There’s a lot of tried and true genre staples adhered to in Simon Barrett‘s Séance. Having cut his teeth over the years with writing credits for such horror efforts as V/H/S, You’re Next, and Blair Witch, Barrett’s flair for skewering expectation has often been his wheelhouse. Marking his directorial debut, Séance, whose title alone announces its thematic premise, initially appears to stick so devotedly to the formula you’d expect that you can’t help but feel disappointed… until you are completely blindsided.
For much of Séance‘s 92 minute running time, it plays things rather safely. The setting – the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls – is ripe for horror shenanigans, the clique of characters all fit nicely into their archetypal descriptions – the nice girl, the bitch, the underling, etc – and Suki Waterhouse makes for a fitting “final girl”, a new student whose arrival at the school comes as the Academy deal with the mysterious death of one of their pupils.
There’s something supernatural running afoot within the walls of Edelvine, and it doesn’t take long for Waterhouse’s Camille to be roped in with the other girls who have a penchant for elaborate pranks, often revolving around séances and communicative activities with the supposed deceased. Is this why we already have one dead student? Of course! What’s quirky about Séance‘s footing though is that there’s very little in the ways of clues or red herrings to let audiences in on what exactly is taking place. Rather, the body count simply rises that it’s more a process of elimination, leading to a finale that decides to throw caution to the wind and place the supernatural element on the backburner – a decision that will either make or break the film for its viewers.
Whilst it’s been a serviceable film to this point, perhaps even a little pedestrian, Séance‘s climactic sequence is so wild, so gory (some practical effects and giallo influence go a long way), and so knowingly funny that it’s almost as if Barrett is apologising for keeping things rather calmative to this point. A slasher element is also introduced that seemingly undoes much of the supernatural mentality it has been selling us on too, yet there’s still a mixture of the two that, against all odds, manages to actually make sense in the context of the outlandish narrative Barrett plays with in these final moments.
As wild and visually appealing this final is, it also can’t help but feel like it does a disservice to the rest of the film that came before. It’s a rather methodically paced film for the most part, and for Barrett it’s shockingly “safe”, but it’s certainly not without its intrigue. It’s simplistic but engaging, and its characters – stereotypical and shallow as they are – are suitable for the narrative outline we are working with. Waterhouse makes for a likeable and formidable lead – even if we feel like we shouldn’t entirely trust her – and it’s her commitment to both the facile and freakish components of the story that keep the film consistently afloat, both when its playing by the numbers and extravagantly rebelling against them.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Séance is now available to stream on Shudder.