Seance. 2021. Directed & Written by Simon Barrett.
Starring Suki Waterhouse, Madisen Beaty, Inanna Sarkis, Ella-Rae Smith, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Micael, Djouliet Amara, Seamus Patterson, & Marina Stephenson Kerr.
Dark Castle Entertainment / HanWay Films / Ingenious Media
Rated R / 92 minutes
Horror / Mystery
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
There may be bias here for several reasons. I love Simon Barrett’s writing, ever since I first watched Dead Birds on a whim after purchasing it second hand at an old video rental shop in my hometown. I also won an impromptu contest Barrett and Adam Wingard threw for Blair Witch; Simon sent me a lot of really cool stuff like a rare You’re Next Lego guy and a rare You’re Next Japanese t-shirt (plus a bunch of money!), so I not only admire his work in film I think he’s just a very nice dude. Hell, the guy wrote me a letter to go with the package they sent. That being said, Seance doesn’t need all my subjectivity to be a great movie. The story evokes the feel of a `90s horror flick, subverting certain expectations of a largely male-dominated genre with an excellent cast of women.
Camille (Suki Waterhouse) arrives as a new student at the Edelvine Academy for Girls in the wake of another student named Kerrie (Megan Best) tragically committing suicide, at least that’s the official story on the girl’s death. There are already legends of a ghost from a previous suicide, but now things seem to get a whole lot scarier. It isn’t long before there are more deaths, too. Suddenly it’s as if Camille and the rest of the girls at the academy are being hunted by an unseen force. Could it be a ghost returned for revenge?
Or, could there be someone of flesh and blood stalking the halls?
Seance blends a dash of the supernatural with the slasher, creating a unique concoction of horror that’s quite welcome in 2021. Barrett’s screenplay touches on a number of topics, from urban legends to misogyny. More than that, he uses the setting of a private school to tell a story that’s, underneath it all, primarily about privilege and who abuses its power for their own purposes. The more truth is revealed about what’s actually happening at the school, the more Camille and the others discover that in spite of ghost stories and urban legends, the real monsters are, more often than not, all too human.
Straight off the bat the urban legends of Edelvine take centre stage with an ill-fated prank getting the film going. Seance makes use of urban legends in compelling fashion. There are supernatural-type elements at first, then Barrett sidesteps into slasher territory. The supernatural never entirely fades away, either. We later discover that Kerrie has essentially become the urban legend of Edelvine’s self-fulfilling prophecy, dying after a prank centred around the supposed ghost of a girl like Kerrie. In a sense, the film becomes about the nature of urban legends in that many urban legends have a root in the truth. In the documentary Killer Legends, filmmaker Joshua Zeman and researcher Rachel Mills look at popular urban legends, then try to trace back to where they originated. They look at the story of the killer with a hook for a hand, killer clowns, the babysitter and the man upstairs, and more popular legends. Perhaps the most resonant to Seance, in a weird way, is the tale of people poisoning Halloween candy to target children.
Some urban legends have actually been used in an attempt to hide the brutal crimes of real, living people like the way Bethany (Madisen Beaty) uses ones at Edelvine. During Halloween of 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan used the myth of tainted candy in order to try covering up the fact he poisoned his own eight-year-old son–with a potassium cyanide-laced Pixy Stix–so he could collect life insurance money to get out of a $10,000 debt. I thought this was a relatively contemporary urban legend, however, it turns out that myths about poisoned candy or foods being distributed go back to the Industrial Revolution, when food production began to move beyond the home/local market; a bit of Stranger Danger mixed in there, too. And thus O’Bryan killed his son, as well as distributed the poison candy to his daughter and three other children (neither of whom ingested it), using the story that a stranger at a random house must have given the children poisoned candy. Instead of O’Bryan getting away with it he was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection, later executed in Texas on March 31st, 1984. Other prisoners called him the Candyman. When O’Bryan was executed there were 300 people outside the prison, some yelling “Trick or Treat!” The way O’Bryan used the tainted candy myth is similar to how Bethany and Trevor (Seamus Patterson) make use of the Edelvine urban legend and ghost stories to (try to) conceal their horrific crimes. And, of course, just like O’Bryan, neither Bethany nor Trevor get away with their crimes. Though more so because they, like all great slasher villains, explain themselves too much before they’re violently put to an end.
One of the most prominent themes that jumps out once Barrett lets us in on the identity of the killer(s) is privilege. Seance is built around the privilege of Bethany, as we come to hear of the plot she hatched due to copying Kerrie’s essay and winning a scholarship with it. She doesn’t want to lose her scholarship and get kicked out of school, so she comes up with a bloody plan to solve all her problems, and she’s privileged enough to try blaming it on the new queer girl at school. More than a bourgeois privilege that generally drives Bethany, white privilege plays a big role in her rampage, as well. It’s not insignificant that most of the friend group at Seance‘s core are women of colour, and some die, or are intended to die, by the end. All because Bethany didn’t want to see her fragile bourgeois, white world crumble due to academic plagiarism: “My whole life gone, unless…”
What’s further troubling is the way Bethany helps serve a misogynistic killer. Mrs. Landry’s (Marina Stephenson Kerr) son Trevor has been killing Edelvine girls for years now, and it perfectly works out for Bethany when she needs to do some killing. Here, we see Trevor’s misogyny and privilege combine with Bethany’s own privilege, then it’s two fucked up rich white people doing plenty of horrible things together. Trevor’s own words reveal his hatred of women, calling the girl he murdered when he was twelve years old “a real bitch,” and says Bethany is “the only girl I ever got along with” when talking to Camille. Bethany ultimately comes to serve the patriarchy’s needs, not being outright misogynistic herself but rather supporting a deeply misogynistic serial killer with her own privileged violence. At the same time it’s hard to ignore the fact that Trevor clearly groomed Bethany to some degree, which we can glean from the fact she says they had to hide their relationship because she was fourteen at the time. A concoction of disturbing factors that make Bethany and Trevor a pair of terrifying creeps.
There’s a lot to love in Seance because it’s full of interesting, occasionally deep themes, yet it also never takes itself too seriously. It’s like part `70s horror and part `90s horror in a delightfully fun package. There’s a gnarly fight scene late in the film, as well as one of my favourite, over-the-top kills in any horror film recently. Best of all, the cast is phenomenal, and you can tell they’re all enjoying themselves. Suki Waterhouse is, despite her constant work, an underrated talent who I hope will continue to take on interesting roles. Although Ella-Rae Smith is relatively new to me I also found her a joy to watch, especially with the bits of queer romance between her and Waterhouse’s character. That brief, unofficial relationship between their characters in the film was likewise a joy, because queer romance wasn’t treated as grounds for death (as is the case in certain horror cinema), neither was it treated like a spectacle and it was just an organic part of the rest of the story.
Barrett is a solid writer, whom I’ve enjoyed for a long while. He’s proving himself to be a trustworthy director, too. It’ll be exciting to see what he does next. He has a knack for weaving strong themes into horror, like the anti-military stuff in The Guest, his crack at American hubris abroad in Temple, and the exploration of American Gothic+racism in Dead Birds. The discussion of urban legends and privilege that Seance brings up are icing on an already tasty genre cake. I love some good ‘mindless’ fun, too; albeit I’d argue you can draw significant themes out of any film, no matter how ‘mindless.’ But, for me, there’s nothing better than horror that can entertain you for an hour or two while also having important things to say.