Synopsis: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.
Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Michael
Director: Simon Barrett
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: What terrific fortune is this? Two respectably good female-led slasher films released within weeks of each other? Can it be? After a long dry spell with a pile of duds and clunkers, an eerie wind of change is blowing and bringing with it revitalized energy to a genre that was barely standing. Early May’s Initiation was a clever subversion of the typical college-set slice and dice thrillers that populated many cinemas throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving tired tropes an entertaining dust off. Now along comes Séance with its spooky boarding school setting and Craft-ian vibes to send some chills through your screen. What both films may lack in overall budget and the benefit of a release via a larger platform, they more than make-up for in playful deference to their treasured inspirations.
I could understand some dubious feelings about Séance at first glance, because I had them too. The original poster with pouty girls in school uniforms in front of a foreboding dormitory made it look like one of those generically terrible Redbox cheapie titles that come out of nowhere and offer little return for your overnight fee. A closer inspection (and a better poster) unveils some pedigree behind the scenes and that was enough to get me signed up for writer/director Simon Barrett’s feature debut. A screenwriter on respectable genre outings like You’re Next and The Guest, Barrett also penned the attempted reboot of Blair Witch in 2016 that was better than many gave it credit for. Teaming up with Dark Castle Entertainment (the production label responsible for remakes of House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and original titles The Apparition, Ghost Ship, Gothika, and Orphan) and streaming service Shudder, Barrett was able to get this one made during the pandemic without sacrificing any of its effectiveness in the scare department.
The exclusive Edelvine Academy for Girls is supposedly haunted by the spectre of a former student that died under mysterious circumstances. At least that’s what the group of girls attempting to call her spirit forth late one night in a dark bathroom mirror are hoping for. Saying her name into their reflections several times doesn’t produce the result they are expecting, but it does leave one skeptic so frightened that she winds up dead later that night. Was it an accident, was it the spirit, or was it someone else with a razor-sharp axe to grind? The tragedy leaves an opening for a new student, though, and Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) is the next name on the list.
Failing to make a great first impression to the headmistress (Marina Stephenson Kerr, The Grudge, a sort of B-list Michelle Pfeiffer) after getting into a nasty fight with HBIC Alice (Inanna Sarkis) before she can even unpack her bags, Camille doesn’t fit the new girl mold in kowtowing to existing hierarchies or ways of doing business. Instead, she asserts her dominance from the get-go and isn’t above landing or taking a punch from Alice or any of the other girls that run in her gang. (Side note: when did girl fights get so crazy? Camille refuses to move from Alice’s table and in response Alice punches her several times right in the face for her ‘crime’. Yeow!)
Camille does manage to find some people she likes; shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith, The Commuter) was friends with the girl who recently died and Trevor (Seamus Patterson, Books of Blood) is the son of the headmistress and a handyman/boy around campus. Through them, Camille learns more about the “accident” and other strange goings-on around the school, just in time for her detention to begin with the other girls for their opening day fight. While they’re cleaning out and organizing a musty section of the school, they decided to press their luck and try out another séance, but this time their ceremony definitely brings something into reality…a slinky killer that begins to swiftly chop away at the girls.
As he has with his previous scripts, Barrett makes efficient use out of his dialogue and doesn’t waste a lot of time with extraneous tangents. It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, nor is it intended to be. However, there is a mystery at the heart of Séance the audience is meant to figure out and clues are dropped along the way to help those paying close attention unravel in advance of the Big Reveal (one of several, I might add) near the end. Barrett also excels at creating strong female characters that fight back, not just those that have a surge of energy when they most need it, either. These are women that are prepared and not helpless and I like that he seems to have that in mind as he develops the story. The idea of victimhood isn’t at the forefront of his mind and none of the women in the movie are portrayed as feeble or lacking…only in terms of perhaps coming up short in the conscience department.
There is a nice overall tone achieved and more than a few sly frights along the way. With the scary comes the silly and a dance sequence with some questionable skill level is one you’ll just have to bite your tongue through. It’s also worth noting that it took my partner and I a full forty-five minutes to decide if this was a prep school or a college because the ages of the actresses are so varied you can’t quite tell the academic institution they are attending. If you’re looking at Waterhouse, it should be a college. Then you look at Madisen Beaty (To the Stars) and you’d believe it could be a boarding school for children of rich parents.
Nitpicks and a few plot holes aside, Séance is one I think horror fans can join hands and get their arms around with ease. It’s well made and at brisk 92 minutes moves at a nice clip, dotting it’s time with the appropriate amount of momentum so that it doesn’t experience that middle sag which can drag a lesser film down. It joins recent feminist slasher films in skewering expectations without beating audiences over the head with any agenda to do so. Would be a great Saturday night choice or could even be enjoyed as a late afternoon watch if the clouds grow dark and the rain falls.