The horror…: “Session 9”
October 31, 2014 § 1 Comment
How interesting it would be to conduct a study in which audience responses to 2001 low-budget horror film “Session 9” are grouped according to whether or not a viewer has previously seen “The Shining” and then compared. It’s always nice to approach a picture respectfully, appraising it on its own terms knowing full well, of course, that no movie is an island, or at least that very few are. Artworks are born these days into a complex post-modern referential lattice wherein a creation can draw upon scores of influences some of which the creator(s) may not even be aware. But this film, “Session 9”, directed by Brad Anderson and featuring not one but two alumni of the “CSI” TV series – David ‘Sunglasses and Canted Neck’ Caruso and Paul Guilfoyle – has too much in common with the 1980 Kubrick classic for the similarities to be a mere coincidence. For a start, both films run on the premise of a large, ostensibly haunted building with a tragic history having some strange parapsychological effect on one or two or all of the core characters and by turns everyone that comes in contact with them or the building. If the commonalities stopped here there may be very little need to even bring up “The Shining” at all. But in addition to the ‘haunted house as psychological battleground’ theme, there are strong whiffs of domestic violence, uxoricide and filicide in “Session 9”; the wife of the film’s iteration of Jack Torrance is called Wendy; there are elements of paranoia, psychosis and multiple personalities (think Tony) which makes sense considering the central building once housed a psychiatric unit; the line between voices of actual ghosts and voices of the subconscious is distinctly blurred; both films pay particular attention to the passage of time and use title cards and looming establishing shots accordingly; disorienting and claustrophobic depictions of a physical space are used to brew fear by way of unfamiliarity; the very last word of “Session 9” is ‘Doc.’ While some of these examples might seem a tad nit-picky, combined with each other their significance simply has to be a little more than purely happenstancial.
“Session 9” depicts several days in the professional lives of five men who comprise an asbestos elimination crew that has been handed the possibly impossible task of stripping a sprawling, long abandoned Victorian-era hospital – Danvers State Hospital, namely – of the noxious fibre in a mere week. Headed by Gordon, played by Brit actor Peter Mullan – Mullan who was so watchable in Jane Campion’s 2013 miniseries “Top of the Lake” – and managed by Caruso’s Phil, the outfit is a tense one from the get-go, partly on account of Hank (Josh Lucas) having pinched Phil’s girlfriend and partly because Gordon just seems off, and this tension plays a considerable part in creating the ominous sense that violence will almost certainly occur, if not at the hands of spectral forces then at the hands of one of these humans ruffians. Early on, as is the case with “The Shining,” the building’s unsettling history is briefly outlined – with special focus on the case of Mary Hobbs and the tragedy that befalls her – by Mike (co-scripter Stephen Gevedon), who then conveniently stumbles across material pertaining to Mary Hobbs and spends the remainder of the film diligently listening his way through nine sessions of recorded audio when he should actually be peeling asbestos from ceilings, hence the film’s title. In reality, this kind of confidential material would have been incinerated or at least gotten rid of once the hospital was shut down, but this is no realist tale and accordingly the film needn’t be judged by this. There is clearly meant to be some parallel drawn between what happened to Mary Hobbs (as per what Mike hears on the tapes) and what is slowly happening to the asbestos crew. How directly these two interact, however, is a bit of a mystery.
Now, it’s one thing for a film to reference another, either as a gesture of reverence on the parts of the filmmakers or from a more academic/canonical standpoint. Is it possible, though, for a movie to outsource its horror beats to an older, superior colleague, which is to say: for those who have seen and been affected by Kubrick’s “The Shining”, if “Session 9” turns out to be acutely scary or just chronically unsettling is it because it recalls/invokes the earlier film in a weirdly Pavlovian way? When ‘Tuesday’ appears starkly in the middle of the screen, backed by a relic of a building somehow reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, is a unit of terror being uploaded from some store of cinematic memories and played back in a new context? How much of “Session 9” is actually scary on its own merit? Which is a silly question, silly because it is unquestionably silly to assume that someone who has never seen a horror film in their life would not be frightened watching this. Every film should be judged on its own terms, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, there is a creeping sense of mediocrity about “Session 9” which does not help dispel the idea that it is deeply indebted to another movie. This mediocrity is most evident in the last fifteen minutes during which director Anderson and his editing team show how lacking in faith they are is in the film’s powers of suggestion and inception that they feel compelled to confirm – by way of the fractured ‘brain spasm’ expository technique so common to low-budget indie thrillers – that the character who is most clearly losing his marbles throughout the film is in fact the character that ultimately loses his marbles and submits to murderous urges. What a disappointing thud it is, realising that the mystery was never really that mysterious and that the tapes that Mike so religiously listens to are narratively deceiving though thematically consistent; McGuffins really. This depends, of course, on if you consider the building to be haunted or whether you think there is simply something about the physical space that trips a switch in the susceptible character’s brain.
Perhaps, the one thing that renders “Session 9” distinct from the baroque symmetry of “The Shining” is its flat, digital look, as though it were shot partly on one of those pro-sumer cameras which it very well may have been. In some ways this only works to enhance the clanking claustrophobia of the dilapidated setting – which is a positive –, and also injects into the film the kind of verisimilitude that forces the atmosphere of dread to traverse the screen and cross over into our world, for the duration of the movie at least…also a positive. But rather than embracing the stark, stripped feel of the visuals so as to construct a certain mood – as is the case with “Primer”, “Pi” or “Following” – Anderson aims for some sort of psychological grandeur to which the film’s form simply cannot do justice, like a man stepping into a baby onesie or a baby adorning a labourer’s overalls. The low-fi look makes the film’s foray into psychotic expressionism seem like an amateurish stretch, as though it were made by students who desperately wished to prove their ambition, perhaps too soon. Alternatively, the unfulfilled narrative ambition on display might give the impression that the filmmakers either lack resources or lack the technical skill to realise their vision. The latter is much less likely seeing as the number of filmmakers capable of technical virtuosity seems to greatly outnumber those with the gifts required to elevate mere virtuosity to the level of notable art.
“Session 9” is considered by a considerable few to be one of the better if not one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Watching it, it is easy to glimpse the makings of a great film seeing as it bears elements of a certain Kubrick film that has been mentioned here ad nauseam, as well as hints of Carpenter’s “The Thing.” But it seems as though the things which could have made this film truly great are too closely tied to the reasons for its various failings. “Session 9” is like an isomeric mixture: the best parts are the worst parts and vice versa.
PS: Happy Halloween!
An unusual and detailed take on this unsettling little gem of a film that’s both quite classy and nuanced and yet simultaneously cheap and (for most people it seems) instantly forgettable. I hadn’t noticed the more intricate parallels with The Shining, definitely some very similar riffs on those themes of damaged family men in toxic situations. Plus – like The Shining took place in the opposite of a classic haunted house (lots of brightly lit interiors instead of dark and cobweby ones), Session 9 takes place mostly in bright sunlight with bird song in the background. I very much liked the reduction in cliches in both films. I very much enjoyed reading your look into Session 9! Looking forward to watching it again and also seeing the deleted scenes.
One comment about the realism of those session tapes which just happen to be left in the building though – you’d be surprised and often horrified what gets discarded and forgotten in old asylums and hospitals; Patient records, brain samples, tapes, all sorts. It’s ridiculous and very unprofessional how much sensitive info is left behind sometimes. Plenty of real-life Mary Hobbs’ material lying around.