Just because something is cliched doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. There can sometimes be a lot of comfort to be found in the familiarity of horror tropes we’ve all seen dozens of times before. The problem with Seance is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a cliched ghost story or a cliched slasher film, so it splits the difference and winds up doing neither well. Aside from Suki Waterhouse’s lead performance, which basically holds the film together, there’s little to recommend Seance to either horror devotees or the uninitiated. It’s a dull affair, with weak performances from the supporting cast, bad dialogue, and worst of all, very few actual scares.
Camille (Suki Waterhouse) is the newest enrollee at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. The entire senior class is still reeling from the recent death of fellow student Kerrie, who plummeted from a window after participating in a ritual to communicate with the famed Edelvine Ghost. A former student who allegedly committed suicide in her dorm room back in 1998; she was said to sneak up behind students if summoned in front of a mirror. (If the idea of a “historical” haunting from a death that took place in 1998 makes your bones feel as though they’re literally turning to dust, you are not alone.)
Camille isn’t exactly quick to make friends, but she somehow gets roped into a seance to communicate with Kerrie because it seems like the one lesson these overachieving snobs can’t get through their head is to let the dead rest in peace. There’s one small snag in their plan, though: predictably, they fail to end the seance properly, and all of the girls present begin to die under mysterious circumstances.
From a character perspective, there’s not too much to like here. The mean girls at the pretentious boarding school are really just awful in every conceivable way, without a single redeeming quality. They’re nasty and cruel for no reason whatsoever, to the point that it’s frustrating to watch. You’re supposed to feel one of two ways about horror film characters: you should either be emotionally invested enough in them that you’re rooting for them to survive, or you hate them enough to want to watch them die in gruesome, inventive ways. But these girls can’t even muster that strong of a feeling. They’re just…annoying. It’s a combination of over-the-top writing and amateurish acting on the part of many cast members that does it in. Even Camille, who is supposed to be our protagonist, is so underwritten that it’s hard to feel much of anything about her.
Seance is at its best when it fully embraces being a slasher movie. There’s one legitimately good sequence with a murder at ballet rehearsal that feels inspired by a lot of late 1990s teen horror. And there’s a sense that Seance wants to riff on that style, but it doesn’t have enough creative ambition to stand out as anything other than a cheap knockoff of the films that were cheaply knocking off Scream twenty years ago. Any twists and turns it might have are laborious in execution and extremely obvious.
By the time it goes into full slasher mode, the pace finally picks up, and you can tell that the filmmakers are starting to have a little bit of fun. But that’s spoiled almost immediately by some truly groan-worthy third-act revelations. In terms of motive, the bar has never been particularly high in the teen slasher genre — we’ll take pretty much any explanation for violence that we’re handed. But Seance fails to meet even that low standard. If it took itself a little less seriously, it might be campy and fun, but it never feels like it’s in on the joke. A sly wink to the camera (figuratively speaking) would do wonders for Seance, but it’s surprisingly humorless.
It’s hard to be this critical of Seance. After all, even bad horror can be entertaining in its own way. But Seance manages to be not just bad. It commits the cardinal sin of the horror genre: it’s boring. And the bottom line is, there’s so much good horror being made right now for every conceivable taste. So why waste your time with a tepid boarding school slasher with all the scares of a below-average episode of Scooby-Doo?