As someone who, like many, spent the entirety of their education in public schools, I’ve always had a sick fascination with the mystique of the private school experience, particularly that of the private boarding school experience. There’s something so strangely demented and alien about the whole experience to me that it lends itself wonderfully to the horror genre. Academic horror as a whole speaks to me deeply (Carrie, Scream, Urban Legend, Black Christmas), even when it’s bad (Cry Wolf, The Moth Diaries, Disturbing Behavior), because academia is a prison that I just keep migrating back to, and there’s nothing more horrifying than that. However, a horror film set at an elite boarding school is the Rolls Royce, the Kobe beef, the Waldorf Astoria, the Singapore Airlines, of academic horror. Simon Barrett’s feature directorial debut, Séance, is the first class experience the entire way.
After the suicide of a student following a prank gone wrong, Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) is granted admission as a transfer student to the prestigious Edelvine Academy, an isolated, snowy boarding school for girls. She quickly makes enemies with the school’s elite clique led by Alice (Inanna Sarkis), and soon finds herself in detention with her new foes. During a retaliation prank against Camille and her only friend, Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), in which they try to summon the ghost of their dead classmate, the girls soon discover that their prank has real consequences as they find themselves being picked off one by one.
Séance is not a particularly deep horror film by way of Hereditary or Relic, but it’s aware of this, and uses that trope-y, familiar base of teen horror to craft a romp so fun that it soothed my jaded soul as a horror fan and my massive homosexual with a predilection for early-to-mid-2000s aesthetics. More impressive is just how much of a departure this material seems to be for writer/director Simon Barrett, known primarily for his work writing films directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch), as this seems to contradict all of that style on the surface. Yet, the things that make Barrett’s work so distinct is still on display here, primarily in how the film leads you into a comfortable predictability, then rips the rug right out from under you, and then, when you try to get up, rips another rug from under you that was somehow under the first rug.
There is one element of Séance that I think might alienate a few different audiences in different ways: the casting. It’s not that the cast here isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, quite the opposite. However, they do Grease it up here having nearly 30-year-old actors portraying high school seniors. While that greatly diminishes the realism aspect of the film, there’s something almost charming about the whole thing. It harkens back to the golden era of teen horror when not a single person on the set was remotely in their teenage years. And when the performances of those like Suki Waterhouse (who really owns the hell out of this movie in every way), Inanna Sarkis, and Madisen Beatty are so dementedly feisty, it actually works to Séance’s benefit.
Séance is also unsurprisingly beautiful to look at, seeing as it was shot by Karim Hussain (Possessor, Random Acts of Violence, We Are Still Here), newly anointed patron saint of attractive indie horror. Hussain captures the dark wooded essence of stuffy academic institutions with a fun and pulpy grace that’s exceedingly difficult to balance. Séance is the furthest thing from dry, but the aesthetic might lead you to believe it might be in its opening moments. There’s simply a confidence in the film’s image that makes it feel exceedingly more competent than it needs to be to succeed.
Then let’s pair this with the wonderfully slick musical score from Sicker Man, and Séance is a lovely sensory experience even without considering anything about the narrative itself. While indie horror has been no stranger to the world of synth-heavy scores, I find Sicker Man’s score here to be really understated in comparison to other similar films that really were aggressive in their utilization of such material. There’s an orchestral quality to this digital mix of electronic music, utilizing one medium to evoke the effect of the other. It’s a strange dichotomy that I quickly became enamored with as it began to pick up steam.
Séance understands the assignments and aces them with flying colors. Barrett knows exactly what tropes to exploit to build the familiar and strangely comfortable environment the film inhabits, but always has another trick up his sleeve to subvert those very tropes. It’s not genre-shattering, but it’s like a really solid roller coaster that’s neither the fastest, nor the tallest one in the amusement park, but becomes your favorite simply because it’s the most well-balanced of them all. Solid performances, attractive cinematography, and one killer musical score all come together to stitch something that, on paper, should not work, into a corn syrup blood-soaked throwback to the golden era of teen horror that made me both nostalgic for the past, but infinitely excited for the future of the genre.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital May 21st, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.