Seance Review-Simon Barrett And Suki Waterhouse Pair Up In Perfectly Structured Slasher

A less is more approach to an old school slasher serves Seance well in Simon Barrett’s directorial debut that is a twisty good time.

Simon Barrett’s throwback will remind you of a ton of late 90’s guilty pleasures but with gentler ascetics and the pouty moodiness only seen in teen girls. Barrett clearly loves these types of chin forward movies. The kinds of films that rebelliously declare themselves not just watchable but loveable. That nostalgic indulgence can come across as pandering, but it is an addictive pleasure that defies you not to enjoy it in Barrett’s accomplished hands. Seance is a perfect homage to the era while forging entirely new ground. Barrett has a bright future.

Set in an isolated boarding school for girls, hierarchies and scholastic pressures take center stage. The throwback ghost story opens with the obligatory late-night mirror gag. A group of students plays a Bloody Mary-style game that ends in a shocking death. That vacancy opens the door for new girl Camille, Pride Prejudice and Zombies, and The White Princess’s Suki Waterhouse, who is no one’s punching bag. Camille is a real departure from typical female protagonists. Yes, she’s new, but she doesn’t give a shit if you want to be her friend and is even less concerned with your intimidation tactics. She isn’t an obvious hero, but nor is she anyone’s victim. Camille is an exciting mix of hard and soft that is unique to these sorts of movies.

The highly coveted spot at the impossibly named Edelvine Academy for Girls is all Camille cares about. Of course, the new girl is hustled right in and installed in the dead girl’s room. Although lights flicker and strangeness ensues, Camille isn’t one to be toyed with. There is a healthy amount of wariness that combines with her tough-girl persona. Visual cues, as well as internal motivations, hint at her secrets long before they are revealed. Her refusal to be cowed by Queen Bee Alice is immediately apparent when she pops Alice in the face after one too many insults. Although they look and feel like the ’90s, it’s moments like that which are decidedly fresh.

This is Barrett’s directorial debut, having previously penned. You’re Next and The Guest, along with the segments of the stellar V/H/S. He has a unique ability to set up expectations and then twist the knife figuratively and literally. Seance is the kind of film where characters take late-night showers right after learning of ghosts haunting the halls and their friend’s disappearance coinciding with a creepy cross left in her bed. Their decisions are borderline preposterous, at the very least dubiously stupid. Somehow these choices are more fun than annoying. When these cardboard cutouts of dumb victims get theirs, it’s satisfying. It’s the equivalent of culling the herd. We don’t care about them, and they do nothing to propel the story further other than giving the slasher something to slice and dice. It is efficient story-telling at its best.

Amidst all the stalking and bloodletting, there is a fair amount of humor. Waterhouse’s Camille is a nonplussed final girl that never loses her sarcastic wit even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. She is a find that Barrett puts to good use. Without her subtle “over it” attitude, the film wouldn’t be as fun. The rest of the cast holds up their end of the bargain with Ella-Rae Smith, who did great work in AMC’s Into The Badlands and the underseen found footage film Butterfly Kisses, playing curious and sweet Helina and Seamus Patterson(Trevor Landry), who you last saw in Books Of Blood providing just the right amount of quirky weirdness.

Courtesy of RLJE, Shudder, and Phantom City Creative

Most of the violence takes place just off-camera, which efficiently saves a buck and conveniently allows for some interesting resolutions later on. The group of girls who become fodder for a killer hell-bent on murder are hardly memorable. Like most films of that era, those who die don’t matter, and their character development proves that. They are placeholders for archetypes seen in any high school setting. The It Girls and their perfunctory hangers-on serve as sacrificial lambs and nothing more. The onslaught of just unseen victims is the place setting for the final twist that, although somewhat transparent, is nonetheless deliciously gratifying.

Seance presents as a formulaic call back to supernatural thrillers like Suspiria and The Awakening but with the body count of Valentine. With Barrett’s clever eye, the expected becomes elevated and updated for a modern audience. The best parts are guessing the twist before they come and watching Waterhouse’s Camille take more than her share of punches. Seriously, the girl is a badass with a concrete jaw. Camille isn’t a chic to be trifled with, and that is part of the fun of Barrett’s no-frills screenplay.

There’s a slouchy indifference to the bullshit her fellow students are dishing out that extends to the killer. No one seems to care too much about anything, which is refreshingly self-aware. Everyone takes themselves way too seriously while simultaneously pretending they are too cool for school. That kind of dichotomous conceit perfectly captures teen girl dynamics despite everyone looking like they are in their mid to late twenties.

The synth-heavy soundtrack perfectly captures the sound of these movies without taking over. Straight out of the nineties, the tingling plinks of creepy uneasiness are auditory cues for those less indoctrinated viewers. Barrett’s film takes you by the hand and leads you confidently through the moody halls of a bygone time. When killers occasionally broadcast their intentions and victims kind of deserve it. Seance is fun and campy and never disappoints.

Seance asks you to buy into the mystery of the whole thing. Are their ghosts? Is there a killer on the loose? Is Camille who she says she is, and why is she really at Edelvine? All of these things get answered by the end. Barrett’s script is cogent and efficient, and the performances are effectively delivered. It’s a fun summer movie perfectly timed for a world coming out of hibernation. You can catch Seance on VOD and in theaters everywhere.

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