By MICHAEL GINGOLD
In SEANCE, now in theaters and on VOD/digital platforms from RLJE Films and Shudder, the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls is haunted by ghosts of the past. When new student Camille (Suki Waterhouse) joins the student body, she is drawn into the efforts of some of her classmates to raise the spirit of a deceased girl, and the horrors escalate from there.
There are echoes of the genre’s history floating through SEANCE as well. Writer/director Simon Barrett, making his debut at the helm after scripting Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST, YOU’RE NEXT and A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE among others, took cues from the Italian likes of PHENOMENA, AENIGMA and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, as he discussed in the first part of this interview. Below, that line of inquiry continues, and he also delves into the violence and the look of SEANCE…
Talking about the influence of Italian horror, is it a coincidence that the only class we see the girls attending in SEANCE is a ballet class?
No, obviously. It’s funny, I’ve seen a lot of references from people who have seen the film to SUSPIRIA; that’s on a lot of people’s minds, with the ballet element. But I was actually thinking more of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, where they’re always kind of coming in and out of dance class, and it just felt like a classical thing. Also, I’m still figuring out who I am as a director, and because I’ve been an associate instructor at the martial arts school I’ve trained at for 20 years, I like working with physical movement a lot. So I knew I wanted to have dance elements in SEANCE, because I couldn’t afford big fight scenes, and I wrote this elaborate dance scene for the Yvonne character. Again, I don’t have concrete creative reasons for doing these things until long after the fact. They just feel right, and I want to operate from that kind of instinct as much as I can, whenever producers give me the freedom to do so.
To be honest, I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been able to cast Stephanie Sy, who’s a phenomenal dancer, as Yvonne. I might not have had dance in the movie if I hadn’t found her, but fortunately, she auditioned and she could really move, and she basically choreographed her whole scene, working with a local woman named Brenda Gorlick. That’s the kind of situation where I got to take advantage of an actor’s talent, and let her tell me what the scene was going to be.
So yeah, I was shouting out to SUSPIRIA, but I don’t want to say that too much because SUSPIRIA’s a classic, and it would be kind of like me shouting out to THE GODFATHER, you know [laughs]? It’s like, who the hell does this guy think he is, saying stuff like that? That’s why I wanted my reference points to be films I thought were more achievable for me as a first-time director with a 22-day shoot and a low budget. That’s why I was looking more at things like AENIGMA [laughs].
SEANCE is fairly restrained in its horror for the first hour or so, then gets very graphic by the end. Was that always part of the design?
Yeah; I tend to write my endings first, because I think a bad movie with a good ending still feels like a good movie, you know? I always want to have my films end on a strong note. I’m a big fan of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, and how they build to these crazy, ridiculous climaxes, after the movies have layered in enough of a reality to earn that heightened absurdity. There was that element of wanting to seduce people into a reality where I could then do things that were kind of wild, and it would feel real in terms of the characters’ actions. That’s what we were trying for a lot with YOU’RE NEXT too.
But I would also say that I wanted to be very careful about the tone, because SEANCE is a film that at the end of the day is just trying to be entertaining, the way the movies that influenced me were fun, spooky murder-mystery/horror films. It was my first feature as a director, so I didn’t want to bite off too much. And with scenes of young women being murdered, you have to be careful, because it’s a matter of very personal sensibility. What one viewer might find sadistic or mean-spirited toward the characters, a more jaded horror fan–a Midnight Madness audience member–might cheer on and not think it’s cruel. I tend to have a lot of affection for my characters while I’m writing; they kind of tell me what the scenes are going to be, and I didn’t want to use them as cannon fodder. So it was important in SEANCE that the gorier and more explicit moments be saved for a time when the audience could purely enjoy them, rather than in some of the earlier scenes where it might feel too brutal, or like the film was tonally trying to punish you.
I think there’s room for both approaches. One of my absolute favorite films is the French movie INSIDE, which is quite cruel to its characters. To me it’s perfect, I would call it a masterpiece, but it’s not one that goes easy on its characters at all. You can make both types of films very respectfully and artistically, and I wanted SEANCE to be a bit sillier and a bit lighter, so I felt that if I brought the explicit horror content up front, people might not be ready for it, and it might turn them off from what I wanted the tone to be, where you take the characters kind of seriously. Ultimately, SEANCE is about two people making a connection, and it’s a small movie in its narrative, so I wanted to maintain that preciousness. If it was a bloodbath from minute one, it might feel like I was pointlessly killing characters, and I didn’t want that.
How did you collaborate with cinematographer Karim Hussain (POSSESSOR, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE) to create SEANCE’s atmosphere?
I’ve wanted to work with Karim for over a decade now. We’ve been pals due to our fandom; I vividly remember waiting in line at 8 a.m. to see Argento’s 3D DRACULA with Karim and Rob Cotterill at a film festival, which is the kind of viewing experience that creates lifelong friends. And I was always a fan of his work, going back to SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY. I knew Karim had exactly the right vision for SEANCE. He understood my goals for it completely, and I’m so lucky that he agreed to be involved.
Karim understands every single aspect of filmmaking, and he’s seen every horror movie ever made, so we were always on the same page. Some DPs only care about how a movie looks; Karim cares about the movie itself. You can say to him something like, “Hey, remember that shot in ARO TOLBUKHIN?” and he’ll be like, “Oh sure, totally,” and suddenly you’re looking at it. I’ve been fortunate to only work with great DPs throughout my career, but Karim is a special kind of genius, and I hope to work with him again as soon as possible.