Monday, June 20, 2022

The Case for Public School

For almost twenty years now, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have put together some of the more successful and influential independent horror films to generate deep discussion on the internet (though oddly, not much box office receipts). From the humble Dead Birds to the bigger budgeted Blair Witch remake/sequel/rebooqual/whatever-we're-calling-it, they've been prominent.

For me, their record is mixed. You're Next and The Guest are extremely watchable, a lot of which stems from extremely good casts. I've made no bones about how much I despise a lot in the V/H/S series, and while Letterboxd and Netflix claim I did indeed watch Blair Witch, I'm left wondering if I had a Men In Black-ish memory wipe that day because it left such a nothing impression on me. 

So yes, I'm fairly out of step with a lot of the horror community on this duo. But I'm also a sucker for boarding school-based horror and Shudder originals, so why not give Barrett's directorial debut a go?

Quick Plot: A batch of perfectly sized and attractive "teenage" girls do some pranking at their boarding school, jokingly summoning the spirit of a deceased student who took her own life years ago. Something goes wrong, leaving poor Kerrie dead, an apparent suicide out the window.

That opens up a spot at the prestigious Edelvine Academy, bringing in  mysterious new student Camille Meadows. In her first day on campus, Camille succeeds in befriending the uncool (and yet stunning) Helina, and alienating the popular mean girls. A fistfight sends the whole gang to detention where the titular seance unleashes something dark.


Seance is somehow equal parts unusual and bland. Written and directed by Simon Barrett, it's genuinely baffling to me to consider who this movie was made for. 

There are certainly audiences (myself included) that love to watch lighter boarding school horror from the point of view of teenage girls, but NOBODY in Seance ever remotely resembles a teenage girl. Putting aside the bland "I think this is how girls talk" dialogue, not one character gets a shred of distinguishing personality. That runs straight through to Camille. She's so unphased by her new surroundings that we as an audience have no reason to raise our own eyebrows.

I'd almost be less mad if Barrett had gone the other route so common in boarding school set horror. But make no mistake: there is nothing sexy about Seance. There is nothing...well, ANYTHING that really defines Seance. 

I suppose the last act reveal is a bit unexpected, but that's more because it comes out of nowhere (and is therefore incredibly unsatisfying). There's no substance, and sadly, not much style. The spooky scenes are primarily managed by turning down the lights. There's one promising sequence involving ballet, but it mostly just reminds you that dance is woefully underused in horror (and how much better it's been done before).

I wanted to like Seance. I LIKE these kinds of movies, but truthfully, I can't even tell you what KIND of movie I watched. It's muted and restrained, with a few slasher-y killings devoid of much suspense. There supernatural elements are somewhat different from what you might expect, but they're also ill-defined. The finale gives us over-the-top violence intended to shock, but mostly, it's just silly. The denouement is, I suppose, meant to lend some humanity to its surviving characters but all it really does is make you say, "well, that could have been a more interesting story to tell."

It...did not please me. 

High Points
I hate to be this negative, but I found so little to admire in Seance that I'll just take a swing to say, without spoiling, that the actual motivation behind the horror is so ridiculously convoluted that at least I had one element of surprise

Low Points
There's a moment when a character complains about how she was out of sight during a scene and therefore couldn't see anything and while no one was there to hear it, I promise you I audibly shouted, "NEITHER CAN I BECAUSE IT'S SO DAMN DARK." There's nothing fun about that.

Lessons Learned
Expensive and exclusive American boarding schools will age you fast

Even in 2020, the best way to express a character as being bookish is to, you guessed it, make her the only cast member to wear glasses

Every old school has a ghost

I get it. You might be reading this review and wondering how I can actually be harder on this movie than, say, Titanic 666 because sure: Seance is objectively a better film than Titanic 666. But I would watch Titanic 666 complete with Tubi commercials again before I'd revisit Seance. This film is so lifeless and devoid of personality that I'm almost angry. Shudder usually knows better. 

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