Along with a few fast-forgotten dogs, Simon Barrett has written some of the more enjoyable U.S. horror opuses over the last two decades, from 2004’s period ghost story “Dead Birds” through a series of Adam Wingard films that laid career path to that director’s current big-budget assignment “Godzilla vs. Kong.”
You might expect Barrett’s own belated feature directorial debut to expand upon the clever, blackly humorous genre mayhem of his best Wingard projects like “The Guest” and “You’re Next.” But “Seance” proves a disappointingly boilerplate retro slasher that’s pedestrian on every level from concept to execution. It’s not terrible, only so devoid of imagination, wit or novelty (as well as scares) that it seems a perversely generic choice with which to launch a new career phase. RLJE Films is releasing to U.S. and Canadian theaters, VOD and digital May 21, with co-distributor Shudder expected to add it to its own streaming platform sometime later in the year.
At the remote, imposing, gated Edelvine Academy, a very exclusive girls’ boarding school, vindictive elitism seems baked into the small student body’s social hierarchy. Thus it seems clear that when some of the current reigning mean girls led by Alice (Inanna Sarkis) attempt to invoke the rumored in-house ghost — a former resident who committed suicide — what they’re really doing is playing yet another mean prank on one of their designated inferiors, Kerrie (Megan Best). Still, it doesn’t seem to have been in the plan that Kerrie should shortly wind up dead in a questionable “accident.” Is there some supernatural force at work after all?
Suspiciously curious about that matter is Camille (Suki Waterhouse), a wait-list candidate whom Kerrie’s demise provides late-enrollment space for. When bullying Alice and company attempt to put the newbie in her place, they get considerably more pushback than they’re used to. The ensuing fracas attracts detention punishment for all from imperious headmistress Mr. Landry (Marina Stephenson Kerr), whose cute handyman son Trevor (Seamus Patterson) is the lone male hereabouts.
It is again the mean girls’ idea to hold a seance in order to ask Kerrie’s spirit what happened to her. Camille and the nice classmate who’s befriended her, Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), figure this will prove another prank, but decide to play along. The results, however, seem to surprise everyone. Then girls within the ruling clique begin disappearing, coming to a bad end one by one at the hands of a masked figure.
Given how routine its premise is, and how suspense-killing the sluggish pace, it surprises that “Seance” doesn’t try to compensate with vivid violence. Yet the murders mostly take place offscreen, any tension in their buildup dissipated by the clichéd situations depicted. No matter how many classmates have gone missing, you can count on these paper-thin characters to blithely shower alone in a communal bathroom, practice a dance routine solo on a creepily lit stage, and so forth — decisions that play out exactly as you’d expect.
Rote jump scares aside, there’s little in the tepid atmospherics or by-the-numbers plotting to raise a viewer’s pulse. At least not until the climax, which boasts a couple decent twists as well as more graphic bodily harm. But even this crescendo kills its own buzz by dragging on too long, with a misfiring killer revelation reminiscent of the original “Scream” (in which it was supposed to be preposterous), then one of the more nonsensically out-of-nowhere lesbian kisses in recent celluloid memory.
Some of these aspects, plus the fact that a few of the competent lead actors are at least a decade too old for the age group they’re meant to represent, suggest possible satire. But if screenwriter Barrett intended to partially send up the ’80s slashers he’s paying homage to, director Barrett failed to get that memo. The first signs “Seance” might not be taking itself seriously arrive too late, and as a result come off as over-the-top narrative missteps rather than playful subversions. Nor is there enough energy to the preceding action for the movie to be bad in a fun way. Instead, it’s just OK in a very familiar, forgettable way.
The Manitoba-shot feature is polished but undistinguished in all departments, including a synthy score credited to Sicker Man that’s so low on ideas, it finally settles on barely altering the main chord progression from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”