Directed and written by Simon Barrett.
Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard have been cinematic partners for years now and are responsible for such cool horror films as YOU’RE NEXT, THE GUEST, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, V/H/S One and Two, and BLAIR WITCH. While I don’t know if they’ve official announced their break-up, but the two filmmakers seem to have gone their separate ways with Wingard moving on to big budget blockbusters like KONG VS GODZILLA and the upcoming THUNDERCATS adaptation and Barrett is sticking to his horror roots and taking on both the writing and directing reigns for his new film, SÉANCE.
THE BAD BATCH’s Suki Waterhouse plays Camille, a new student at the Fairfield Academy, an esteemed boarding school for well to do, but sometimes rambunctious girls. Camille is filling the opening left when a student committed suicide by jumping out of her window. Upon arrival, Camille runs afoul of a group of the bad gals of the school, leading to a fight on her first day and landing the whole crew in detention. This is where the titular séance occurs as the gals reawaken a restless spirit and then start disappearing one by one. Is the school haunted by a vengeful ghost or is there someone else knocking off the students?
SÉANCE is a supernatural slasher mashup reminiscent most of the original THE CRAFT, along with plenty of other boarding school horrors like the recent BOARDING SCHOOL, THE MOTH DIARIES, THE WOODS, and THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, and classics such as SUSPIRIA, PHENOMENA, THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, and BLACK CHRISTMAS to name a few. Barrett isn’t above homage and nods to other films, as seen in quite a few of his previous films. Throughout SEANCE, he treads along very familiar pathways with gals sporting unkempt Catholic school girl outfits, playing mean girl games, flirting with lesbianism, and rebelling against the stern establishment represented by a headmistress with her hair pulled back into a bun tighter than the lips of her frowning face. Though the cliches are abundant, Barrett juggles the supernatural chills with more tactile slasher thrills along with these cliches to keep you guessing just what kind of horror film this is all the way through.
Barrett is a capable director, not above a jump scare or two, but proficient in setting up some subtle and unnerving scenes as the gals start dropping like thin and pretty flies. There is an especially good scene that takes place in the shower that might not be the most original, but still delivers the scary goods. I felt about two-thirds of SÉANCE was a compelling watch, building an interesting mystery, and highlighting a few young female actors that will most likely be names in the near future. Suki Waterhouse definitely has the looks. She’s a stunner and while she needs to work on emoting a bit—she kind of has that thousand-yard stare one often associates with models and strippers, she carries this film nicely as a strong lead and is especially fierce in the final reel. Another standout is THE CLOVEHITCH KILLER’s Madisen Beaty as one of the smarter gals associated with the mean girl pack. Beaty is another good looking gal, but has a Barbara Gordon/Batgirl kind of quality with her red hair, sleight build, and intelligent demeanor.
I said, I liked about two thirds of SÉANCE and by that, I mean, it kind of feels like the whole film skids straight off the rails by the end. While mysteries are tough to pull off because the big reveal often requires some kind of expository vomit session by the baddie to the bound hero, one would think a cinephile such as Barrett might not fall into that tired trap. Well, one would be wrong. Not only do we get a Scoobie-Doo unmasking close to the end, but one of the more complicated explanations along with it. Now, some might say that Barrett is pulling another one of his homages, but with a film this riddled with cliches, you at least should try to make your finale count as something original. Why make a movie if it’s all homage? It feels as if that late in the game, Barrett kind of knew he needed to spice the end up because a film that up to that point had been a subtle and suspenseful mystery with little bloodletting morphs jarringly into a splatter-fest with beheadings, throat slashings, and all out fights to the death. Now, I love that stuff, but it is all so uneven here, as if Barrett realized the film was too subtle and did a last minute battle royale to save himself some horror cred. And after that, we get yet another character spouting expository chunder to make sure all of the mystery is explained to the cheap seats.
Barrett has turned out some extremely twisted and memorable horror films in the past. I don’t know what happened with SÉANCE, but it really feels like a misstep that could have ended in a much more nuanced way, avoiding the exposition laden dumps, and working these revelations within the scenes in a more dramatic fashion. SÉANCE shows that Barrett has potential, it’s not all bad. It had me up until the hour ten mark. But it turned out to be a film that ended up feeling uneven, leaving me with a resounding “what the hell?” rather than the gasp I think Barrett was going for.