Boarding schools are creepy and most if not all of them are haunted. That is, according to the students who typically regale outsiders, eyes shining, of the untold horrors that supposedly took place inside otherwise charming old buildings still somehow deemed fit to house hundreds of them. There is something undeniably spooky about a creaky structure, filled with dark corners and dusty rooms, where young people are meant to both learn and live — there has to be, otherwise there would be nothing to pass the time on those endless boring nights after lessons are done. But what happens when these campfire stories become undeniably real?
Seance is the latest in a long line of movies to find terror within the walls of an educational institution. The feature directorial debut of Simon Barrett, who up until now has been known as “and Simon Barrett” alongside longtime buddy and frequent collaborator Adam Wingard, the film tackles themes of bullying, identity and classism while telling an impressively scary story. Seance could almost be described as a paranormal slasher if that’s even a thing (filmmakers: please don’t make it a thing). A lovely opening shot, richly textured with some lightly falling snow, sets the tone, the warm cinematography by Karim Hussain (who also shot Brandon Cronenberg’s thrilling Possessor) making everything feel homely but also strangely unsafe.
Barrett’s title font is presented in ultra-feminine pink cursive, which matches the nearly all-female cast, many of whom are also POC in a move that never feels like pandering since everybody is given plenty of room to make an impression. The heroine is Camille (British actress Suki Waterhouse, using her own accent for once), a new student at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls whose arrival occurs almost immediately after someone has died by suicide, presumably after falling victim to a cruel, Bloody Mary-style prank. Barrett cleverly subverts expectations in the opening sequence, set in a dimly lit bathroom, during which it appears Seance is following the rules of a typical by-the-numbers ghost story before its true, nastier intentions are laid bare as a group of mean girls pick off the weakest of the herd.
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Camille later meets the gang herself and even gets into a physical altercation with their fearless leader, Alice (Inanna Sarkis), landing everybody in detention. It’s here that the titular séance takes place, as these naïve young women attempt to contact their deceased friend to find out what really happened to her. Lipstick and a smartphone are utilized for the act, which is very fitting for a bunch of teenage girls. It also allows for some genuinely tense moments as the answer to whichever question is being asked gets slowly scrawled out in blood red. And, naturally, it’s super girly, too. Everything about Seance is loudly, proudly feminine and female focused, in fact. If one didn’t know this was Barrett’s work, it could easily be mistaken for that of a female filmmaker, which is no small feat.
Of course, since this is a story about death, regret and a possibly haunted boarding school, it soon becomes clear that there’s another malevolent presence operating within the walls of Everline, one who’s hellbent on revenge and swiftly begins picking the girls off in increasingly gruesome ways. All signs point to the restless spirit of poor Kerrie (Megan Best), but is she really out to get her friends or is it more likely new girl Camille has murderous tendencies? To Séance’s great credit, there’s actually a decent little mystery at its heart which unravels gradually and has a satisfying conclusion that’s somehow equally surprising and logical. Plenty of modern slashers care more about kills than character, but Barrett gives equal time to both.
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The moments of bloody violence are evenly spaced out, so they have more impact, while the gore gradually increases in intensity. “Jump scare” has become a pejorative term lately, but this is yet another example of how well they can work when executed correctly. Barrett worked on some of modern horror’s finest films, including You’re Next and the criminally underrated Blair Witch, so it’s unsurprising he knows his way around a scare. Each one is expertly executed; Barrett knows exactly where to place the camera to throw even seasoned horror fans off the scent, and his timing is spot on, too. The Canadian location is steeped in history and provides much of the film’s spooky atmosphere, but it takes a real talent to exploit all those nooks and crannies like Barrett does. He finds creepiness in flickering lights and creaky floorboards in a way the Paranormal Activity series could never even hope to.
A well-choreographed library fight hints at what the first-time director could do with a bigger budget, each move cleanly executed and the geography abundantly clear throughout — it’s also the first battle in recent memory where one participant wears PJs. Smart uses of diegetic music are sprinkled throughout, seemingly hinting at a certain artificiality, almost as though what’s happening onscreen is being filtered through a lens rather than presented as is. Seance shares DNA with Oz Perkins’ soul-destroying February (AKA The Blackcoat’s Daughter), particularly with regards to the setting and female leads. This is a far more straightforward story, but the incidental music cues hint at something larger going on, just outside the periphery. Perhaps Camille is engineering her own story or inviting the audience to take a deeper look at what they’re seeing.
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There’s a blood-on-snow motif early on, too, a classic image that should be used more frequently in horror movies. Meanwhile, the school uniforms, basic witchcraft and clique-y mentality all reference The Craft. In fact, as the spirited Helina, Ella-Rae Smith bears a remarkable resemblance to a young Rachel True, whose work in that seminal teen movie is only now fully getting its due after years of her being tossed aside as the only Black cast member. Although Waterhouse leads the charge in Seance, it’s thankfully the rapport between Camille and Helina that powers much of the narrative. There are hints throughout the movie that there may be something romantic brewing between them. Happily, Barrett treads carefully rather than forcing the issue and fumbling the ball, as in the recent well-meaning but ultimately dissatisfying Sound of Violence.
Allowing Waterhouse to speak in her own voice results in a less stiff performance than the clearly gifted actress gave in her other major leading role in Ana Lily Amirpour’s apocalyptic horror film The Bad Batch. Camille is difficult to get a read on, and the former model has a great time hinting at her backstory whether her character is messing up ballet steps or punching another student in the face. Smith plays a sweet, somber ally in an unwelcoming new environment, but she too imbues Helina with hidden depths. Although Seance takes place over a short period of time, Barrett’s tight script — unsurprisingly, the established writer knocks it out of the park once again — hints at lives lived outside of the scope of the film. The first-time director doesn’t succumb to overly determined storytelling either, preferring to slowly drip-feed clues throughout.
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There’s a sense that Seance is a slighter affair than the films it most closely resembles (although it’s worth noting The Craft hasn’t aged particularly well). But it’s rare a movie like this, which utilizes elements of both the slasher and the ghost story (two of the most overdone and overpopulated subgenres in horror), and which also has a strong sense of social justice (with an almost entirely female cast), that manages to be so entertaining, surprising and scary. On this evidence, Barrett won’t be part of an “and” much longer.
Seance is available to stream exclusively at Shudder.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.