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[Review] Supernatural Slasher ‘Seance’ Attempts to Go Old School With No Frills Murder Mystery

High school is hell. Navigating the social hierarchy and adolescence can be downright brutal, which makes sense as to why so many slashers take place there. The latest to use high school as slaying grounds is Seance, the directorial debut by Simon Barrett (V/H/S, V/H/S2, You’re Next, The Guest). Barrett takes an old-school approach to his supernaturally charged murder mystery, but its no frills horror might be rendered a little too simplistic.

After a late-night prank ends in a shocking death, the student’s vacancy leaves a rare opening at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. It allows new student Camille (Suki Waterhouse) to enroll, though she’s assigned the only space available, the recently deceased’s dorm room. When Camille runs afoul of the former student’s clique, led by bully Alice (Inanna Sarkis), she realizes that hazing may not be the worst issue she’ll have to contend with as a haunting coincides with a rising body count.

Barrett, who also wrote the screenplay, spends most of the focus on the whodunnit angle of the narrative. That means that beyond Camille, nice girl Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), and superstitious lead bully Alice, telling the other characters apart gets a little tricky. They’re all varying shades of mean girl without any depth. Alice only stands apart because she’s so quick to throw punches; these mean girls jump from catty behavior to violence within seconds. 

Considering most of the characters are fodder for the killer, the lack of personality feels par for the course of a retro slasher. The downside here, though, is that most of the kills happen off-screen. For his first directorial outing, Barrett makes some unusual and sometimes jarring shot composition choices and cuts, often highlighted in scenes that stage off-screen kills. A victim carries about her nightly routine, unaware she’s being stalked. The camera randomly cuts to a closeup of her shoulder in the middle of her prep work, mere moments before focus falls to her feet as she’s dispatched out of frame.

When Barrett does show the kills, it’s satisfying. The back half picks up speed, and the finale sparks to life with bloodletting, brutality, and humor. It’s precisely the type of thing you’d expect from Barrett based on his previous team-ups with director Adam Wingard, albeit a little too expected. The mystery is sufficient, offering the perfect number of layered clues and red herrings and its final reveal works. There’s not an ounce of fat here, and everything serves a purpose.

The not-so-secret weapon of Barrett’s debut is Waterhouse. Waterhouse’s understated and sometimes dry use of humor works well here and keeps Camille interesting despite a familiar formula. The subtle physical cues that something’s different about Camille piques curiosity long before the more overt signs arrive. The way Waterhouse plays off of Smith, and their growing bond, helps thaw some of the ice created by a bevy of one-note mean girls. Barrett keeps consistent in his penchant for writing tough girls in disguise. Waterhouse makes for a formidable final girl with an impressive ability to take a punch or two.

Seance attempts to harken back to the supernatural slasher of yesterday, including an uncomplicated plot. Waterhouse and a thrilling final act go far in creating entertainment, but enjoyment primarily hinges on how much you invest in the whodunit aspect. Most of the deaths are bland, and the victims even blander. Visually, it can be a bit of a mixed bag too. Still, the taut writing, Waterhouse, and bursts of lively violence give this high school-set slasher a passing grade.  

Seance releases in theaters and on VOD on May 21.