SÉANCE *** USA 2021 Dir: Simon Barrett. 92 mins
Simon Barrett has been writing excellent horror movies for over a decade, from the underrated DEAD BIRDS (2004) to a series of fruitful collaborations with director Adam Wingard: A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE (2010), YOU’RE NEXT (2011), V/H/S (2012) THE GUEST (2015) and BLAIR WITCH (2016). He directed segments of V/H/S and its recent sequel V/H/S/94 (2021) but SÉANCE marks his feature directing debut, beautifully shot in Winnipeg by the estimable cinematographer Karim Hussein.
The prologue offers an echo of scenes we’ve seen in multiple modern American horror films: students at the imposing, prestigious girls’ boarding school Fairfield Academy talk in spooked tones of the anniversary of a student suicide – and the legend that she can be summoned at will. They stage a cruel prank that spooks one of their peers so much she falls (or jumps) from her window. Subsequently, British girl Suki Waterhouse joins as a new student, staying in the dead girl’s room and finding an often bitchy clique. Friendly maintenance man Trevor (Seamus Patterson) is the son of the intimidating headmistress Mrs. Landry (Marina Stephenson) and talks of the haunted history of the place…while attempts to contact the dead girl result in a series of unfortunate events.
Barrett stages some effective jolts as the body count rises, exposition is delivered via visits to the library’s microfiche section, the unraveling mystery suggests supernatural forces at work, and the isolated, wintry backdrop adds real atmosphere. The almost entirely female cast are fine, but the slasher-influenced structure pays off with a disappointing SCREAM-like reveal that proves disappointingly mundane given the taut build-up. At least the finale delivers a couple of pleasing gore highlights.
Review by Steven West