Session 9's tagline says "fear is a place," and the Kirkbride Complex of the vacant Danvers State Hospital is an inspired choice of a scary place. The massive, Gothic complex was built over ground honeycombed with tunnels on property connected with several people involved in the Salem witch trials. The Danvers hospital had a fearsome reputation among New England residents and was immortalized in H.P. Lovecraft's stories as the Arkham Sanitorium. Once the most expensive building constructed by the state, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has since been renovated as the Avalon Danvers apartment and condominium complex. Caveat emptor, perhaps.
Danvers State Hospital was created out of compassion for the mentally ill, but Kirkbride's progressive ideas were not shared by the taxpayers whose money built the place, and budget cuts reduced its staff even as its population swelled to four times its designed capacity. Patients were committed for trivial reasons, and at one point a staff of 9 cared for a population of 2,300. Many mental health professionals failed to see the value in Kirkbride's gentle approach to patient care, and painful, experimental procedures such as lobotomies, hydrotherapy and electroshock were used for control as much as they were for treatment. When still in use, the building was regarded as a place of horrors. Paranormalists believe it to be one of the most haunted locations in the US. Brad Anderson, at the time a film school professor who passed the location daily on his way to work, recognized the location's potential as a setting for a movie.
Session 9 features a realistic mix of characters whose various backstories all connect to the plot. This allows the story to be told through realistic dialogue and plausible events. The movie has an intelligent feel due to its well-researched coverage of asbestos removal, psychology and the hospital's history. Even with its surprise ending it has more rewatch value than most films, because of the many levels of detail that reveal themselves on repeat viewings.
Gordon (Peter Mullan), assisted by Phil (David Caruso), runs an asbestos removal company that tours the abandoned Danvers State Hospital in preparation for a bid on cleanup work. Curious about why an empty building would need an armed security guard, they learn that the building is constantly broken into and that many former patients try to return.
The building itself is imposing. Few scenes take place outside of its grounds, and the hospital is the real star of the film. Its layout is compared to the shape of a giant bat, which does nothing to lighten its impression. No cleanup or renovation had been performed between the hospital's closure and the start of filming, so the things on the walls and floor are really what was there. There is also something less physical remaining there, something that knows Gordon and Phil's names.
Gordon won't talk about it, but is under severe stress. His first child has just been born, his wife apparently has a bad case of post-partum depression, and Gordon is in financial trouble. He needs the job badly, and makes a lowball bid that promises to complete the work in less than half the time it should normally take. His crew comes with built-in tensions. Hank (Josh Lucas) stole Phil's girlfriend, and Phil is itching for an excuse to fire him. Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is a law-school dropout who sees himself as above the fray. He spends every spare moment exploring the building to indulge his fascinations with law and psychology. Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is Gordon's nephew, an eager but inexperienced and immature young man.
A flickering light draws Mike's attention to a box labeled "Evidence," and some presence is released when he opens the box. The tapes within are recordings of a series of therapy sessions with a multiple-personality patient named Mary Hobbes. Her various personalities are interviewed as the therapist tries to pry out information concerning a Christmas Day incident 22 years prior. These alters are childlike personalities except for an elusive one named Simon, of whom the others are terrified.
Hank also finds an object of fascination: a cache of old coins hidden in a wall. This gives Hank his means to an imagined better life, but when he returns at night to retrieve his treasure, he runs into...something. He disappears and Phil finally gets to replace him, but Gordon thinks Phil's involved and confronts him angrily. Phil in turn is concerned about the state of Gordon's psyche. The atmosphere becomes increasingly confrontational and paranoid, and Hank is discovered wandering the halls confused and wounded. Mike escapes to his basement retreat and cues up the final audiotape, the one labeled "Session 9." This is the one where Simon appears, and all hell breaks loose upstairs as Simon gives his calm and sinister narration of that past day's events, which have a connection to the present moment.
Even when the ending is known, it's handled in an interesting way, and there are many prior events and lines of dialogue that take on new meaning. The connection to Mary and Simon is hinted in numerous ways throughout the film. There is a constant atmosphere of dread until the bloody ending. It always feels as though there's a danger, but until the end we have no idea why. The events could be interpreted as purely psychological, although Simon is clearly not an imagined being. Still, Simon didn't cause anyone's breakdown, he only steps in to influence people who already are weak. This is similar to Mamiya's role as an enabler in Cure.