“Seance,” opening Friday in theaters and on video on demand, might not reach the caliber of “Scream,” but it is a horror movie that’s smart about how horror movies work.
It begins with a late-night ritual in a bathroom of the Edelvine Academy for Girls as a group of students attempt to call the Edelvine ghost, the spirit of a girl who died there.
One girl, Kerrie (Megan Best), is skeptical, but nervous. At first nothing happens, but then a noise comes from a bathtub. A curtain is whooshed aside, and the tub is filled with blood.
Then a figure with long, stringy hair over its face arises from the murk.
It’s a good, creepy scene. But it’s a prank, played by clique leader Alice (YouTuber Inanna Sarkis).
The movie’s rules are established. It’s never clear which scenes are pranks, which are nightmares and which are real ghosts or murderers… or combinations of those.
The stunt sends Kerrie dashing to her room. Then her lifeless body is on the pavement below.
As in Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria” — to which “Seance” pays homage — a new girl will fill the vacancy.
Camille (Suki Waterhouse) arrives during a drifting snowfall. Everything is hushed and still, and Camille herself seems frozen on the inside, speaking in flat, no-nonsense tones, with not a wasted word uttered.
She makes friends with sweet, shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), but immediately gets in bad with Alice and her diverse crew, which includes Bethany (Madisen Beaty), Lenora (Jade Michael), Rosalind (Djouliet Amara) and Yvonne (Stephanie Sy).
After a full-on fistfight, the headmistress sends them to detention in the gloomy basement library. Sharing a kind of uneasy truce, they decide to perform the title séance, summoning Kerrie, which, unfortunately, sets off a series of murders.
“Seance” is the feature directing debut of screenwriter Simon Barrett, who has worked with director Adam Wingard. Their films “You’re Next” and “The Guest” also tried to subvert genre conventions.
They also teams on the horror-savvy anthology films “V/H/S,” “The ABCs of Death” and “V/H/S/2”; Barrett cut his teeth directing the wraparound sequence for the latter film.
For “Seance,” Barrett has Italian cinema on his mind, from the luscious font of opening and closing titles to the heavy spurting and gushing gore when the killings get started in earnest.
And, as in “Suspiria,” these girls even study ballet!
In one sequence, Yvonne twirls on a stage decorated with tall, white columns framing creepy mannequins dressed in bridal gowns. The scene recalls Mario Bava’s 1964 classic, “Blood and Black Lace.”
It’s so creepy, we almost can forgive the fact that Yvonne is committing standard horror stupidity, being alone, in the dark, with headphones on and a murderer on the loose.
More than paying homage, though, Barrett employs the moodiness of the Italian masterpieces to help deliver scary set-pieces. Due to the stillness, nothing is telegraphed. When a knife slashes or a grabby hand suddenly lurches out, the mood makes the motion more shocking.
But it has a side effect. It makes the movie a tad less emotional than it could be, especially given the nature of its relationships. Characters are inherently lonely, seemingly able to attach themselves only to one person.
Those tentative relationships should feel more intense, more fragile. In particular, a final farewell could have been much stronger if Barrett could have lifted the mood for a moment, and allowed Waterhouse to carry it.
Waterhouse, who is also a model, is not always so subdued. Already with a resume full of genre films, she has shown an appealing wild side in “Assassination Nation” and Ana Lily Amirpour’s underrated “The Bad Batch,” as well as the “New Year, New You” episode of Hulu’s horror series “Into the Dark.”
Barrett does allow her to get tough in “Seance,” especially when she jumps into action to solve the murders. “I don’t care. But whatever it is I don’t want it to happen to me,” she deadpans. But a little more tenderness could have worked wonders, too.
Even so, “Seance” is a notable debut, with effective atmosphere and a good story. Barrett also gets credit for the scene in which the plot is explained to the heroes — James Bond style — done in a way that doesn’t feel dumb or phony, and is nicely, cleverly cockeyed.
Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Ella-Rae Smith, Madisen Beaty
Written and directed by: Simon Barrett
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes