New Releases: Séance (2021) - Reviewed


One of the most exhausted subgenres of horror is the teen thriller.  Most modern offerings are some manifestation of the Blumhouse formula or even less inspired clones deposited in the digital streaming electronic graveyards.  Simon Barrett's (renowned for his writing on The Guest and You're Next) directorial debut inverts the patented design and creates a self-contained supernatural mystery that blends several genres into something fresh and unexpected.  Featuring a wonderfully vicious ensemble, crisp visuals, and a plethora of unexpected twists, this one of the first genuine surprises of the year. 

A cruel prank leads to a tragedy that sets offs a chain of mysterious accidents and disappearances at a prestigious school for girls.  A new student, at odds with her classmates, is thrown into peril as she discovers many different types of specters haunt the halls of Edelvine Academy. Barrett's script features his trademark of upending genres and creating a world that is close to, but not our own.  The first two acts are essentially Mean Girls meets Suspiria, as the central characters form a fragile alliance in an attempt to discover what is happening.  The occult, the dead, and the living coexist within the darkened corridors of the campus.  An interesting departure is in how Karim Hussain's (Possessor) deceptively subdued cinematography has a washed out feel that makes any candy coating impossible.  The vast majority of films with attractive casts usually opt for exploitative glamour and with Hussain's understanding of Barrett's vision, the visuals become more entrancing, allowing the cast to focus on their craft and a result, the viewer begins to care more about each of the principals.  

Suki Waterhouse (The Bad Batch) stars as the new girl, Camille.  While the first act involves the expected high school bullied vs bullies shenanigans, Waterhouse brings an uncanny duality to her role.  Her Camille is both ferocious and vulnerable.  It is apparent that she is resourceful, and yet there are scenes of intense violence where Waterhouse is able to shred and don emotional masks in an instant, reminding the viewer that nothing is what it seems.  Her chemistry with the cast, particularly with Ella-Rae Smith's Helina; the conscious of the crew, is natural and relaxed.  Opposite them is Inanna Sarkis' villainous Alice, whose performance as the bully queen is the perfect juxtaposition of Waterhouse's not-so-underdog.  In the divide is where the monsters roam as various cast member are predictably picked off.

The final act is a welcome detour into jaw dropping violence that not only succinctly ties together all the threads, it is a beautifully shot homage to Tarantino-esque brutality.  While the first two acts are somewhat glacial, the reasoning, once revealed makes the entire journey worth it.  This is a Russian Doll horror story with petty motives, sorrowful ghosts, and merciless avengers.  The result, a spooky, blood drenched horror story that has more on its mind than kill sequences and topless coeds. There's an emotional thread that needles through the heart, linking the survivors, the victims, and the killers together into a unique social ecosystem that ultimately elevates what would have been a forgettable thriller.  

Now available for digital steaming Séance take a mediocre, mindless slasher premise and elevates it with heart, bravado and an absolutely shocking final act. This is a sensational debut film that was crafted by an artist who clearly loves the medium.  Séance is not only a wild ride; it shows that Barrett is a thoughtful creator who hopefully has a lot more to say.

--Kyle Jonathan