within each of us.
As the pressures of the job escalate, Gordon begins to unravel. He becomes increasingly suspicious of his co-workers and drops hints that trouble at home may be more serious than the sleep deprivation caused by the birth of the first child.
The film, which has superb sound effects and cinematography, puts all of its artistry at the service of increasing our sense of disorientation: odd camera angles, unnervingly tight framing of faces, and the rich resources of the building itself, with its long, dimly lit hallways and the scattered remains of therapeutic instruments. The asbestos metaphor works wonderfully here. As one of the veteran workers explains the dangers of asbestos to Jeff, the novice, he states, this stuff gets inside you and "incubates in your lungs." The longer they remain on the job, the more the building itself invades and takes possession of the workers.
Session 9 will win no accolades for its script or plot which lack complexity. The film's minimalist plot and method, its use of rapidly moving hand-held camera work, and its quest for an unnamed source of evil in a setting remote from civilization have evoked comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. But that comparison is unfair. Blair Witch was not frightening until its final scene and was based upon the distractingly contrived supposition that it was a true story. By contrast, Session 9 contains a number of genuinely terrifying scenes. When the source of terror is finally uncovered, the revelation comes not as a predictable outcome nor as a surprise, trick ending. There is also the suggestion of the influence of a malevolent power. Whatever might be the role of such a power and whether we construe it as supernatural or as a possibility latent in each of us, the film makes clear that it does not supplant but rather operates in tandem with human vulnerability, desperation, and choice.