Many of the most enduringly creepy urban legends have invoked the dimension-warping power of mirrors, from Bloody Mary and her many incarnations to the iconic, hook-handed Candyman. Simon Barrett’s Seance utilizes a summoning spell spoken into a row of mirrors in a dark dormitory bathroom to conjure the spirit of a dead student, but the true horror transcends the realm of the spiritual, pointing instead to the cruel hands of humans.
Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) is the latest addition to the prestigious ranks of the Edelvine Academy for Girls, arriving shortly after the tragic (and purportedly accidental) defenestration of a student named Kerri (Megan Best). She is assigned to board in the room where Kerri slept mere days ago, and immediately begins to experience disturbing dreams of an eerie entity in her room. What Camille eventually learns is that just before Kerri’s death, she had participated in a summoning ritual to invoke the Edelvine Ghost—a former student who had slit her wrists—and that the friends present at the ritual fear this spiritual slasher might target them next.
Well-known for penning the scripts for Adam Wingard films like You’re Next and The Guest among other recent horror-thrillers, Barrett retains the essence of his previous writing collaborations in his directorial debut while paying constant homage to the films that inspire this specific project. While it contains a clever blend of horror, thriller and mystery indicative of his existing style, there are also references to countless genre-defying horror films staples, from Dario Argento’s Suspiria to Wes Craven’s Scream sequels. At times this adds an entertaining layer of horror guess-who—which will fare particularly well with the streaming service and co-distributor Shudder’s genre-obsessed subscribers—but detracts somewhat from the constant escalation of tension found in Barrett’s earlier projects. At times, Seance stagnates in a shot or scene meant to evoke a predecessor, but at others, this tactic effuses an effectively sweet haziness—particularly those moments shared between Camille and her budding love interest Helina (Ella Rae-Smith).
In fact, the lesbian romance subplot is executed in such a subtly effective way that at once normalizes queer attraction while subverting certain clichés with which the genre often tends to toy (looking at you, dead lesbian trope). The idea of two flirting teenage girls failing to incite a lesbian witch hunt at an all-girls boarding school shouldn’t be as refreshing as it is, but alas. Doing away with this perspective isn’t thoughtless virtue signaling, either: Seance is much more invested in exploring the liberation of catharsis as opposed to the satisfaction of vengeance, although its body count might fool some. Perhaps this is why the kills feel somewhat less grotesque and chilling compared to Barrett’s earlier horror collaborations. The satisfaction isn’t necessarily in the kill, it’s in the compassion.
However, what makes Seance so stylistically enjoyable can only take the film so far, as there is definitely a lack of exhilaration in the final act of the film in spite of Barrett’s best efforts to turn the tables and raise the stakes. Particularly when compared to the gasp-inducing endings of You’re Next and The Guest, Seance fails to deliver a compelling conclusion to tether the supernatural and mortal planes of horror together.
On all other fronts, the film is solidly satisfying. Yet this is part of the problem as to why Seance isn’t quite as revelatory as some of Barrett’s previous work. Despite helming a generally well-crafted debut feature, Barrett is at the behest of his screenwriting collaborations’ legacy. Aside from this nagging truth, Seance is perfectly good fun, cozying up just close enough to horror hallmarks while having something to say of its own. It’s a seamless blending of Rory Gilmore’s early days at Chilton with the petrifying prep school demons of The Blackcoat’s Daughter. It’s a feat in and of itself that Barrett’s presence is as palpable as it is despite the plethora of allusions.
Director: Simon Barrett
Writer: Simon Barrett
Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Madison Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Inanna Sarkis, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson-Kerr
Release Date: May 21, 2021 (RLJE Films)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.