REVIEW: Seance [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 92 minutes
    Release Date: May 21st, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: RLJE Films / Shudder
    Director(s): Simon Barrett
    Writer(s): Simon Barrett

Edelvine Ghost, rise up to us.

A teenager took her own life two decades ago and the prestigious Edelvine Academy hasn’t yet escaped the cloud formed above its roof as a result. Rumors of the “ghost” run rampant and jokes to scare new students with Candyman-esque rituals bringing her back to haunt them have become a rite of passage. It’s not until the present-day, however, that someone actually conjures her. By speaking the words at the exact time of her death in the exact place she died, Alice (Inanna Sarkis) and her clique of friends find blood and screams in the bathroom. Is it real? Is it another gag? Either way, Kerrie (Megan Best) pays the price with a drop to the pavement out her window. Now there’s two victims with more to come.

This is how we enter Edelvine at the start of Simon Barrett‘s directorial debut Seance. It’s a welcome mix of humor, gore, and scares similar to You’re Next (his most popular horror script)—everything working together to set the stage and welcome a newcomer into the fold via Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse). A long-time wait-lister with aspirations of resumé perfection, young women like those attending this school are often too focused on the endgame to care about what transpired along the way. Is it disconcerting that Camille’s spot opened up because her predecessor killed herself in the room that she’s suddenly calling home? Sure. But these things happen in high-pressure environments. Why not let something good come out of such unspeakable tragedy by taking advantage of the opportunity?

That Camille’s first day finds her in a physical altercation with Alice, Yvonne (Stephanie Sy), Lenora (Jade Michael), Bethany (Madisen Beaty), and Rosalind (Djouliet Amara) is hardly putting the best foot forward for headmistress Landry (Marina Stephenson Kerr), but it certainly proves her refusal to back down when provoked. Since neither she nor new friend Helina (Ella-Rae Smith) point fingers at those who ignited the incident, all seven are assigned detention. But why actually complete the work given to them when they can continue their journey into the occult from before? Maybe another séance can supply some answers about what happened with Kerrie. Maybe it can shed light on the presence Camille has felt in her room since she’s arrived. An unknown evil is definitely watching them all.

As with most slasher films, the central mystery is whether the supernatural force at the back of the characters’ minds is causing the carnage or if someone real is using their collective fear to wreak havoc from the shadows. One by one they are picked off and their reactions are all seemingly genuine enough to believe the former even if some combination of the two seems more likely. Add Mrs. Landry’s son Trevor (Seamus Patterson) to the equation and there ends up being a lot of potential suspects with little room to exonerate themselves when curfews and responsibilities keep them separated while each crime is committed. Soon they’ll turn on each other—at least those who remain alive—as secrets we didn’t know existed are revealed.

The result fits nicely into Barrett’s oeuvre with the main difference being that Séance skews a bit younger both in setting and orchestration. There’s still enough gore to earn its R-rating, but these are teens with petty grievances and catty grudges trying to decide whether the superficial animosity keeping them at odds goes deeper into homicidal rage. We may not be kept on our toes for the duration (pieces fall together pretty rapidly for fans of the genre), but there does always seem to be one missing detail whenever we do know what’s happening. Rather than subvert things as a rule, Barrett often leans into tropes to lull us into a false sense of security before adding a deviation that both fits and surprises enough to stay fresh.

Doing so does make it so the third act feels rushed and perhaps incomplete as those deviations force us to instantly accept them as truth rather than as natural plot progressions. Just because it all works intellectually doesn’t mean it doesn’t cross our paths through convenience. The good thing is that those quick one-eighties keep us engaged in the moment regardless of how they may fall apart with hindsight. We let the ride wash over us as the dominoes tumble—something that’s missing from the first two acts of set-up. One could argue the middle third is actually pretty slow and repetitive by comparison since its work to push the walls in is all about preparing us for what’s coming instead of providing us its own independent panache.

Our investment is thus in the characters’ ever-evolving dynamic. Because while Camille and Helina are on the outside looking in, the rising danger for all ultimately dissolves the barriers between everyone. We pull for Waterhouse and Smith as the “good” ones, but Michael, Beaty, Amara, and especially Sy earn sympathy too by the end. Sarkis is the sole outlier doubling-down regardless of the risk because she’s used to being the campus alpha and you can’t blame Barrett for allowing it since we need a good foil to ensure we keep Camille separate as the hero. She’s the one without attachments (and perhaps the one person deemed worthy of the Edelvine ghost’s help). The question then remains whether answers come as a result of Camille’s sleuthing or untimely demise.

[1] (T-B / L-R) Ella-Rae Smith as Helina, Suki Waterhouse as Camille, Djouliet Amara as Rosalind, Madisen Beaty as Bethany, Inanna Sarkis as Alice, and Stephanie Sy as Yvonne in the horror film, SEANCE, an RLJE Films and Shudder release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder.
[2] [L-R] Ella-Rae Smith as Helina and Suki Waterhouse as Camille in the horror SEANCE, an RLJE Films and Shudder release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder.
[3] A still from the horror film SEANCE, an RLJE Films and Shudder release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder.

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