Simon Barrett's feature directorial debut delivers the goods.

Simon Barrett’s feature directorial debut Séance begins with a peaceful, idyllic nighttime shot of snow falling outside the prestigious Edelvine Academy, an all-girls school. Inside the school’s stone walls, a group of teenage girls has gathered in a communal bathroom just after 3am. The girls are playing a Bloody Mary-like game, to summon the fabled Edelvine Ghost. By candlelight, the students repeat the chant meant to summon the specter to them. This is soon revealed to be an elaborate prank set up by some of the girls at the expense of their more gullible peers. Later that same night, one of the prank’s intended victims dies under suspicious circumstances, which the school seems all to eager to classify as accidental.

By candlelight, the students repeat the chant meant to summon the specter

Soon we are introduced to Camille Meadows (played to perfection by Suki Waterhouse), a new student transferring to the school. Although it seems that all attendees at Edelvine Academy come from wealthy, well-connected families, there is still a natural pecking order in place here. Before long, Camille finds herself at odds with the school’s resident mean girls. A fight breaks out, and since no one will squeal on who started it, Camille, her one new friend Helina, and the mean girl clique are all sentenced to detention until a large project in the library is completed. (Full disclosure: any movie that features both Dewey decimal system references and a microfiche scene is likely to be my jam.)

As Camille spends more time at the school, she witnesses more and more strange occurrences—lights flicker, floorboards creak when no one else is around, strange things are seen just out of the corner of her eye. Camille has been housed in the room of the girl who recently died, and many of her fellow students have told her tales of the Edelvine Ghost, so it’s natural for the viewer to question how much of this is real and how much is Camille’s imagination. Camille puts in a maintenance request after several instances of her lights flickering. The headmistress’s son, Trevor, also happens to be the school’s handyman. At first he’s unable to find anything wrong and is somewhat dismissive of Camille’s claims. But soon enough he witnesses the lights flickering just as she said.

Back in detention, the girls have reached some sort of truce, agreeing that they’ll finish the project quicker and be released from detention if they work together. It doesn’t take long for them to tire of working, and one of the students suggests they conduct a séance. You know, just to pass the time. The girls seem to make a connection with the other side, but is it the ghost of their recently departed classmate Kerry, the fabled Edelvine Ghost, or is it something wholly other?

Before long, Camille finds herself at odds with the school’s resident mean girls.

In the days that follow, a series of deaths and disappearances plague Edelwine Academy. The girls band together in an effort to discover just what is going on, but fear and paranoia threaten the fragile alliance. Making things more complicated, the school’s headmistress seems adamant to quickly cover up the events, chalking them up to wayward young women and unfortunate accidents.

I’ll freely admit that I have long been a fan of Simon Barrett’s screenwriting efforts. As soon as I heard that Séance was in the works, I was excited at the prospect of Barrett stepping behind the camera for a feature film. I’m happy to report that Séance is a resounding success, a tight little puzzle box of a film with plenty of scares and a knockout ending. It pays homage to Barrett’s influences and previous work without ever feeling derivative or uninspired. (If you really want to fall down a rabbit hole, check out this thread from Barrett’s Twitter feed, where he discusses some of the film’s influences and inspirations.) Séance is also a film that rewards repeat viewings. On both my second and third watches I picked up on moments that deepened my appreciation of the film and show just how well constructed it is.

a tight little puzzle box of a film with plenty of scares and a knockout ending

The final act brings a number of disparate threads together for a potent climax. I can imagine this film going over very well on the big screen with an appreciate audience. (Side note: I can’t wait for in-person film festivals to fully resume so we can all share that experience again.) I’m being purposely vague here, and I would recommend you going into the movie as fresh as possible. Séance’s surprises are worth it. One small hint… there are a couple of surprising gore gags in the film that will definitely get a reaction. 

Even with a talented writer or director, some films fall flat. That’s not the case here. Séance fires on all cylinders, from the detailed production design, to the gorgeous cinematography by Karim Hussain (Possessor, Random Acts of Violence, the NBC series Hannibal), to the cast, which is almost entirely female. Suki Waterhouse, Ella-Rae Smith, and Madisen Beaty each give standout performances (as Camille, Helina, and Bethany, respectively). The movie’s score, credited to Sicker Man, is an absolute beauty, and something I plan on picking up ASAP. Icy washes of synth combine with darker tides of bass and mournful strings to create a soundtrack that slips into your subconscious.  

Séance fires on all cylinders

One relatively minor thing really stuck with me each time I watched Séance. One of the final lines in the credits is a message from Simon Barrett to the audience. It simply says, “Thank You for Watching.” A small gesture, but one with a lot of heart behind it, as I’m certain will be clear to anyone who watches the film. While I hope to see him continue to partner with Adam WIngard on future projects, Séance bodes well for Simon Barrett’s efforts directing future features.

RLJE Films and Shudder will release Séance to theaters, on demand, and digital on Friday, May 21st, 2021. Check out the trailer and poster below!