Atmospheric and involving, yet oddly unsatisfying.
After a prank that involves reconjuring the ghost of a girl who had killed herself on the elite girl's boarding school premises years ago, another girl allegedly kills herself. The coveted place vacated by her is soon filled by a new girl called Camille.
This set-up is faintly reminiscent of the classic Suspiria. The headmistress of the school Mrs. Landry (Marina Stephensson) looks ready to lapse into a thick European accent that serves as another reminder of that film. But, mostly, this is where the similarities stop.
Where Suspiria was an unabashedly baroque assault on your senses, Seance is much quieter. It also owes much of its tone to the slashers of the '80s.
Once Camille settles down, the tone briefly shifts to a Mean Girls type tug-of-war for supremacy. Alice (Illana Sarkis) and her gang get offended when Camille refuses to move from "their" table. Camille does not take the insults quietly and fights back. Despite becoming instant enemies, the girls display some kind of solidarity and refuse to blame each other. As a result, they receive detention together where they are tasked with sorting out old books to prepare a digitized list. Camille's discussion with Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), a friend of the dead girl, is overheard by Alice and they all decide to hold a seance to get to the mystery of her death.
Needless to say, this starts a murder spree.
Maybe we have seen too many horror films, but it quickly becomes clear that we are dealing with both - supernatural entities and serial killing. Thankfully, Barrett also never tries to confuse us with 'is it this or that?'. This confusion is all in the character's minds. "Is this place really haunted?" This question is asked more than once. it's as if, they want it to be.
The already claustrophobic world starts to become even narrower as we become more familiar with characters. No one outside this small world is given attention to, or even shown. The presence of the cops is limited only to the blue and red flashing in the night or in the background when they are picking up the bodies.
This suggests that Barrett is trying to present a microcosm of the world outside and lends the film a moving and important sub-text of the pressure to perform that haunts the students in an elite and highly competitive environment. This sub-text would have been even stronger if this was a Japanese or a Korean entry. Barrett almost compensates with having the entire revelation based on this facet. Ultimately, the film fails to capitalize on that sub-text above and none of the girls seem to have any special talents on the basis of which they have been chosen at this school.
The film is high on atmosphere and recalls the slasher films of the '80s. The synth score by Sicker Man and Karim Hussein's soft-focused, intimate cinematography recall that era. This is not really surprising because Simon Barrett is also the writer of Adam Wingard's You're Next and The Guest. Those films riffed on and expanded the era's influence beyond mere reference.
Despite all these positive aspects, even keeping in mind a standard horror film, Barrett, unfortunately, loses it in the final act. The plot revelations are conveyed through the age-old expositional device of villains telling it to the people they are about to kill next. This is rather disappointing because it belongs in a more pedestrian film.
The film never catches fire or plumbs the depth of paranoia that would have been induced in such a situation. The main protagonists are behaviorally volatile and I expected them to completely lose it towards the end.
Still, on the whole, this is an involving and even poignant debut.