You have to ask yourself, at a certain point while watching Seance, how many bodies have to pile up before someone decides to shut down the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls, where every student seems to double major in bullying and pranking and no one does any actual school work? Sure, one or two deaths might have been a suicide, another an accident, but at the first sign of a possible murder (either by ghostly or human hands), this place should be padlocked and the keys thrown in the ocean. This and many other questions entered my mind while watching writer/director Simon Barrett’s second work as a director, after making a name for himself as a writer with such scary standards as You’re Next, The Guest, and A Horrible Way to Die.
The film opens with a small group of girls pranking Kerrie (Megan Best), who is so rattled by a fake seance that she goes to her room and jumps out of the many-stories-high window. Or at least that’s the official version of the story. Either way, the incident has left a vacancy at the school, which is quickly filled by Camille (Suki Waterhouse), who immediately runs afoul of the mean girls’ queen bee Alice (Inanna Sarkis) and becomes a target of their renewed bullying, despite the fact that they may have just killed another girl doing the same thing. And before long, the girls are back attempting a seance to contact the recently departed Kerrie, with some degree of success. The rest of the film is a series of people getting scared or attacked by unseen forces in their rooms and one death after another, some perhaps more deserved than others.
Horror stories set in private girls schools are nothing new in the horror genre, and Barrett does his best to create a mood and mystery around his tale that is both familiar and somewhat uniquely his own. Like You’re Next, Seance features a bit of a ringer hidden in its group of characters. In other words, one of the girls is a bit more qualified to fight back when called upon, and that ramps up the action more than your average scary movie. There’s only one major male character in the form of Trevor (Seamus Patterson), the headmistress’s son and the school handyman, and one of the only people in the film who is kind to and supportive of Camille. But since he’s the only guy in the movie, we have to assume he’s going to reveal himself to be trouble at some point.
The not-so-secret weapon in Seance is Waterhouse, who has a proven record of being a complete badass in films like The Bad Batch, Insurgent, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Assassination Nation. Camille is just enough of a mystery to keep us curious about the inevitable reveal about her past and her current mission at the school, and just enough of a threat to let us know she will not be taking any crap from anyone as she investigates these strange happenings. Barrett gives the film a timeless quality that makes it feel like it could take place at just about any point in the last 50 years (that is, until cell phones start showing up). The film’s only major disappointment comes in the final act as the truth is ultimately revealed about a variety of things going on—the revelation seems both too tidy and too ridiculous, with the exception of Camille’s connection to everything.
While watching Seance, I found myself gravitating to Barrett’s commitment to mood and raw creepiness. The girls are so generically mean that I’ll admit, I didn’t care one way or the other who lived or died, with Camille being the exception. As a writer, Barrett has always been at his best when deconstructing certain horror tropes and building his stories around things that feel familiar but are often made more interesting by defying expectations. Seance does that somewhat but not nearly enough to make it truly great. There’s an energy and fun that kept me engaged, but that much-needed creative spark is missing, and it hurts the film in the end. Still, thanks to some striking visuals and a gripping lead performance, I was with it most of the way.
The film is available in select theaters and via VOD.
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