“It’s not a nice place.”
Brad Anderson’s Session 9 has developed a healthy following since its premiere at the start of the new millennium, and its deserving of that ever-growing acclaim. A terrifically creepy descent into supernatural-infused madness, the movie’s greatest strength is the atmosphere created by the location itself ‐ an abandoned mental hospital with beautiful architecture masking the ugliness within.
The film is hitting Blu-ray from Scream Factory next week, and along with an improved picture and some new interviews the disc recycles a previously available commentary track.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Session 9.
Session 9 (2001)
Commentators: Brad Anderson (director/co-writer), Stephen Gevodon (co-writer/actor)
1. The opening image of the wheelchair with restraints in the empty hall was the first to come to Anderson’s mind while writing the script.
2. The casting of Peter Mullan and David Caruso was meant to show two men at contrast with each other. The former seems to encourage sympathy while the latter gives off a “more menacing” vibe.
3. The entire film was shot in and on the grounds of the abandoned Danvers hospital including a handful of sets they built on the property. There’s actually at least two exceptions to this including a brief shot later in the film of Phil (Caruso) at a bar back in town and the short scenes in front of Gordon’s (Mullan) house.
4. There really was “asbestos, mildew, and toxic substances” throughout the hospital that added to the occasionally difficult shoot.
5. The idea at play here is that “if you’re prone or susceptible to a kind of madness then this place, this building which is so haunting, will somehow allow those demons to come in.”
6. The clippings and images taped to the inmate’s wall were based on what they actually found on some of the walls as well as what they were told constituted some kind of art therapy. “What I was trying to go for here was this sort of creepy, sort of juxtaposition of images that represent happiness and joy with images of abject poverty, sadness, and tragedy, as a way to sort of allude to split personalities.”
7. Anderson was worried about Mullan’s Scottish accent, but happily few people seemed to see it as an issue. “He does sometimes do that Scottish slurring of words.”
8. Brendan Sexton III, who plays Jeff, was “wary of the mullet” his character sported. It’s a hairpiece, and he initially removed it after shooting but eventually grew tired of the process and just kept it attached throughout production.
9. The guard’s exposition regarding the hospital’s closing was based on the real scandals and issues that led the hospital to close its doors for good.
10. Anderson showed Mullan the brief shot of the spider attacking the insect in its web and told the actor that it defined his character’s path.
11. Test screenings resulted in strong suggestions to cut down the scene where Mike (Gevedon) tells the Satanic repression story. Audiences felt it went on too long, but happily Anderson ignored their requests. “We had in mind from the get-go this movie was gonna be a movie that took its time.” They weren’t interested in making an “MTV-style horror movie.”
12. Anderson believes this was the first film shot on HD 24p.
13. The library room where Mike listens to the session tapes was actually a coffee room for the hospital staff. They scoured the buildings for objects to populate the room.
14. They had discussions early on and through the editing as to how much of a supernatural edge to allow. The original script made things very clear and plausible as “very much a clinical interpretation of mental illness and insanity, but as we started to cut it together we realized audiences wanted it to be a little more spooky and ghostly.”
15. At its peak the hospital housed 4000 patients and staff. “At one point back in the ’30s and ’40s it was so overcrowded that they had patients sleeping in the subterranean tunnels.”
16. The actors had their own ideas as to what the film is ultimately about with Mullan’s being that it’s essentially an American tragedy. Anderson agrees and included the shot of the broken American flag window to accentuate the idea.
17. The two unnamed characters who Gordon sees talking to Phil originally figured into the film later, but the additional scene was cut. We still see him smoking the weed he purchased from them though.
18. The graveyard seen in the film was built by the production, but it’s modeled on the real one nearby. “It was just an anonymous, sort of pauper’s graveyard where they buried patients, awful, they never even identified them on headstones.”
19. Gordon was based on an actual incident in Boston involving an insurance salesman who returned home from work and killed his wife after discovering she had burned the ziti. “He went ballistic, killed her, proceeded to cut out her heart and lungs and stick it on a stake in the backyard, and then went back to work for a couple days.”
20. A cell phone rang while they were filming the confessional scene between Gordon and Phil. Rumors of Caruso’s short temper turned out to be false, perhaps in part because the phone belonged to Anderson. “Had it been a PA or something it could have been dangerous.”
21. The goal with Rob Millis’ score (as Climax Golden Twins with Jeffrey Taylor) was to let it be “very experimental and sound montagy, and less sort of musical.” They crafted themes for different characters and events ultimately creating “layered motifs” throughout the film.
22. The image of the figure in the white hazmat suit being doused in blood was created on the spur of the moment when they found themselves with a spare ten minutes. Anderson’s assistant was the lucky guy splashed with Karo syrup.
23. The scene where Gordon, Phil, Mike, and Jeff are arguing in the stairwell and hear footsteps running across the floor above was originally part of a subplot involving a mysterious figure (a homeless woman) roaming the buildings. “When we lost that subplot in the final cut they now must be Hank (Josh Lucas), right?” Anderson thinks that’s not as “clean of a storyline” but says sometimes “you have to live with the inconsistencies.”
24. Gevedon was not originally a fan of the title Session 9.
25. Gordon’s story is meant to parallel that of Mary Hobbs, the woman on the session tapes, and draw connections between the murders they commit, the memories they repress, and their need to wake up and remember.
26. It’s subtle, but when Phil calls Gordon on the radio at the end saying “We found the one, the one responsible,” it’s meant to be a ghost voice. The clue, in addition to it taking place after Phil has been murdered, is the lack of a walkie talkie squelch on Phil’s end.
27. “Caruso did six different versions of this scene,” says Anderson, referring to the scene where Gordon walks in to find Phil standing over Hank’s dad body. They tried it straight, over the top, underplayed, and campy. “It’s hard, because what is he, he’s a ghost!”
28. The awl going into Larry Fessenden’s eye is the film’s only CG shot.
29. They had an alternate ending (available on the Blu-ray) where Gordon dies, but they found the idea and image of him being the only living soul left in this building to be a haunting one.
30. Neither of them say goodbye or thank you to end the commentary ‐ both pretty standard sign-offs on these things ‐ and instead just disappear. It’s actually pretty fitting.
31. Filmmakers and films commented upon or referenced as inspirations include My Name Is Joe, Stanley Kubrick, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Don’t Look Now, 2001, Plan 9 from Outer Space, 9 and 1/2 Weeks, and The Shining (obviously).
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“There’s something creepy about something horrific going down in broad daylight.”
“Every movie needs its midget in a red coat.”
“Caruso, alone, having a beer. No one likes him.”
“Strip off all your clothes and sit on this asbestos covered pipe and hang out here for a couple hours.”
This remains a terrific, understated, and frequently chilling film, and the commentary reveals the different thoughts as well as the trial and error that went into its production. Some people knock it for its decision to play fast and loose as to whether it’s supernatural horror or psychological thriller, but that’s both missing the point and beside the point. The movie works beautifully as both. If you don’t already own it on DVD this new Scream Factory Blu-ray is the way to go for the step up in picture quality as well as the new special features.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.
Session 9 [Blu-ray]