Séance

★★★

I’ve long been a fan of screenwriter Simon Barrett and his work with director Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” “The Guest”). Barrett steps out from Wingard’s shadow to a degree by writing and making his feature directorial debut with “Séance” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, May 21), which Wingard executive produced.

“Séance” opens with the ‘Mean Girls’ of the all-female Edelvine Academy performing the titular ritual in order to commune with a student who killed herself by slitting her wrists in a bathtub all the way back in the “ancient history” that is 1998. (Jesus, I’m old.) These young ladies are Alice (Inanna Sarkis), Bethany (Madisen Beaty, last seen getting her face bashed in on fireplace bricks by Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Yvonne (Stephanie Sy), Lenora (Jade Michael) and Rosalind (Djouliet Amara). Hanger-on Kerrie (Megan Best) gets spooked by the divination, hightails it back to her dorm room and promptly falls from a window to her death.

Kerrie’s passing opens a slot for waitlisted student Camille (Suki Waterhouse of “The Bad Batch” and “Assassination Nation”), who’ll have to stay in the deceased girl’s dorm. Kerrie’s gal pals have made peace enough with their friend’s passing that they’re more than open to bullying her replacement. Camille isn’t one to take shit and promptly pops Alice in the kisser, who in turn slugs Camille back. Alice, her posse, Camille and Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), a kindly student who attempted to intercede on Camille’s behalf, are all thrown into detention by their headmistress Mrs. Landry (Marina Stephenson Kerr), which consists of an arduous archiving project in the school’s substantial library. The schoolgirls don’t archive so much as they fight and perform another incantation … this time in hopes of conjuring the recently departed Kerrie.

Following this most recent ritual, the lights in Camille’s room begin flickering randomly and the window won’t stay shut. She calls for the assistance of Trevor (Seamus Patterson), Mrs. Landry’s son and the school’s handyman/groundskeeper. Even more jarring are the sudden one-by-one deaths of the ‘Mean Girls’ themselves.

I’ll be honest and assert that I didn’t care much for and was mostly bored by the first two-thirds of “Séance.” There isn’t much blood and very little coverage of the killings themselves to better obscure the murders’ identities. Then at the beginning of the last third there’s a beautifully shot sequence that’s chock full of lens flares depicting a young woman practicing ballet that culminates with her being graphically slashed to death. From here on out “Séance” is the blast I expected it to be from the onset. Call me old-fashioned, but when I watch a horror movie … I wanna be horrified – or at the very least chilled and/or thrilled. The third act of “Séance” does all of this and then some.

Barrett’s influences appear to be varied here … Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” “The Craft,” “Scream” and direct-to-video horror sequel “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary” (starring Kate Mara, featuring her sister Rooney’s acting debut and co-written by Wingard’s fellow MonsterVerse filmmaker Michael  Dougherty (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters”)) all spring to mind. “Séance” alternates between being a ghost movie and a slasher movie and back again. Its strongest attributes are Waterhouse’s steely performance, the subtly sensitive romance that develops between Waterhouse’s Camille and Smith’s Helina (this ain’t “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” à la “Kentucky Fried Movie”) and Sicker Man’s awesomely ‘80s synth score.

“Séance” has an admirable pedigree being distributed by genre shingle RLJE Films and horror streamer Shudder and produced by the revamped Dark Castle Entertainment (Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis’ label that unleashed remakes of “House on Haunted Hill” and “House of Wax” upon unsuspecting audiences in the late ‘90s and early-to-mid aughts. Man, was it dope to see their logo again!). Barrett earns these directorial horror bonafides (he already had the writing ones) with his cool conclusion, which makes “Séance” less “Mona Lisa Smile” and more “Mona Lisa Grimace.”

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