The golden age of horror: Session 9 (2001)

Chris: Many effective horror films reside on fears that are as old as western civilization. Our stories of ghosts, vampires, and other supernatural beasties are rooted at the very beginnings of our collective history and folklore. Session 9, however, creates horror from fears both more primal and yet also more rooted in modern culture. It is a movie fueled by being afraid of not being a good provider for family at home. In many ways I was reminded of the same neuroses that fuel the plot of Glengarry Glen Ross when watching this. Both are films in which the main characters do bad things because the pressure of work and home have caught up to them.

After the jump, Jack Lemmon never had a sharp putty knife

Grandy: The immediate reaction to the atmosphere and plotting in Session 9 is going to be “The Haunting was actuality much worse than I realized”. But let’s not forget 1997’s Event Horizon, a by the numbers haunted house story set on a spaceship. I don’t really have the language or field expertise to talk about all of that cinemawhatsit stuff you and Morton are always going on about. I just know that from the perspective of “let’s shoot a moody haunted house movie”, Session 9 is going to school the previously mentioned films and make my argument for me.

Chris: The proper term for what Rob and I do is called “faking it.” Well, at least for me it is…

Grandy: Like most people I didn’t see Session 9 until years after it was released. (What a treat to stumble on it while channel surfing one day while home sick from work. This is one reason I can’t give up cable, I think. I still like to channel surf sometimes.) Apparently much of Danvers State Medical Hospital was not open for filming, and Caruso said that many of the props were already present in the building. Director Brad Anderson used what he had well, though. It’s an oppressive, amazing building, apparently partially demolished some time after shooting.

Chris: Great points about the building and setting. I think the Danvers Hospital in Session 9 sits quite near the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s version of The Shining as far as being a building that becomes an important character in a horror film. And mad props to Anderson and his art department and set decorators, too. With well over a decade since this movie was filmed, his flick helped create a lot of the archetypes for deserted and dilapidated asylums as haunted house settings in the years to follow, for both television, movies, and even video games. I also completely agree with you that this simple, spooky setting with some minimal decoration work by the crew completely out-creeps the millions of dollars poured into the mansion in de Bont’s remake of The Haunting and so many other 1990s horror movies that came before. (I’m looking at you, Frighteners.)

Grandy: I hadn’t thought about Frighteners but I think that’s completely on point (and I totally forgot that was Peter Jackson. That’s fitting). I was wondering, though, if Session 9 was a result of the Blair Witch resurgence wave. Released in 2001, it’s possible it was filmed and finished before the success of The Blair Witch Project could impact studio decision making. That said, it fits that this is a movie that came out in the wake of Blair Witch.

Chris: I think the common thread is the sincerity with which Anderson presents this story. No one’s mugging for the camera. No one’s goofing around. The intent here is to film a story that keeps the audience guessing while scaring it. Simple as that sounds, that notion felt beyond the ken of too many 1990s horror filmmakers. I think what also makes it so effective is how completely the actors buy into this weird little story.

Grandy: It’s like everybody (in the west, anyway) stopped treating horror movies as actual movies. From 1987 onward, Carpenter and Arachnophobia are a couple of isolated examples that bucked the direction the genre was heading in. I am sure I’m missing other examples but there aren’t many and the point stands. Calling the genre products of this period rote is almost an understatement. Jump scares here. Soaring soundtrack there, so the audience gets it’s cues. Maybe a decently virginal lead but that’s it (and rarely is anyone else in the movie especially likable). The script is next to irrelevant, it’s really only important that it have bodies and that it leave room for a sequel, because man how about that Scream. We could make a killing!

Session9

Chris: The characters here help elevate Session 9 above that sort of thing. There are perhaps some inconsistencies here and there in the plot, but what sells this film and makes it work is that we care about the guys on this work crew. They’re idiosyncratic enough that we get invested in them.

Grandy: It’s certainly an unlikely cast, isn’t it? The script is interesting enough that I can see it drawing talent. Wikipedia quoted some review that said the characters were one-note but I don’t find that to be the case. Peter Mullan is terrific as Gordon. David Caruso – Caruso!!! – is very good as Phil, Gordon’s best friend. Josh Lucas – not yet getting a lot of people to notice him in A Beautiful Mind – is even better as Hank, Phil’s mortal enemy (and vice versa). Mike (Stephen Gevedon, who helped write the movie) is the least fleshed out character but he’s not uninteresting. Jeff (Brendan Sexton III, Warren from Empire Records!) is exactly what he looks like, but this is what we should expect from a dim witted early 20s slacker who has probably tried sniffing everything humanly possible in his life. In my opinion this movie weaves a convincing back story for everyone but Jeff (who needs none), and it paints an interesting picture of this motley crew.

Chris: I think that characterization is what brings Glengarry Glen Ross so much to mind for me in Session 9. Everyone here seems to have their own motivation, their own little conflicts. But it’s the one guy who’s trying to keep up appearances even in the face of a terrible financial and career strain that ends up as key to what happens to everyone else. Here it’s that strain that makes Gordon bid the ridiculous time frame on the work. That time frame puts everyone under pressure and drives the bad decisions and outright insanity that informs the rising action of the movie. Which brings me to the one part of Session 9 that seems a little inconsistent. Much is made of the ridiculous time pressure for the guys on the work crew to finish the job and receive their bonus. The one thing we really don’t get enough of–at least in my view–is any matching sense of urgency from Brad Anderson. Sure he has the guys talk about the bonus, and the incredible difficulty in bringing in the job before deadline. Most of the time we see them talking about these problems, though, they’re sitting around having a leisurely lunch or a smoke break or standing around as if they’ve got months instead of days to finish the project. I think the film would’ve been better served if we’d have seen more dialogue scenes accompanied by the crew working feverishly, if not even haphazardly, to get the job done.

Grandy: I love the Glengarry Glenn Ross comparison. It seems so obvious now that you’ve said it, and the realization is nearly Shakabuku level. Both movies tell lots of little stories that wind up being in service of a big story, leaning on the performances of their actors to get the real work done. As for the urgency thing, I ultimately agree. I’ve worked construction and I’ve seen the super busy at work but leisurely while on break thing before; every second of break time is cherished (and possibly mandated by law/union agreement). But we really would have benefited from more shots of people working hard. Of Phil getting increasingly pissed at Hank’s slacking, of Phil and Mike getting sick of Jeff’s everything (Jeff has a zen like approach to slacking that only an early twenty-something can have; even Hank would admire it a little bit). I think what we’re supposed to get is that there’s genuine exhaustion during the breaks, and you see glimpses of it (especially from Hank). It’s all too easy to forgive Brad Anderson for this. I suppose it means this isn’t quite a transcendent movie, but it’s still terrific. I think there is one other misstep. According to Tom Chick, Brad Anderson wanted there to be a non-supernatural interpretation for the movie. A lot of pieces are there to do that…except that we get introduced to Simon right from the get-go (though we don’t know what we’re dealing with just yet). I always found that odd; it’s a smaller thing than the urgency issue, but odd.

Chris: I’d never heard that, and I agree. Without Simon, the title of the movie doesn’t make much sense, either. And as you note, it doesn’t really fit when we hear the voice in Gordon’s head. The supernatural angle is just vague enough that I think it leaves the audience able to draw their own conclusions at the end.

Grandy: I think the other thing at work here is that Gordon is basically broken, and the vagueness is in service of this. As is the fragmented way in which we take in the finale. And in re-watching this for the third time since I was drafted into service, I think the alternate theories are important less so for us than for the characters. It’s part of that buy in you mentioned earlier. For the actors, these characters have legitimate reasons to suspect one or more things that could explain what’s going on. Mike and Phil are the only ones who get a sense that things are seriously off-kilter. Phil pays for this realization immediately as it turns out, and Mike comes to the unlikely truth too late.

(Session 9 is available to rent or buy digitally from the usual VOD sources.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)

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