Combustible Celluloid
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With: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Ella-Rae Smith, Madisen Beaty, Jade Michael, Djouliet Amara, Stephanie Sy, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Djouliet Amara, Seamus Patterson
Written by: Simon Barrett
Directed by: Simon Barrett
MPAA Rating: R for bloody horror violence, language and some drug use
Running Time: 92
Date: 05/21/2021

Seance (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Forbidden Planchette

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Opening Friday in theaters, as well as on demand and digital, Seance might not reach the calibre of something like Scream, but it is a horror movie that's smart about how horror movies work.

It begins with a late-night ritual in a bathroom of the Edelvine Academy for Girls, as a group of students attempt to call the Edelvine ghost, the spirit of a girl who died there.

One, Kerrie (Megan Best), is skeptical, but nervous. At first nothing happens, but then a noise comes from one of the bathtubs. A curtain is whooshed aside, and a tub is somehow filled with blood.

Then, a figure arises from the murk, long, stringy hair over its face.

It's a good, creepy scene. But... it's a prank, played by clique leader Alice (YouTuber Inanna Sarkis).

From that point on, the rules are established. It's never clear which scenes are pranks, which are nightmares, and which are real ghosts or murderers... or some combination thereof.

Nonetheless, the stunt sends Kerrie dashing back to her room, and the next thing anyone knows, her lifeless body is on the pavement below.

As in Dario Argento's 1977 masterpiece Suspiria — to which Seance pays homage — a new girl will fill the vacancy.

She is Camille (Suki Waterhouse), who arrives during a drifting snowfall. Everything is hushed and still, and Camille herself seems somehow frozen on the inside, speaking in flat, no-nonsense tones, with not a wasted word uttered.

She makes friends with the sweet, shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), but immediately gets in bad with Alice and her diverse crew, which includes Bethany (Madisen Beaty), Lenora (Jade Michael), Rosalind (Djouliet Amara), and Yvonne (Stephanie Sy).

After a full-on fistfight, the headmistress sends all of them to detention in the gloomy basement library. Sharing a kind of uneasy truce, they soon decide to perform the title séance, summoning Kerrie, which, unfortunately, sets off a series of murders.

Seance is the feature directing debut of screenwriter Simon Barrett, who usually works with director Adam Wingard. Their films You're Next and The Guest also tried to subvert genre conventions.

Additionally, the pair worked on the horror-savvy anthology films V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, and V/H/S/2; Barrett cut his teeth directing the wraparound sequence for the latter film.

For Seance, Barrett has Italian cinema on his mind, from the luscious font of the opening and closing titles to the heavy amounts of spurting, gushing gore when the killings get started in earnest.

And, as in Suspiria, these girls even study ballet!

In one sequence, Yvonne practices her twirls. The stage around her is decorated with tall, white columns framing creepy mannequins dressed in bridal gowns. The scene recalls another classic, Mario Bava's 1964 Blood and Black Lace.

It's so creepy that we can almost forgive the fact that Yvonne is there at all, committing standard horror stupidity: alone, in the dark, with her headphones on, and a murderer on the loose.

More than just an homage, however, Barrett employs the moodiness of the Italian masterpieces to help deliver his scary set-pieces. Due to the general stillness, nothing is telegraphed.

When a knife slashes or a grabby hand suddenly lurches out, the mood also makes the motion more shocking.

But it has a side-effect. It makes the movie a tad less emotional than it could be, especially given the nature of some of the movie's one-on-one relationships.

Characters in this story are inherently lonely, and seem able to attach themselves only to one particular person.

Their tentative relationships should feel more intense and more fragile. In particular, a final farewell could have been much stronger if Barrett could have lifted the mood for a moment, and allowed Waterhouse to carry it.

Waterhouse, who is also a model, is not ordinarily so subdued. With a resume already full of genre films, she has shown an appealing wild side in movies like Assassination Nation, and Ana Lily Amirpour's underrated The Bad Batch, as well as the New Year, New You episode of Hulu's horror movie series "Into the Dark."

Barrett does allow her to get tough in Seance, especially when she jumps into action to solve the murders. "I don't care. But whatever it is I don't want it to happen to me," she deadpans. But a little more tenderness could have worked wonders, too.

Even so, this is a good debut, with the atmosphere and the story winning the day. Barrett also gets credit for including a scene in which the entire plot is explained to the heroes — James Bond style — but done in a way that doesn't feel dumb or phony, and is just the right amount of cleverly cockeyed.

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