Universal Pictures, 2001
Starring: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas
Directed by: Brad Anderson
The plot: Gordon (Mullan) is in desperate personal and financial straits: His marriage is in big trouble, as is his hazardous waste removal business. He makes an unrealistic bid to have his small team of workers remove asbestos from the closed Danvers, Mass., State Mental Hospital in one week. While Gordon pleads with his estranged wife on the phone, his team begins to disintegrate during their dangerous, isolated, round-the-clock labors. Mike (Gevedon) discovers a cache of audiotapes from nine psychiatric sessions with a killer and becomes obsessed with the case. Hank (Lucas) discovers old coins and valuables in the hospital’s crematory and begins exploring its labyrinth of underground tunnels. Old wounds between the men reopen; several of the team begin acting strangely and disappear. Tensions build as the bad memories, bad vibes, and bad karma of the vast old madhouse overtake them.
Why it’s good: The set-up and pay-off are powerful. Director Brad Anderson and co-writer Stephen Gevedon craft a plot with multiple threads that each develop and intersect in a polished arc. If the final audiotape of the title is not quite the expected climax, the actual ending is. Anderson had two romantic comedies to his credit, including 1998’s much-admired “Next Stop Wonderland,” but he arrived at the horror genre knowing his stuff — the disquieting scenes in the dark, cavernous underground tunnels are among the film’s most claustrophobic and suspenseful. Scottish actor Mullan leads the cast as the complex, tormented Gordon. Caruso was coming off of his “NYPD Blue” fame, but acquits himself well here in an understated performance. The rest of the cast is spot-on, but the real star is the asylum itself; the opening aerial shots of its bat-wing design set an oppressive tone that never lets up.
The legacy: The abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital was a place just waiting to be used for a horror film; luckily, Anderson made one. The gothic, moody complex of self-contained buildings high on an imposing hill opened in 1878 as a model of progressive advancements in treating the mentally ill. By the 1940s, it had become a snake pit. Originally built to house 500, at its nadir, there were over 2,000 patients; indecency and abuse were rampant. Lobotomies, insulin shock, straitjackets, isolation, and a host of discredited and illegal practices reigned. If places hold ghosts and the vestiges of atrocity, then Danvers ranked as among the most haunted in the U.S. It closed in 1992 and was left abandoned. Interior sets did not need to be dressed for “Session 9” — furniture, files, clothing, and rubbish littered the place. Architectural additions that resulted in such anomalies as staircases that led to nowhere bemused the filmmakers. In 2013, almost the whole complex was demolished; the remaining buildings are now condominiums and apartments — one can only imagine the atmosphere. “Session 9” has moments of greatness, but its remarkable achievement is Anderson’s harnessing and exploring the dreadful atmosphere of a dead place, an actual functioning hell with a true history.