Since we’re talking horror films, I think it’s only appropriate that we talk Scooby-Doo. Like most adults my age, the misadventures of the Mystery Machine were my first exposure to ghosts, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night (at abandoned amusement parks). It’s safe to say that, as a kid, Scooby-Doo was by far my favorite cartoon (until that punk Scrappy came along, that is), but when the live action movies arrived, I was at a loss. Despite a nostalgia-fueled desire to want to want to see the Scooby-Doo Movie, I had an even greater urge to avoid it. At the time, Lars summarized this succinctly by observing that the film “wasn’t made for me” – that I simply wasn’t its target audience. I had grown up; Scooby hadn’t. Point conceded.
Over the years, there have been plenty of movies “made for me” that I still had no desire to see or, if I did, that I failed to appreciate. Since our focus right now is on horror, I’ll specifically limit that list to films like The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Paranormal Activity, and, most recently, Insidious – films that all have their ardent supporters and that all were marketed to “me” but which will never make my short list. My first thought was maybe that I was getting too old or too fickle for my own good, but then films like Let the Right One In and The Human Centipede come along and I enjoy them both, each on its own very different terms. Perhaps I’ve just seen so many horror films that it takes more and more to get my blood moving; yet, every repeated viewing of The Exorcist or The Shining is as good and chilling as the first.
What I came to realize is that – much as with sex, food, and vacation spots – I’ve developed certain horror predilections over the years. Fortunately, I’ve narrowed them down to a short list. Haunted houses and/or spooky environments are key. Whether it’s the Overlook Hotel or the demonic coal town of Silent Hill, surround me with terror that can come from any angle. Next, give me smart and proactive protagonists, not screaming, twitchy idiots. One of my favorite horror films is The Changeling because I’ve always held that if George C. Scott is scared, I should be scared too. Also, the less CGI, the better. (If you need proof that “state of the art” doesn’t necessarily mean scarier, see Jan de Bont’s modern remake of The Haunting.) Finally, know how to dish out both surprise and suspense. Here’s the difference between the two: surprise is when the hero backs into an unseen killer and leaps into the air, suspense is when audience knows that the killer is in the room but the hero doesn’t. Suspense builds tension; surprise releases it.
Given that most of our esteemed Halloween guests have picked older films, I decided to go with something more contemporary. Something which not only met all of my requirements — and then some — but which was somewhat obscure. And so, I give you Session 9.
Unfortunately, there’s not much that I can say about the plot of the film without treading into spoiler territory, but I think that a simple logline (cribbed from IMDb) will be enough to grab you (or not): Tensions rise within an asbestos cleaning crew as they work in an abandoned mental hospital with a horrific past that seems to be coming back. That the team is composed of not-easily-scared actors the likes of Peter Mullan, David Caruso, and Josh Lucas makes the proceedings all the more unsettling, but the real star of the movie is Danvers State Insane Asylum itself.
Founded in 1878, the State Hospital for the Insane at Danvers was built on Hathorne Hill in the rural outskirts of Boston. In the 19th century, there was an explosion in state-funded mental health programs, with each asylum seemingly trying to outdo the last. One of the most popular styles of institutional architecture was the Kirkbride building, with its “bat wing” design of two wings (one for the men, the other for the ladies) extending in opposite directions from a central administration building. Pioneered by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, superintendent of the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane, the concept was intended to promote a more comfortable, natural, and productive environment for the patients. At the time of its construction, some believed that the sprawling Danvers hospital would never be filled, but as government-run facilities have a tendency of doing, the hospital eventually became overcrowded multiple times over. During the second half of the 20th century, psychiatric policies and methodologies changed while budgets were repeatedly cut. In 1992, after more than 100 years, Danvers closed its doors forever.
Just looking at the photo above, it’s not hard to imagine that Danvers, in all its raw, decrepit beauty, would make an amazing setting for a horror film. Of course, if you’re a Boston-based, rising independent filmmaker who just happens to drive by the hospital each day, you make the natural leap and actually start working on said film. Up until that point, director Brad Anderson (who would next go on to make The Machinist) was mostly known for the indie romantic comedies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents, so a horror film would certainly buck the direction in which his career was naturally heading (although Anderson’s first film credit is Frankenstein’s Planet of Monsters!). The first step for Anderson was to call friend and Happy Accidents star Stephen Gevedon and piggy back on a group of “urban spelunking” teens for a look inside the cordoned off Danvers. From there, all it took was a unique but reasonable reason to introduce characters into the situation – a hazmat team cleaning up the building prior to its demolition – some history of misbegotten psychiatric practices, and inspiration from a famous Boston murder case, and Anderson and Gevendon had themselves a story worth telling.
What makes Session 9 work so well, outside of the magnificent setting, is the extremely grounded and adult nature of the proceedings. There are no shrieking teens, wise-talking sidekicks explaining “the rules”, or lumbering superhuman killers. No, these are characters weary of parenthood, worried about paying the mortgage, and contemplating the wrong turns they’ve taken in life. Moreover, they are characters made real by some of the finest actors alive, in particular Peter Mullan and David Caruso. It’s a sparse movie that not only lets the tension and the suspense build, but also leaves much of the mystery open to the viewer’s interpretation. The result is a true masterpiece of adult horror – a creepy, unnerving film that, among haunted house movies, ranks up with The Shining for me.
Session 9 was released in 2001. Unfortunately, in 2005, the Danvers hospital property was sold to a developer and the vast majority of the buildings were torn down. A portion of the main brick shell was kept and turned into apartments. Interestingly, some claim that the hospital’s vast network of underground tunnels still exists.
As for the drink, not only is the Ward Eight remarkably tasty, it makes for a very fitting companion to the film. At its core, we have a classic whiskey sour that adds a nice splash of grenadine in place of the sugar and orange juice in place of half of the lemon juice. Our recipe comes from the Robert Vermiere version courtesy of Erik Ellestad over at Savoy Stomp, which scales the whiskey down a bit from David Wondrich’s version at Esquire.com (Wondrich offers a quite different recipe in his book Imbibe! ). Variations on the Ward Eight are so plentiful, Wondrich tells us, that when the drinks reporter for the New York Sun called for recipes many a year ago, he received 400 replies.
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass
Despite the multitude of conflicting recipes, there are a few points about the drink on which most everyone seems to agree. It comes from Boston and originated just before the dawn of the 20th century. As luck would have it – just like Danvers Asylum. Unfortunately, the drink doesn’t take its name from the hospital’s eight wards but from Boston’s eight political districts, also called wards. But, really, is there any difference between a political ward and one in an asylum?
So, when the kids are out trick-or-treating or safely tucked away for the night, having surrendered to sugar comas, turn down the lights, whip up a few Ward Eights (actually, make the drinks, then turn down the lights), and check into one of the creepiest places that ever existed. They have a room waiting for you.
Esoterica: Speaking of misbegotten psychiatric practices, here’s some PBS footage on the origins of the lobotomy: