There are a lot of horror movies set at boarding schools—almost always all-girls’ boarding schools—and they tend to follow the same template: a new student realizes something is off about her surroundings. Seance starts down that same path... but it sprinkles in some unexpected elements once it gets going.
Directed and written by Simon Barrett—who makes his feature directorial debut here but has several horror films on his screenwriting resume, including You’re Next, The Guest, and Blair Witch—Seance begins as many classic 1980s slashers do, with a prank that’s meant to be innocent (but is also kinda cruel) going horribly, horribly awry. Students at Edelvine Academy don’t have many recreation options on their isolated campus, a place full of shadowy buildings with creaky floors and incessantly flickering lights, so the popular girls have become fond of exploiting the school’s ghost legend for funsies. The movie’s prologue shows us cool-kid wannabe Kerrie (Megan Best) being duped by their scare tactics—and then plunging from a window after something apparently otherworldly follows her back to her dorm room.
The official line on her demise, according to icy headmistress Mrs. Landry (Channel Zero’s Marina Stephenson Kerr), is that she “slipped and fell.” We learn this thanks to the inquisitive new girl who’s arrived to fill Kerrie’s suddenly vacant spot at the prestigious institution: Camille Meadows (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Suki Waterhouse), whose fuck-around-and-find-out energy immediately rubs the resident mean girls—led by Alice (Inanna Sarkis), the mastermind of the ghostly prank that led to Kerrie’s death—the wrong way. It doesn’t take long before a fight breaks out, and Camille, Alice, and the rest of Alice’s mean friends (Stephanie Sy as Yvonne, Jade Michael as Lenora, Djouliet Amara as Rosalind, and Madisen Beaty as Bethany), along with Camille’s only ally, the kind-hearted Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), are stuck working an archiving project in detention together. It’s a convenient story turn that means the girls have to spend a lot of time prowling around Edelvine’s cavernous library and storage rooms. What better setting to hold a seance and try and contact Kerrie’s seemingly restless spirit?
It’s around this part of Seance that you begin to realize Barrett has been peppering the script with little clues that hint where the story is heading—but they’re often so subtle and seamless you might not pick up on them the first time you watch the film. For all the talk of hauntings, this is also when an obviously corporeal killer clad in a Noh mask (something all the girls had to craft as part of “theater tech” class; the idea of masks seeps into Seance’s larger themes too) starts creeping around and claiming victims. Misdirection is the name of the game in Seance, as the increasingly freaked-out girls try and piece together the origins of what they believe is the malevolent “Edelvine ghost,” possibly a student who died under mysterious circumstances in the ancient year of 1998. Throughout, it’s not hard to see that despite her British accent, the streetwise Camille isn’t quite the posh transfer student she’s pretending to be, though her motivations—like nearly everyone’s—are murky until Barrett starts ripping off everyone’s metaphorical (or literal, as the case may be) masks in act three.
If Seance ends up feeling familiar—it is, after all, a rather blatant homage to 1980s slasher movies—it’s hard to feel cheated at its conclusion. The performances are all engaging, especially Waterhouse as the steely Camille and Sarkis as the ruthless Alice. The production design, which blends the “old dark house” brand of gothic horror with 1970s retro flair (the synth score by Sicker Man is particularly notable in this regard), provides the ideal backdrop for a story that borrows from the past but also adds in some distinctively 21st century elements, like text-message intrigue. It also includes sparks of a queer romance that feel like a completely natural part of the story, not a source of drama within it or something shoehorned in for titillation. And ultimately, it digs into social anxieties—fitting in, surviving in a brutally competitive environment, figuring out who your true friends are and who’s ready to stab you in the back, the sinking realization that some people are just nasty to the core—that are nearly as terrifying (and far more relatable) than anything supernatural.
Seance arrives in theaters, on-demand, and on digital on May 21.
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