On Wednesday, September 29, 2021, horror streaming service Shudder will introduce a new serial murder movie to its library, Seance. The movie was written and directed by Simon Barrett, an experienced horror writer whose previous credits include You’re Next (2011) and Blair Witch (2016). Seance, however, is his feature directorial debut. The cast includes a few somewhat recognizable faces including Suki Waterhouse (The Divergent Series: Insurgent) and Madisen Beaty (Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood). If you’re wondering what a filmmaker can do with the serial murder genre that hasn’t already been done, you’ll be disappointed to hear that Seance does absolutely nothing to answer that question. The movie briefly gestures to some intriguing and unique horror themes, but in the end, it turns out something like Scream Queens (2015-2016) stripped of any and all creativity. Seance could have been a cringey disaster – but thankfully, the cast gives solid, natural performances that hold the movie together.
This particular iteration of the slasher genre takes place at Edelvine Academy, a competitive boarding school for girls where some of the brightest high school students in the country study subjects like ballet and theater history (and compete for quarter-million-dollar college scholarships, apparently). The movie begins with an initiation-like prank gone wrong. Mean girl Alice (Inanna Sarkis) teams up with one of her henchwomen to spook their friends as they pretend to summon the fabled Edelvine ghost. Surprise, surprise, the prank turns fatal. With an unexpected opening in the Edelvine dorms, a new student named Camille (Suki Waterhouse) soon arrives to take the place of the recently deceased student. Alice convinces Camille and some of the other girls to participate in a seance so they can talk to their dead friend and find out if she was truly a victim of the Edelvine ghost. But when the students of Edelvine start dropping like flies, the girls begin to wonder if they accidentally invited an evil force into the school.
Seance isn’t trying to be a horror masterpiece. It’s the kind of movie you might watch once out of boredom and forget about two weeks later. However, it could have been a bit more fun, at least. Don’t let the cursive pastel-pink lettering in the opening credits fool you – even though Edelvine would have been the perfect setting for a campy baby-doll-pink aesthetic, the film is plain, grey, and gloomy from start to finish. It’s not even gloomy in a spooky way – it’s just downright bland. “Edelvine Academy” sounds like it might be a delightfully twisted old building with looming gothic architecture, but the set design is half-hearted and inconsistent. While the classrooms and library look like they belong in a fun haunted mansion attraction, the dorms are drab and unimaginative. Aside from the front gates of Edelvine, the exterior parts of the school don’t give off the spooky vibes that a ghost-ridden academy should. The outside of the school looks like it belongs in a Hallmark horse movie rather than a Halloween flick. Barrett attempted to give the movie some eerie vibes by making Edelvine a technology-deprived school that still uses projectors, microfiche readers, and an old-fashioned library cataloging system. However, Edelvine’s lack of modern technology seems more like a forced plot device than anything else (especially since the school has enough money to be giving out quarter-million-dollar scholarships).
While the final “big reveal” scene in Seance is mildly interesting, the overarching story is surprisingly tame and predictable coming from such a seasoned horror writer. Seance very briefly addresses a few important issues, including corruption within the education system and bullying, but these underdeveloped themes are more convenient than creative. These hot-topic issues crop up at random points in the story with no foreshadowing or development. The plot itself is a progression of foreseeable events that a horror-writing bot could have arranged just by analyzing a few slasher scripts.
The characters aren’t much better. Alice is a textbook mean girl who’s unreasonably obsessed with pranks, and she doesn’t change or grow at all throughout the course of the film. Camille is the same reserved, self-important, mysterious new girl that we’ve seen in teen movies and young adult literature time and time again. The school’s director, Mrs. Landry (Marina Stephenson Kerr), a tight-bunned ballet teacher, may as well have been plucked up from the original Susperia and dropped into Seance as a stock character. Thankfully, the cast takes their roles seriously and gives natural performances, adding as much subtle emotional depth as they can. While the characters in Seance might not be the most interesting or original, they’re at least watchable and believable.
While Seance has its merits, and it’s certainly not the worst thing to watch on a spooky fall evening, it offers absolutely nothing new to the horror genre. Still, it’s not trying to be the next great serial killer thriller, and it doesn’t tout itself as a unique or creative work of art. It’s a formulaic quick-flick designed to take up space in the infinite library of streaming content, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. When you look at it that way, you can’t deny that Seance at least fulfills its purpose. And we certainly need movies like this... after all, what else would we fall asleep to?
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."