Believe it or not, today marks the 20th anniversary of Brad Anderson’s Session 9, a brilliant and deeply disturbing little horror film that, in the two decades since its release, has gained one of the more passionate cult followings in the horror community. Maybe it’s the fact that they shot the film on location within the crumbling grounds of an actual, condemned psychiatric hospital. Maybe it’s the stacked cast, which features a murderer’s row of character actors bouncing off one another in raw, unforgettable ways. Maybe it’s the razor sharp script, co-written by Anderson and Steve Gevedon (one of the film’s stars). Whatever the case may be, Session 9’s more popular and more celebrated than ever before.
To which this writer says: Good. Anderson’s Session 9 is one of the best horror films of the new - well, “new”, at this point - millennium, one I’ve now officially spent twenty years recommending to anyone who’ll listen. For the uninitiated, the film concerns an asbestos abatement team (that’d be Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Gevedon, Brandon Sexton III, and Josh Lucas) which finds itself hired to clean out the highly foreboding remains of the Danvers State Mental Hospital. As the men work their way through the building, tensions rise, secrets are uncovered, and blood gets spilled in a shocking conclusion that is all but guaranteed to leave viewers - in the parlance of our times - absolutely shook.
As a die-hard fan of the film, I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion of Session 9’s 20th, and to that end I reached out to both Anderson and Gevedon to see if they’d be willing to take a look back at how their movie came together, how they felt about its ever-expanding fanbase following its unfortunately brief release in theaters, and what it was like being on-set when David Caruso delivered the most satisfying delivery of the line “Fuck you” ever committed to film. Not only were they happy to walk down that particular stretch of memory lane with me, but they also dropped something of a bombshell in my lap: their shared interest in making a prequel to their 2001 original, the making of which is only being held back by … well, I’ll let them tell you.
But we’ll get there in a minute. Let’s start at the beginning...
SESSION 1: Upon deciding to write a horror film together, Anderson and Gevedon found their first bit of inspiration in the Richard Rosenthal case, a grisly double murder that occured in Boston back in the mid-’90s.
Brad Anderson: This was back in the mid-'90s. I was living in Boston at the time, and a friend of mine worked at the John Hancock building where this Richard Rosenthal guy worked, so she knew all about what happened with him. He was a financial analyst. He’s married, has a new child, and what happened was that someone realized that no one had seen his wife and kid for a number of days. The cops came to his home, and they discovered that he had murdered them both and that he’d stuck his wife's heart and lungs on a stake in the backyard.
The guy was pretty normal - educated, y’know? Wasn’t known to have any mental issues. But something snapped. He snapped. And the thing that was to me creepy about it - beyond the horrific, outrageous nature of the crime - was that he just went about his daily routine for a number of days afterward. He was just kind of, like, going about his business. You can’t help but have this vision of a man coming home [at night] and walking past the windows and doors to the backyard and just ignoring the fact that his wife's lungs and heart are stuck out there on a stake, and that his child is dead upstairs. He’s just completely oblivious to it. Presumably, at that point, he’s living in some alternate reality that he created where this didn't happen, or was just so immune to the horror of what he had done that he just ignored it, or buried it somewhere deep inside.
Steve Gevedon: I was living in New York City around then. But the story had made its way down there. It wasn't just a local Boston thing. That was a pretty big story, I think specifically for the reasons that Brad points out. It was just some schlub. One day he was the quiet guy down at the end of the hall in the chocolate factory, and the next day he's, you know, eating fucking dead people.
BA: I remember at the time it was a big cause célèbre in Boston because of its horror, that this everyday guy had done something like this. And ultimately, when Steve and I were brainstorming on the [script], that became an inspiration, as awful as that is, for Gordon's situation. This would be the big rug-pull moment at the end of the movie where you realize that he's killed his wife and child.
SESSION 2: The Richard Rosenthal case was only half of the Session 9 equation. The other half was a condemned former mental institution, Danvers State Medical Hospital, that would come to serve as the film’s setting.
BA: I lived in Boston for a number of years, and I would drive by Danvers all the time. When Steve and I were first brainstorming, we didn't have the framework of what we wanted to hang our horror film on. But then I remembered Danvers, and we thought it’d be cool to set a story [there], for a number of reasons. It would be contained, for one thing, and it would be maybe even more practical in terms of actually doing it, because we could keep it all in one location.
This was a cool idea, but we didn't know anything about that place other than what I had seen driving by. So, we decided to go up there. This was in the early days of the internet, but we discovered some urban explorers - kids generally, young people - who go and explore abandoned subway stations in Manhattan, or, like, abandoned military facilities in Long Island. They had this whole slew of places they'd been, and they posted a lot of photographs of their adventures. And they had been to Danvers.
SESSION 3: Having located their guides, Anderson and Gevedon arranged a not-entirely-legal tour of the building.
BA: There were signs all over saying "no trespassing," giant chain-link fences, the doors were all boarded shut...They knew kids wanted to break into that place to do what we were just about to do. But [our guides] knew how to get in. They had a little back entrance, like a little break in the chain-link or something, but they had a little way to get into the place, and they took us all over. We went to the old patients' wards, we went down into the tunnels, which go all across the property. We went into some of the buildings where they told us that lobotomies were performed. A lot of the little details of the tour at the beginning of Session 9 came out of that tour that Steve and I took. We got really inspired by that.
SG: You wouldn't want to go there at night, man. Like, that would be too much, even for me.
BA: There was a juvenile ward, and there were all these chipped, colorful technicolor paintings, murals on the walls of, like, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. They were a little deformed-looking, and there was something really disturbing about that place.
SG: Yeah, I would say the same. I mean, growing up where I did in Manhattan, I'd done some amount of … well, we didn't call it “urban exploring”, we just called it fucking around [laughs], like over in Hell's Kitchen and on the piers. There were abandoned train stations, stuff like that. So, the idea of going into [Danvers] was more like an adventure. Like, "Oh, this is gonna be interesting."
Where it got creepy was the tunnels. We went into that same tunnel the Brendan Sexton scene is shot in, where all the lights go out? That's the one we broke into. I remember we got about halfway into that tunnel, and to this day I have not been in any environment as pitch black as that. We all had our little spelunking lights on - you know, whatever those cave light thingies on your head are - and one of the guys who was leading us said, "Okay, let's turn off the lights and see how dark it is!" And it was the weirdest thing because you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face. I knew there was me and about five other guys right there, but they just disappeared, and our eyes weren't adjusting. And it was this really strange feeling of being profoundly alone and claustrophobic in the dark. That was creepy.
SESSION 4: With their horror hook and location in place, Anderson and Gevedon put together their script, and - in a truly unbelievable turn of events - managed to secure permission to shoot on the property.
BA: It was a condemned building. I mean, by the time we shot there, the State of Massachusetts had condemned the building. Technically, no one was supposed to be in there. There was asbestos, the floors were collapsing, there were rusty pipes and lead paint everywhere. I mean, it was a disaster zone, much of that building. But somehow, I can't remember, our producers knew someone in the Massachusetts film office who knew someone in the Massachusetts government who was able to grease some wheels and get us permission to shoot there, as long as we stayed within certain confined areas. Like, you know, we weren't meant to go everywhere. Nowadays I think you would never be able to do that. I mean, there are just so many legal issues with shooting in a location [like that].
We were a little run-and-gun, though. Even though we were only to stay in certain areas, we kind of went a little further and went to areas we weren't supposed to be in, 'cause we really wanted to take advantage of the space. We were very fortunate. In Session 9, Danvers is the lead character, and we couldn't have made that movie on a set - or if we had, it wouldn't have had the same import. It would have been something different.
SESSION 5: While Danvers made for an eye-popping setting in which to set the film, neither Anderson nor Gevedon were particularly worried about anything as “hokey” as ghosts … but that isn’t to say the location didn’t come with its own palpable feeling of horror and dread.
BA: Unfortunately, I’ve never had any real encounters of the paranormal, though I’ve always kinda wanted to. I'm one of those people who wants to see a UFO, I want to see Bigfoot, I want to have paranormal experiences, and I've been in situations where I'm hoping it's gonna happen, and it hasn't happened. And frankly, Danvers seems like it would’ve been the most likely place to have an experience like that.
That said, some people tend to have a kind of psychic connection to a place other than what we know scientifically. One person on the movie - Peter Mullan, our lead actor - had a couple experiences he related about how, when we were shooting, he might walk into a room alone and could sort of sense the bad juju of the place, the bad shit that had gone down there. He was really kind of affected by it emotionally, and related that to me.
SG: I think places have vibes, you know? I think of things as prosaic as the restaurant, or the corner shop, [in your neighborhood] that's been five different restaurants or coffee shops in seven years for whatever reason. It seems like there's no good reason for it. It's right there on Eighth Avenue, why doesn't that place succeed? Who knows? But in terms of the supernatural, no. I think there's certainly stuff going on in the universe - and with every passing day, we realize this more - that, from the science perspective, we simply don't understand, and that actually do make things that we thought we understood less understandable. So, I think it's a little hokey to start talking about ghosts, you know?
But nonetheless, to Brad's earlier point, you did feel, like Peter Mullan [did], particularly affected by the space. He said something interesting as well, which I thought had more weight than his personal experience. He noted that... well, you know, when you're on a movie set, it's pretty dull unless you're right around the camera, right? On a movie set, what happens is people tend to wander around. Like, if you're on a set at the Paramount lot, and you've got nothing to do, you're gonna go check out another studio, you might go to the commissary, you might go check out the lot itself. And as Mullan pointed out, nobody wandered around set on [Session 9].
SESSION 6: And now, please enjoy the following exchange about David Caruso and Session 9’s iconic “Fuck You” scene.
BA: ...the what scene?
FANGORIA: Y’know, Caruso's delivery of the line, "Fuck you”. I mean, that's been memed into oblivion by now, and-
SG: [laughing] I didn’t know that! Alright.
FANGORIA: Well, I don’t think either of you are on Twitter. Or maybe Brad has an account and he just doesn’t use it very often…
BA: That could very well be the case!
FANGORIA: OK, well, that moment is now a gif, and there’s not a day goes by on Twitter where I don’t see someone posting it. It’s one of cinema’s best fuck yous.
BA: You've got to remember that this was ... This was before he was doing that one show-
SG: CSI: Miami.
BA: Yeah, with the sunglasses. He hadn't really yet evolved into the David Caruso that he became. So, maybe that was where it all began!
FANGORIA: Did you have any idea he was gonna deliver the line like that? It's such a specific reading.
BA: No! He's not ... You don't really direct [Caruso] as much as sort of corral him in, y’know, and-
SG: Capture the magic, Brad. Capture the magic. You don't corral him in, you just-
BA: Right. He's a very funny guy. He's a funny-
SG: Fireflies in a jar, Brad, fireflies in a jar.
FANGORIA: Well, for a while, he had a reputation as being, ah, maybe a little grouchy to work with, to put it politically.
BA: It's funny, that. He must have been in a good mood when we-
SG: I loved him.
BA: - were shooting.
SG: I'm just gonna stop everybody right here. He's also from New York City, first of all - I think he grew up in Queens, but I'm not 100% - and when we met, we immediately got along with each other, 'cause all we did was give each other shit.
FANGORIA and BA: [laughing]
SG: He came in late to the production, remember, Brad?
SG: And I was in charge of sort of showing him around because everybody else was already either up and running or busy doing other stuff. And he's, just … I mean, he's from New York, and if you're from New York you have to kind of keep that in check, 'cause I've learned the hard way, that what you think is funny, other people do not at all think is funny [laughs].
SG: But I had a great time with him. He was a lot of fun.
BA: Yeah. He brought a lot of needed levity to the set. He wants direction. He's like any good actor, he wants some parameters. But he likes to kind of play around and improvise. It's interesting, 'cause he [shares scenes with] Peter Mullan, who's a Scottish actor - untrained but super great instincts, an amazing actor, that guy, and so natural. I think someone like Caruso is as well, but there's something more mannered about him. So, sometimes in those scenes when they're together, there was a little friction. Y’know, the kinda thing where you've got two actors who have different techniques, different approaches.
SESSION 7: Once filming was completed, a new series of challenges awaited the filmmakers: namely, getting the film marketed and released properly.
BA: I don't think that when USA Films released the film … well, it was a minimal release, and they didn't promote it. In fact, they did everything they could not to promote the movie. They didn't really believe in it, and they didn’t get it.
SG: I remember we were in LA doing the sound mix, and we met with the LA contingent of USA Films [for the first time]. The movie was gonna come out in August, and a guy from the publicity department walked into the meeting and addressed all of us - his staff and everybody from the movie - saying, "So, we're not sure what we have here." And I just remember thinking, "Oh, we're fucked. We're just dead" [laughs]. I mean, it's, like, eight weeks out and the head of the publicity department is confused as to what movie they have. I'm thinking, "Well, even if they wanted to do some sort of campaign, they can't 'cause they don't know what they've got."
BA: I mean, look, it's a kind of movie that's specific to a type of viewer, one that's looking for [what’d now be considered] “elevated horror”. We made it for that very reason, because at the time, in the late '90s, the epitome of horror was, like, the Scream franchise, and we just felt like part of the reason we wanted to do a horror movie was because horror had become a little campy and teen-driven - tongue-in-cheek, snarky kind of stuff. I didn't find movies like Scream to be particularly scary. So, the idea was, let's do something that genuinely gets under your skin and has that sense of dread that we were after, something creepy. So of course when they did promote the movie, they were trying to promote it as something like maybe along the lines of the Scream franchise, and people who [did show up to see it] didn't get that, and so it didn't satisfy.
SG: Another quick anecdote: around that time, out of nowhere, I got a phone call from a friend who said, "Hey, have you heard about this movie called The Others? 'Cause it sounds a lot like your movie." And I remember calling up somebody at USA Films about this, because there wasn't supposed to be a horror movie coming out that weekend, and the guy I was on the phone with said to me, "Steve, Steve - you don't have to worry about that. The Others is a movie about a haunted house. Yours is a movie about a haunted asylum."
SESSION 8: Session 9 may not have set the box office on fire at the time of its release, but its creators are more than happy with the film’s staying power and legacy as a word-of-mouth cult classic.
SG: Yeah, that’s just fantastic. And then to have it have such staying power is ... I mean, that's [just not typical]. We had this discussion when we were shooting, or at least I had this discussion with the other actors, on what is a classic movie. And a classic movie is a movie with an audience, right? I mean, The Godfather is a classic because it did ridiculously well when it came out, but it's also still a great movie 40 or 50 years after it came out. So, we have half of that, which is pretty fucking great, if you ask me.
BA: You're comparing our movie to The Godfather. Nice [laughs].
SG: Well, no, I’m just saying: not a lot of movies last 20 years, where you can watch ‘em and they don't look dated. I've seen [Session 9] recently, maybe in the last five years or so, and I'm like, "Hey, this looks fine! It doesn't look like [dated], we’re not all wearing, like, neon from the late '90s or anything.”
BA: Right. I think it’s all good. I mean, the fact that we're talking about it now is a testament to something in the movie that seems to work, and the fact that it didn't work at the time. At the end of the day, especially nowadays, those things don't really matter. I mean, audiences find movies more than movies are foisted upon them, because you go to Netflix or Amazon or whatever, and you find the movie of your choice. I think audiences now, particularly younger audiences, don't want to be told, "See this movie on opening weekend because everyone else is gonna see it." Now they want to go to Netflix or whatever and find the little hidden gem that no one's talking about, and this movie is kind of like that. So, hopefully more people will discover it in that fashion.
SESSION 9: The good news for Session 9 fans is, Anderson and Gevedon are ready to collaborate on “something creepy” again - they’ve been working on a Session 9 prequel which they’re calling Session 1 … but there’s a catch.
BA: We thought, wouldn't it be cool to do something that relates to the original film? So, the idea was, either it's a sequel, right, set in 2020, or it's a prequel. Ultimately we went with the prequel idea. The general gist of the story was that it’d be about Mary Hobbes, the character in the original movie who’s on the tapes and who has these alternate personalities and who would ultimately realize she killed her family on Christmas Day. Here we’d learn the entire Mary Hobbes story - how she went from being a fairly normal 12-year-old girl in 1959 and '58 to slaughtering her whole family, and why.
It brought in some of the characters from the session tapes that Steve's character listens to in the movie, where you hear Mary Hobbes being interviewed by the doctor. She manifests these different personalities, and we realize that there's something wrong with this little girl, right? And so, our story was gonna be kind of a portrait of madness through the eyes and the lens of that little girl in the late '50s, early ‘60s. It's called Session 1. The movie ended with the first session, which would then become a series of sessions that this girl would go through, and ultimately would lead to Session 9.
So, it was kind of a cool premise. We did a lot of work on it, but this is how it went down: we did it before we talked to the powers-that-be at Focus, which now owns the intellectual property for Session 9, whether they knew it or not at the time [laughs]. We wrote a pretty solid treatment for the script and were really excited about it. We had some producers that were really interested in doing it, and even financing it. And we would have done it run-and-gun just like we did the original.
BA: The problem is, we then went to Focus [ed. note: Focus Features was formed in a merger that included USA Films back in 2002] and said, "We want to do this movie, and it's a prequel to Session 9. It's one of your movies, if you even know about it." And they were like, "Oh." Next thing you know we get the calls from the lawyer saying, "Well, you can't do that. We own that property, and we don't normally allow filmmakers to make sequels or prequels to our movies." And were like, "Well, we made the movie, you know what I mean? [laughs] We just want to make a cool film based on the movie that you made with us, like, 18 years ago." And what it boiled down to was that, on purely legal terms, they just decided they didn't want to move forward with it, and that we couldn't do it.
They said, "Well, if you pitch it to us and we like it, maybe we'll just do it as a movie with you," and we did that, but it turned out that wasn't enough to convince them, either. So, at the end of the day, they just decided that it wasn't worth their while, even though we were gonna bring in the producers, we were gonna find the financing. All they needed to do was give us their blessing to do it, literally. There was no financial investment on their part whatsoever.
But we got caught up in the legal bullshit, and so now we're left with this really cool idea that has a lot of potential, and the producers and money that want to come in and make it, and we can't make it because of a legal loophole and Focus Films. And you can say that, I don't care. There's not any, y’know, ill will or anything. It has more to do with this stupid legal process. When you make a movie you sign a contract that gives the prequel and sequel rights and television rights to the company that made it, and they can decide if and when they want to do that, and trigger it. And in this case, they decided not to.
So, it's too bad, 'cause it would have been a cool movie. Maybe there's still a way to do it, I don't know.
FANGORIA: Would you still be interested if they changed their mind or the legalities were sorted out?
BA: Yeah, I haven't given up total hope. I feel like there might be a way to. 'Cause all you need is one executive at that company who's got the power or the voice to say, "Yeah, go ahead and make it." You know? "We're not gonna finance it, we're not gonna put any money into it, but you can use the name Session 1. You can use the characters in the original movie." And these characters aren't even actors in [Session 9], they're voices in the movie, which is even weirder, y’know what I mean? It wasn't like we're gonna bring back Peter Mullan's character or Mike's character. It's just inspired by the original.
So, anyhow, big disappointment for Steve and I, because we put a lot of work into it. We should have probably talked to those guys before we put all that work into it [laughs]. But I don't know. I still feel there might be a way to thread the needle, because it would be cool to do it, um, and I think that would bring more people to see Session 9, as well; it would be a total hook-in. And the other idea we had was that we'd do that one as the prequel, and then ultimately we'd do a sequel to Session 9 which is set in the here and now, a trilogy if you will. And that would be something that's in the current day, and maybe even at the old Danvers Hospital, which is now condominiums, and you'd do something about a haunted condominium or something.
SG: Right, yeah.
BA: Just make something creepy.
Note: The interview above has been edited for length and clarity. Production stills provided by Brad Anderson, behind-the-scenes shots provided by Russ Fischer. Many thanks to everyone who helped put this interview together.
Session 9 is currently available to rent via the platforms below.