‘Séance’: Simon Barrett’s Directorial Debut Fails To Summon Up Anything With Life [Review]

Having already written many thrilling, contemporary indie horror hits, when inventive screenwriter Simon Barrett (“You’re Next,” “The Guest,” “V/H/S”) announced he was making his feature-length directorial debut with the all-girls prep school horror, “Séance”—about high school cliques, late-night rituals, pranks and calling dead spirits— one assumed the filmmaker could channel something exceptionally spooky. And or, in the process, create a chiller that could comment on the uncharitable nature of teenage girls, prestige school elitism, the exclusivity that runs through them, and the dog-eat-dog hierarchy of private coteries and fitting in. Instead, somewhat shockingly, the screenwriter that helped director Adam Wingard achieve franchises like “Godzilla Vs. Kong”), conjures something really lifeless in his debut that barely speaks to its privileged characters.  

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Wholly unimaginative and unoriginal, like a torpid “Scream,” “Séance” feels like the result of a haphazard night of manipulating a Ouija board—Barrett trying to act as a conduit to better films and filmmakers of the past and connecting with nothing or no one meaningful.

Set within the walls of an all-girls boarding school, “Séance” centers on a small group of students attempting to conjure up the ghost of a girl who died at the academy some years prior. Though this ceremony turns up as a hoax and a prank on one of the teens, after the conned girl rushes back to her room in embarrassment, she’s subsequently killed by an unknown assailant. Fast forward to the arrival of a new student, Camille (Suki Waterhouse), who’s granted passage to this elite squad thanks to the new opening left by the deceased girl. However, she quickly finds both friend and foe within the group. And when her new cohorts find themselves being bludgeoned one by one by a faceless killer, it’s up to the clique to figure out who might be behind the slayings before the same fate befalls the rest. Could the séance they conducted have actually awakened the spirit, now bent on some form of revenge? Will trust fracture in the group? Unfortunately, Barrett summons something so dull and uninspired, the answer ultimately becomes, “who cares?”

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Séances are meant to speak to or raise the dead and imply some kind of paranormal activities. But Barrett’s unimaginative film pivots away from that supernatural —and perhaps, a more interesting premise) — and instead, is satisfied to hit every second-rate slasher film beat that’s ever been sliced, never once using these lacerations to cut into anything remotely deep regarding its girls of privilege.

The lazy line delivery suggests no one on set even had the slightest care of the dialogue, and Waterhouse, particularly, is guilty of sounding like she awoke just moments before each scene. Fortunately, there are at least some elements of “Mean Girls” dynamics that feel genuine and provide something resembling emotional arcs. In this sense, one can feel Barrett’s ability to understand group dynamics in horrific situations and the terror of emotions that can spill like too much blood — as his best films have done in the past.

Unfortunately, the convoluted supernatural elements play out in a manner that seems to suggest Barrett doesn’t know what to do with them. A smattering of twists materialize throughout, but they’re easily telegraphed and lead to a third act that plays out like the sound of a deflating balloon. Flat cinematography, banal music, and a leaden atmosphere, free of the tension his films usually possess, means “Séance” slogs from scene to hopeless scene. Adding to the overall messiness are several character arcs that come flying out of nowhere like a wayward poltergeist and just vanish as if out of apathy.

Barrett’s ability to produce quality work is proven. Yet, it’s difficult to recommend “Séance” to even hardcore fans of the slasher genre. Though “Séance” is mercifully brief, it’s also painfully forgettable, hopefully, nothing more than a fleeting, disposable misfire in Barrett’s otherwise strong filmography. Next time, let’s hope the writer-director can act as a better medium, connecting to the souls of something more lively and spirited. [D+]

“Séance” is available now.