Seance is described as a mystery thriller, and in the 1970’s might have passed muster, but in the second decade of the twenty first century, the movie is a grindingly slow affair that could actually have deserved the genre classification had it been 2/3 shorter.
The first thirty minutes is spent hammering home how lonely and devastated William (Bill) Trigger (Daniel Rankin) is at the loss of his fiancée Theresa (Stephanie Wakefield). And this would be fine if not for the repetitiveness of the shots which leave little to the imagination, and while it can really be like that when you’re suffering loss, there’s only so much you can pad it out if you’re calling your movie a thriller. The common expectation of the genre is that something actually happens.
The first real plot development occurs when a friend (and this is pushing the envelope as he’s an arrogant pushy bugger) convinces Bill to go meet some “Girls” (Cassandra played by Bronwyn Murphy, and Wendy, Lara Welsh). Sam (Piers Cunningham) has an idea that all that Bill needs is some alternate female company to snap himself out of the presumed death of his Theresa.
Indeed, the movie could have actually started here without any issues. Less is more in movie making, but the filmmakers have chosen the opposite approach, going over and over already established facts. Indeed, the dialogue, the delivery and staging really needed work, and perhaps after a few more drafts, the movie would have been improved. Writer Nathan Hill and supervising writer Simon Salamon might have been better getting a third wheel in to polish the dialogue because at times it’s unconvincing as the actors deliver their lines.
When the seance actually takes place, the girls insist that Bill needs to trust them, because that’s always a convincing argument when you say it out loud; not even Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) pulled that one off. They get freaked out by the movement of the glass on the board which spells out “Satan” and Bill, unsurprisingly calls it a day. But he does it in such a subdued way that it’s hard to tell what he’s feeling. Yes, he’s clearly depressed, but the three alleged friends have just insulted him and pulled his chain, then refused to talk about it.
There’s attempts by director Nathan Hill to add some style, but the staging is lacking as everything appears shot with a fixed camera; the talking heads scenes get a mention here and they actually prevent the actors from acting as there’s no chance to express themselves; some ADR to add dialogue with reaction shots would definitely have added some visual panache. This may have been a constriction of budget, but again, it makes the movie visually repetitive. Going one step further, perhaps the addition of a dolly (or something improvised) and a second camera would also have improved the visuals. Similarly, the night scenes were difficult to see, especially the one featuring the sleeping bag which was basically just a dark shape with Bill’s heavy breathing; But some simple dark filters and shooting during daytime or twilight would have made the scene clearer. In fairness, low budgets don’t stretch particularly far, and perhaps this was a weekend shoot; but it looks that way, and doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
But the biggest issue with Seance is the movie needed a good editor to cut away the unnecessary and focus in on the story. So for example in the scene where Sam puts a sleeping bag over Bill, we don’t need to see him pick up the bag, we just need to see him drape it over his friend; the latter implies the former. When Bill is alone and unhappy, we don’t need to see him going through everything in the fridge to find something to eat; we can take it as read when he’s got something on his plate, and if the point was to demonstrate he hasn’t bought anything for a while, then just have him empty the fridge into a bin rather than smell every single thing, because yes, that would happen in real life, but we don’t need to see it in a movie.
There’s the germ of a good idea here, and with a more compressed, less repetitive script, more polished dialogue and snappier editing and direction, this could have been pulled off. Indeed, if someone were clever, they could put together a fifteen to twenty minute “supercut” of Seance which is punchy, direct and conveys the story in such a way as to deserve the Mystery Thriller classification.