Friday, October 15, 2010
31 days, 31 faves: Session 9
Session 9 (2001) is seriously one of the most frightening films I have ever seen. But I have mad, mad love for it. Not only does it boast an incredibly scary locale - the stunningly massive Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts - but it has the best kind of horror to induce chills - the quiet kind. Director Brad Anderson knows just what to do to give you a serious case of the willies.
Gordon (Peter Mullan) is the owner of an asbestos removal company and has made a bid to clean up the old hospital. Considering he makes an outrageous bid stating he can get the job done in one week (whereas it should really take 2-3 weeks), he lands the gig - with a special monetary bonus if he actually does finish on time. We quickly learn that Gordon is really hurting for funds, which is the reason he lied about being able to get the job done in such a ridiculously short period of time. It's also evident that this is weighing on Gordon pretty hard, as he seems pretty disconnected and fragile. When checking out the place when he's bidding on it, he has an episode of some kind when he sees a restraining chair off in the distance, sunlight hitting it ominously. He seems to be taken to another place and time, and hears a voice calling out to him: "hello...Gordon."
It's such a creepy scene that already we know we're in for a treat.
On start day, Gordon brings a crew of four other guys with him: his right hand man Phil (David Caruso), Mike (Stephen Gevedon, also co-writer of the film) - a law-school drop out who has a special interest in the history of the place, his greenhorn nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III)- who suffers from an extreme fear of the dark, and lastly Hank (Josh Lucas) - a man who has stolen Phil's girlfriend away from him and brags about it every chance he gets.
Prior to going into the hospital, the men discuss the eerie place and the various things that have happened there. Many of the former patients were let out onto the streets when the hospital closed, and quite a few of them ended up back there, squatting. As if that isn't creepy enough, they have a chat about the barbaric things the doctors used to do to "treat" the patients there, such as frontal lobotomies. Good to know...
The guys check the place out, getting it ready to start the removal process. Mike goes down to the basement to check on an electrical problem and finds a box that is marked as private "evidence". Naturally, curiosity overwhelms him and he finds a bunch of recordings, each marked as a session (and of course there's NINE of them, natch!). Upon listening to them it's obvious that the subject suffers from multiple personality disorder. Her name is Mary Hobbes, and she is listed as patient 444. At first she talks as herself, but then morphs into Princess, a young girl that talks about dolls and Christmas, all innocent enough. When the doctor asks to talk to Billy, she says he's asleep, and when he brings up Simon, Mary completely shuts down and doesn't want to talk anymore.
Upstairs, Gordon seems to be having a lot of trouble focusing. He hears the same disembodied voice say to him: "you can hear me", and though he claims to be okay, he's often seen staring off into space. He and his wife are having issues. They've just had a new baby, and so Gordon isn't getting much sleep and his stress level is fairly high, though he doesn't let on.
Mike becomes completely intrigued by the sessions, and finds his way down to the basement for long stretches of time to listen in. As he listens to the tapes, the director cuts off to everyone else, either working in the hospital or at home at night, going about their daily lives. It's actually quite haunting, the voiceover. Mary describes where each "personality" lives in her body. Princess is in the tongue, Billy in the eyes, etc. But she doesn't answer when he asks about where Simon lives...
Hank, while at work in a lower level room by himself, finds some coins from the 1800's. Checking around a bit more, he finds more coins stuck in one of the walls. When he removes a brick, tons of coins fall out. In addition to money, jewelry is also included in the stash. Phil calls Hank on his walkie-talkie to rejoin them upstairs and so Hank stuffs the money and jewelry back into the wall and leaves. Guess he doesn't realize it's a cremation chamber. Gah!
Teasing Jeff at lunch that day, Mike explains the lobotomy procedure, giving a chilling account of how the brain becomes numb after such an action but that the patients were no worse for wear, at least not on the outside where it is noticeable. Jeff is understandably rattled and walks off.
And later, Gordon observes Phil outside the hospital talking to a couple of young guys. It's obvious Gordon doesn't like it and wants to know what is going on, but nothing is said.
When Hank comes back alone late at night (!) to take the stash he'd hidden, he hears someone close a door upstairs. Even though he's wearing the equivalent of an iPod, the noise is loud enough to disturb him. Shaking it off, he gathers his goodies (which now also include some glass eyeballs and a frontal lobotomy tool) and heads off. On his way back upstairs, he stalks the long (and utterly unnerving) hallways, he hears a noise and points his flashlight up at it. In a key point in the film, a shadow crosses the hallway in the distance. It is a seriously startling and terrifying moment. The first time I saw the film I thought about that scene for days afterward. And thinking about it now gives me the chills.
At that point, Hank starts running. Yeah, no kidding.
The next morning, Hank doesn't show up for work. The remaining four guys are arguing about where he might be until Phil calls Amy (his ex and Hank's current girlfriend), who tells him Hank packed up his car and went off to Miami to attend casino school. With tempers flaring at this point, Gordon brings up to Phil the guys he was talking to the day before. Phil hasn't a clue what he's talking about but Gordon doesn't let up, at one point even grabbing Phil and shaking him to try to get an answer, right in front of the other guys. It's a tense moment, and one that further solidifies the fact that Gordon just might not be altogether with it. He's at the very least struggling with something. He goes back inside the hospital to think while the other guys chat about how Gordon's home life is seriously screwing him up and making the jobs impossible.
Gordon, sitting outside now near the hospital cemetery (which is marked with numbers, not names), calling his wife to ask her forgiveness. We don't know what happened, or if it is just because there has been so much stress as of late. When the camera pans down, we see the tombstone of number 444 - the Mary Hobbes patient that Mike has become so obsessed with.
Mike, meanwhile, has went back to the file room to listen to more sessions. He also has looked up her file, so he's been reading along while listening. When Mary talks about herself, the doctor presses her for more information, trying to discover what her breaking point was. Mike notices words like "tragedy" and "multiple personality disorder" written in her file, and sees pictures that have been drawn (by one of her personalities) of a family, and photos of Mary herself, with scars all over her chest. But still...no Simon.
Finally we get a bit of info from Gordon. He and Phil are having a little heart to heart in which we discover Gordon hit his wife after she spilled boiling water on him accidentally. We also learn Gordon has been staying at a motel instead of home.
That night, Gordon falls asleep in his car outside the asylum. The ghostly voice tells him "you know who I am", and we get a little flashback to the night (by way of Gordon's dream) that he hit Wendy. We never see the act itself, only hear the water fall and his wife's cries. And right at that moment, the voice whispers: "Do it Gordon." And he wakes up. We see the second degree burn on his leg as he winces in pain when applying iodine. And then for us, another glance at that restraining chair. What gives?
At work the following day, Phil has a discussion with Mike about Gordon's mental status. Phil explains that Gordon simply has to take some time off. He breaks Gordon's confidence and tells Mike about Gordon hitting his wife. Phil is worried about losing the gig, and even though he's called another guy in it's hard to tell if they can finish up in enough time to get the early completion bonus, which they all need. Unfortunately, Gordon is one floor down but near a stairway where the other two men are talking and he hears every word.
Jeff has been sent downstairs to check on something, and on his way back up, he sees Hank - standing in the stairwell with a pair of shades on and staring out the window. Never looking at Jeff, Hank simply states, "What are you doing here?" - twice, completely lacking any emotion whatsoever. Duly freaked out, Jeff runs to tell the others. But when they all follow him back down, Hank is nowhere to be found. After hearing someone walk above them, they set off looking for him but all end up splitting up.
Naturally, Mike heads back to the basement to listen to the last of the sessions.
The psychiatrist is urging Mary (who is now speaking as the uber-polite southern boy, Billy) to tell him what happened on Christmas night all those years ago.
As Phil searches for Hank down a deserted tunnel hallway where he hears soft jazz playing in the distance, Jeff in turn has a frightening experience with the lights. In other words, they all shut off one by one, effectively rendering him completely helpless. He begins to have a desperate panic attack. Gordon hears the voice again, and rushes towards it, as it seems to be real now.
Tension escalates tenfold as the outside generator that keeps the power on shuts down completely. Mike rushes back outside to mess with the generator - MUST HAVE POWER! He's obsessed with finding out what happened to patient 444. (And believe me, so are we.)
As Mike is heading back inside, we hear the recorder kick back on, and a voice - the one that has been haunting Gordon for several days - says: "Hello, Doc." It is the elusive Simon.
I've already told too much. But that's still not the end of the mystery. There is more to learn...frightening things to discover. And a grim ending you could only expect after sitting through the film in its entirety.
It must be mentioned how much of an effect the actual film location has on the film. The sprawling Danvers State Hospital is an absolutely chilling piece of architecture. Closed in 1982 (and partially if not completely torn down at this point), Danvers has the dubious distinction of being the place where the frontal lobotomy was perfected. The place is not just spacious, it's utterly endless. Being an aficionado of all things ghostly, I've seen the asylum on some of those "ghost hunter" shows a while back, but to see a 100 minute film in which you get to see it in all its so-called glory - broken windows, paint-peeling walls, rooms with old broken-down medical equipment just lying around...the place is in total disarray. For a reason I cannot explain, I am genuinely spooked out by the inside of this asylum. The atmosphere counts for SO much here.
I've heard many people say they didn't get this movie, or that it's too long or the narrative too confusing. I'll agree that you really have to pay attention throughout the viewing. It's not something you can be watching while doing your taxes or chatting with a friend.
It's a very compelling film about madness and how it affects not just the afflicted, but those around them. Falling into the abyss is a private matter, but sadly others are drawn into the situation unintentionally. It also shows the power that a certain location can conjure, the thought that we don't have anything to fear, we have everything to fear.