Death is never easy to accept…
…And whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s clear that we as a culture like to believe in their existence, because it means that death is not an end, but rather a new beginning. There’s something comforting about that. It allows for hope. Hope that our loved ones are never completely out of our reach. But talking with the dead isn’t cheap. There’s always a price to pay.
Writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest) has taken a seat in the director’s chair to tackle the subject of ghosts with his feature directorial debut, Séance, and the result is a spooky though messy film that may have one too many candles burning for this ghost.
An entry in the all-girls school terror genre along the likes of Suspiria and The Woods, Séance is set at an academy where new student Camille (Suki Waterhouse) has just arrived, following the death of another student. Not one to let herself be bullied, Camille has an early run in with Alice (Inanna Sarkis) and friends, resulting in detention. While there, the girls decide to host a séance to learn what happened to their deceased friend, believing it may have had something to do with the legend of the Edelvine Ghost. Soon after, the girls begin disappearing one by one, and it’s up to Camille and the others to figure out what’s haunting them before it’s too late.
Séance is a film that has a ton going for it…at first.
Opening on a Bloody Mary-inspired call to the Edelvine ghost—a student who supposedly killed herself in her dorm and now haunts the halls—Barrett establishes an eerie tone paired with low-lighting and flickering lights that reign all throughout. One practical joke and a dead body later, and Séance gives a taste of its full potential, with a beautiful shot from cinematographer Karim Hussain resting on a fresh corpse in the snow, blood pooling around her, Sicker Man’s elegant and creepy score itself sounding like a séance calling to the dead.
The scene is just a taste of Barrett’s exceptional skill in creating atmospheric dread. With this film, Barrett has already proven himself to be an exciting director in horror. There’s an eerie elegance to the terror in Séance that calls back more to the old school, slow-burn ghost stories of the 70s rather than the jump a minute spookfests of now. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, but Barrett’s film is one that is patient, taking it’s time to light all of its candles before blowing them out in one shocking gasp.
Séance is unlike a lot of modern haunt fare, because it isn’t just a haunting film. Instead, it feels more like Suspiria meets Cry Wolf with ghosts through it’s fascinating blend of spirits, practical jokes, and slasher film approach.
Early on, we learn that our cast of Mean Girls wannabes, which includes head biotch, Yvonne (Stephanie Sy), smarty pants Bethany (Madisen Beaty) and the only person who’s actually nice to Camille, Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), are all a bunch of pranksters. Love them or hate them, these are girls who have had the idea of competition drilled into them, and are constantly searching for ways to have any kind of fun, even if it means having it at the expense of others. It’s a brilliant set up, because once a masked killer shows up, it becomes a story of “the girls who cried ghost”, with adults who don’t believe a word of it. The endless pranks also leave the audience wondering, is it all a joke? Is it the ghost doing the killing? Or is it something/someone else? Even after you think you’ve figured it out, Séance keeps you guessing until the very end.
A mystery is nothing without a good cast of characters, though, and this is where Séance begins to slip. Waterhouse is great per usual, and has moments where she is on fire that had me pumping a fist as she makes clear to the others that she is not someone who will stand for your fuckery. The others do well enough in getting the audience to dislike yet understand them, while Smith, the ex-friend of the initial deceased girl, carries the emotional weight of the film in an impressive performance. The problem is, there’s just not a lot of depth to anyone outside their tropey personalities, and even Waterhouse arguably plays the role a little too reserved. It’s rare that we feel any real fear from the cast as the mystery builds. It’s difficult to feel connected to the characters when they are at times literally shrugging in the face of terror.
To make matters worse, Séance eventually runs so many threads that they begin to get tangled in a bloody knot following a strong first half. Blending a ghost story with a slasher and a practical joke subplot that makes us question everything makes for an intriguing mystery, but Séance fails to capitalize on any of it. The ghostly elements rarely materialize as anything more than flickering lights and strange shadows in the background, while the slasher elements are reserved, with most kills relatively bloodless and happening off-screen. Séance does each well enough, but is exceptional at neither. And the prankster subplot? Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the reveals and motivations in Séance are some of the most disappointing, confusing, and ill-thought out that I expect to see in the genre all year.
All of the above is especially head scratching when you consider the R-rating, because Séance comes off like a teen horror film for those brave kids seeking something darker, but likely won’t satisfy anyone seeking a truly frightening ghost story or a hardcore slasher film.
Despite a script that is perhaps too ambitious for its own good, Séance is a solid debut for Barrett on the directorial side that has me anxious to see what he’ll haunt us with next. He’s certainly got my ghost, Bob.
By Matt Konopka