The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Shudder] - SEANCE | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Shudder] - SEANCE

seance review
Following the death of a girl during a prank, pupils at an exclusive girls' school are targeted by a killer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Simon Barrett

Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Inanna Sarkis,  Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson-Kerr

seance poster

Spaghetti westerns of the late 1960s and slasher movies of the early 1980s often shared the same template. A prologue usually showed the death of someone at the hands of a group responsible for their demise. In spaghetti westerns the victim was always downright murdered while in slashers their death was usually through misadventure, more often than not as a result of a prank going wrong. The movie would then cut to some later point in time, when those responsible find themselves targeted by someone out to avenge the victim.

With his directorial debut Seance, screenwriter Simon Barrett (You're Next; The Guest), seems to recognise this curious correlation between two sub-genres that share little else in common.

seance review

Following the established template outlined above, Barrett's film opens with a bunch of senior students at a prestigious girls' academy (so exclusive it seems to be entirely run by a single faculty member with no more than a dozen students ever seen) playing a séance-based prank on a fellow pupil, Kerrie (Megan Best). The girls are shocked to later find Kerrie lying dead in a pool of blood, having seemingly fallen from her dorm room window. Was it an accident or was she pushed? And if she was pushed, was it by a fellow student or by the ghost rumoured to haunt the academy?

Seance begins to take a turn towards the spaghetti western with the arrival of Camille (Suki Waterhouse), a new student taking the place of Kerrie, along with the dead girl's dorm room. Like a tartan-skirted niece of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Camille immediately begins to make enemies, standing up to and refusing to back down from the bitchy clique that runs the school (Barrett repurposes the classic western saloon standoff to the school's canteen). Seemingly visited by the spirit of Kerrie during the night, with her dorm light flickering and a shadowy figure appearing in the darkness, Camille begins to investigate the girl's death. While doing so, other students start to meet their demise at the hands of an unidentified assailant.

seance review

Waterhouse has always been a curious presence. Nobody would call her a great actress but she has a uniquely deadpan manner that's always fun to watch. Barrett has tuned into her exact wavelength here, crafting a taciturn character perfectly suited to the English actress's eccentric charm. In recent years it feels like every actress is getting their own version of John Wick, and I guess this is Waterhouse's. Barrett wrote one of the most memorable genre heroines of the past decade with the protagonist of You're Next, who is introduced as an unassuming girlfriend only for it to be slowly revealed that she possesses what Liam Neeson might describe as a specific set of skills. Waterhouse's Camille comes off like a cousin of You're Next's heroine. She manages to elicit laughs without ever having to wisecrack or deliver punchlines. With her too cool for school delivery, Waterhouse turns otherwise innocuous lines into small moments of comic brilliance. At one point Camille gives a fellow student (Ella Rae Smith's Helina) a baton for protection. When asked if she won’t need the weapon for herself, Camille replies "No, I have… other stuff." Later she knocks on the same girl's door and tells her "My room is definitely haunted, can I stay with you?" On paper those words have no impact but Waterhouse's druggy delivery makes them sound like they were written by IAL Diamond.

Barrett's genre mashup doesn't always work. Visually it's far too flat to evoke the requisite atmosphere, and little is done to exploit the potential of its gothic setting (why is it that the only old buildings in the US are colleges?). Barrett and cinematographer Karim Hussain indulge in visual gimmicks like the use of fish-eye lenses, which do little to enhance the mood or move the story along.

seance review

Surprisingly the horror aspect of Seance is its weakest element. It's far more successful when it's playing out its High Plains Drifter in a girls' school subplot, thanks to Waterhouse's performance, which I genuinely believe is one of the year's best in any genre. Amid all the over-the-top genre referencing, there's a surprisingly realistic portrayal of the awkwardness of teen romance in the relationship between the cool Camille and the shy Helina, two girls dying to jump each other's bones but terrified into inaction by the thought of rejection.

There's little to convince that Barrett has a career in directing ahead of him, but at its best Seance does for the spaghetti western what Rian Johnson's Brick did for hardboiled detective dramas. Barrett has a lot of fun transplanting a very masculine genre into a world of teenage girls, and frankly, I'd rather face a pistol-packing bandit over an angry 17-year-old girl any day.

 is on Shudder from September 29th.

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