By Scott Dorward
Seance (USA, 2021)
Seeing Simon Barrett’s name attached to a film always piques my interest. I’ve been a fan of his work since such early films as Dead Birds and even Frankenfish. His star has risen since and he has written some of the better horrors of recent years, including You’re Next and The Guest. Even when his films haven’t quite worked for me, I’ve still found them interesting. Until now, however, he’s only directed either short films or segments of the V/H/S anthologies. Seance is Barrett’s directorial feature debut and I’ve been excited to see how he’s fared in this new role.
Legend holds that a ghost haunts Edelvine Academy, an elite girls’ school. One night, a group of students gather to contact the spirit. Something goes wrong, wrong, and Kerrie, one of the girls dies violently. Was her death suicide or was she killed by sinister forces?
A short while later, a new student, Camille, arrives at the academy, taking the room once occupied by the dead girl. She soon falls foul of the popular clique — the same girls who performed the ill-fated ritual. After a violent altercation, Camille and her rivals end up in detention together, digitising books in the spooky old school library. Of course, they largely ignore their task and start conducting séances instead, apparently contacting Kerrie.
As Camille experiences more and more intense ghostly manifestations, members of the clique disappear or die violently. Have the girls called up something dangerous or is there a more human threat at work here?
I always appreciate when a horror film doesn’t waste time drawing us in. The opening of Seance is a great lesson in economy, introducing most of the main characters in a scene that sets the tone, offers some chills, and ends in violent death. Within the first five minutes, we get a good idea of just what kind of film we’re watching.
That’s not to say that Seance holds no surprises. This is a mystery story, filled with secrets and hidden agendas. The core mystery is fairly straightforward, with the complications it leads to providing intrigue. The twists and turns are largely predictable if you pay even minimal attention, leading to a resolution that is more of an emotional release than a revelation.
Tonally, Seance pretty much plays things straight. It has the kind of simple, direct approach that allows for an unironic shower scene. While Barrett clearly expects viewers to be familiar with genre tropes, there are no knowing nods and his tongue says firmly out of his cheek.
Barring the aftermath of the opening death, the first hour or so is pretty bloodless. What violence there is either happens off-screen or is dealt with swiftly. I found myself wondering if Barrett had downplayed any gore to secure a PG-13 rating. Then the third act came along and there was blood everywhere. One death in particular, involving a decapitation, is so gloriously over the top that it’s more slapstick than horror. This isn’t a criticism — it provided some much-needed relief in an otherwise fairly humourless film.
The soundtrack is one of the high points of Seance. The minimalist synth work evokes some of the great scores of the ’80s without feeling like a Carpenter knock-off, as so many do. This would be a much less effective film without it.
I’m really not sure what to make of Seance. While I was perfectly entertained, it always felt like it was missing something. Maybe the build-up was a bit too coy, holding back aspects most of the audience had probably already worked out. Or it could just be the premise seems to offer more complexity and weirdness than it actually delivers. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a simple story told well, and that’s what we have here.
The last act did go a long way towards winning me over, however. After almost an hour of teasing and hinting, it finally let loose with some wonderfully bloody pay-offs. The character arc of Camille, while predictable, is still gratifying. She is no simple final girl, sharing DNA with her counterparts in You’re Next and The Guest. Maybe I would have been happier if we had seen more of it early on.
I certainly can’t find any serious fault with Seance. What criticisms I have, now I analyse them for this review, are more nitpicks than flaws. And yet I still can’t shake the feeling that I should have liked Seance a lot more than I did. Ultimately, however, taste is subjective. Your enjoyment of Seance will owe more to your own preferences than any problems with the film itself.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!