Little of the personality or energy of Barrett’s scriptwork is on display in Seance, a drab, generic horror dud.
Since 2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, Simon Barrett has largely made his name writing director Adam Wingard’s horror movies, a run which hits its peak with You’re Next and The Guest. Wingard hasn’t worked with Barrett since 2016’s Blair Witch and while he’s gone on to save the theatrical experience or whatever with Godzilla vs. Kong, Barrett has mostly kept a low profile in the last half decade. Now, he makes his directorial debut with Seance, a small horror film that, while obviously the work of its writer, makes it easy to appreciate the relatively overpraised pop aesthetics of his films with Wingard, which are replaced here with drab competence and an energy best described as somnambulant.
Set at a possibly haunted boarding school for girls, Seance follows Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse), a new entrant accepted off the waitlist in her final semester following the death of another student, as she has a confrontation with the dead girl’s friends, a clique of mean girls characterized by the shallowest of clichés, which leads to a seance in the middle of detention. Spookiness ensues, embodied here by the most flaccid ghostly scares. As it turns out, however, this is not a ghost story, but a slasher, and one by one the girls fall victim to a masked murderer using the legend of the school’s ghost as a cover for their crimes. It’s your basic Giallo plot (or an especially bloody episode of Scooby-Doo), but Barrett’s aesthetic choices don’t really point toward that genre, aside from hiding the killer’s identity and one brief ballet scene that directly quotes Suspiria. By the end of the movie, the whole thing instead seems much more in line with the post-Scream horror whodunnit template of the late ’90s than anything of more aesthetic or generic interest. The murders themselves aren’t memorable — Barrett does not seem to care about the victims or even just staging an exciting kill — and the twists along the way, especially the barrage at the end, are groan-inducing in their stupidity. Dumb as it is, the finale is one of the only sections of Seance that comes alive. Put into a room with the unmasked killer, Camille is forced to fight back and makes clever, exciting use of her environment to escape. But there’s nothing particularly novel in the scene, and everything it does feature has been done better, including in Barrett’s own work. It’s hard not to feel like the director is just retreading the violence of You’re Next specifically, but to less brutal or energizing ends; there’s little in the way of creativity throughout the film, but this showdown, at least, musters some gusto.
Of most interest here, aside from the squandered fusion of haunted house and slasher genres, is the burgeoning friendship — and more — between Camille and Helina (Ella-Rae Smith). The pair share a tenderness uncommon in the rest of the film and, indeed, in the rest of Barrett’s filmography. Quiet moments the pair spend smoking weed in a twin bed do more to sell the horror of the situation than all of the film’s rote slasher mechanisms. They also, thankfully, give Waterhouse something to do other than mean-mugging. But even if the film makes good on the subtext and tension of their relationship, it’s not able to transform a few redeeming moments into a savior for an otherwise boring horror flick.