Look and the mirror and say her name. This simple act will usually cause your tiny neck hairs to stand at attention. For children of the ’90s, the game of summoning ghosts through the mirror stood as a gateway into the world of the spooky. Young women crammed into school bathrooms with a flashlight and an urban legend, dipping their toes into the world of the macabre. Scary movies have since exploited these frights to bring us ghost stories and slashers alike. Now, there’s Seance, which starts with an urban legend and a mirror, but is no throwback to the spooky tales that preceded meta-horror and children’s story adaptations. This haunt feels like a predecessor to its cohorts instead of a fresh nod to them.
Edelvine Academy for Girls is your typical locale for pleated skirts and upturned noses. The students and residents are cardboard cut-outs of private school mean-girls who dabble in superstition. One night, when the students attempt a “Bloody Mary”-like ritual to summon the Edelvine Ghost, one of their classmates is tragically thrown from the window to her untimely death. With the body of their chum still warm, the girls are introduced to the newest student taking her place. Camille (Suki Waterhouse)is a tough-no-nonsense broad with an undefined accent who doesn’t bow swiftly to ring-leader Alice’s (Inanna Sarkis) bullying. As Camille slowly earns favor from the women, she participates in their seance purporting to summon the ghost of their late classmate. Through a lipstick planchette, the ghost insists she was a victim of murder, something that becomes more believable to the women when their bodies start piling up. Camille arms herself with nightsticks and knives, and the others arm themselves with rituals and superstitions, all of them trying to stave off whatever killer or ghost is stacking up the corpses of the prestigious academy’s attendees.
Seance has a lot of fun teasing the audience with a slasher and a ghost story rolled into one, but it could have done so much more with the mashup. It’s predecessor, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, plays a lot of the same games by teasing a ghost and gaslighting the leads into thinking it couldn’t possibly be real. By playing both possibilities as twists, neither reality is satisfying enough to serve as a breathless release. Though it can’t properly land on whether it’s a slasher film or a ghost story, it succeeds in being scary as both. There are enough elements of a shriek-worthy apparition and a mask-wearing killer to bring on nightmares associated with both beloved sub-genres. However, some of the scares commit the cardinal sin of telling you how much better they could have been. Wicked onscreen deaths sting, but also make the off-screen ones feel like missed opportunities. Still, the best deaths are spared for the finale, and they’re worth the wait (save for the stark reminder that it’s what you could have had the whole way through).
A few choice gags nod to the young-femme vibe, like using a lipstick and an iPhone case for a planchette. But for every “fairy lights as a mood setter,” there’s a “young women calling each other ‘bitch’” that reminds you this was written by a grown man. The film resists creating paper-thin archetypes for the women characters, but that’s almost not a good thing. Sure, it feels refreshing not to slot each woman into a trope based on race, sexuality, school activity, or social status, but without the distinguishing factors, it’s near impossible to tell each of the women apart. School uniforms are used to level the playing field of its students, and Seance should have employed the safety pins and earrings that students in uniforms often use to stand out. As a result, the relationships between the characters are thin and create no stakes, and the vague ending would feel like a homage to You’re Next if writer/ director, Simon Barrett, hadn’t also written it.
Seance marks a directorial debut for Barrett, known for his incredible work penning scripts of horror gems You’re Next and The Guest. Though this is technically his first feature, it shouldn’t feel like one coming from someone as seasoned as Barrett. Yet, it does. You can imagine seeing this at a small local festival and thinking “This is the work of a great up-and-comer.” But this isn’t exactly the work of a freshman; it’s the work of a horror darling. One that will make audiences long for his team-ups with frequent collaborator, Adam Wingard, who directed this year’s Godzilla vs Kong.
Seance is frustrating for being decidedly not like its cohorts. It reaches towards Kevin Williamson’s Scream, and snaps backwards towards Tragedy Girls landing nowhere near either. Features of the late ’90s pushed horror to self-referential. Seance feels like the movies being referenced instead of a fresh take on dried-up narratives.
Seance opens in theaters, On Demand, and on digital on May 21.
Header Image Source: RLJE Films/ Shudder