Before I start with this film, let me state a simple truth – I am not religious and am not particularly a fan of religion in general. However, usually I can look past and ignore overly religious elements in fictional work in favour of the story and themes inherent in that work – ‘The Exorcist’ is a good example, or Dante’s ‘Inferno’. It’s a lot harder to do that here.
‘Séance: The Summoning’, a 2012 film by Alex Wright, is about four friends that decide to do a séance in a morgue. Okay, there is a reason behind this, in a way – Eva (Nanzeen Contractor) claims to be able to communicate with the dead via arcane ritual, and her friend Marcus (Chris Olivero) wishes to film this and use it as a his student film. Also tagging along is Joey (Bobby Campo), a sceptic and Eva’s ex, and Sara (Devon Ogden), a born again Christian (what she’s doing at a séance is anyone’s guess).
The reason they’re at a morgue is because Marcus is a security guard there and can give them access, with the reasoning being that there will be more spirts there. Now, I won’t say I’m too well versed on this matter but surely spirts tend to linger where they died, and not where they’re bodies are? Or they go to heaven/ hell or whatever afterlife they believe in? Haunting a morgue sounds really rather boring.
Anyway, they explore the morgue, and get down to the Séance. In a panic, Joey breaks the ring of hands that is supposedly keeping them safe after witnessing a black mist, and we learn he’s a natural spirit talker, which he tries to hide. As a result, a demon manages to possess him and trap the others in the morgue to torment them, planning to eventually kill them all.
Okay, the plot is really generic. That’s fine, it happens. However, this film has a bonus on its side – the setting. Morgues are creepy places, and they can be put to effective use. ‘Séance’ doesn’t do that. In fact, the morgue setting is, by and large, irrelevant to the film, and there would be no real difference to the plot had it been anywhere else. This is most frustrating when we are told that the morgue houses a large collection of bodies of vagrants and homeless people, and we are shown the corpse of a mutilated woman – all of these things could have been brought back into the film in unsettling ways, especially if you imagine the many horrific ways people can die in urban life.
But no, the morgue setting is simply wasted.
It should also be noted that this is a morgue-cum-funeral home, as it also has a display room for coffins and a chapel. The morgue is also located in an abandoned building that is severely deteriorating. This is what’s known as ‘not having the budget for a set’.
Now, if you’re wondering why I had that little paragraph about religion, here’s why – about halfway through the film, after Joey is possessed, Sara explains the importance of Christ and that faith in Christ is the only way to save themselves, both spiritually and physically. What follows is 40 minutes of bible quoting and ill-researched moments of religious insults and preaching (particularly in regards to abortion being a sin and forgetting that the bible preaches genocide and mass murder).
Again, I wold be fine with this if it was handled well. It is not. The film ham-fistedly throws Christianity into our faces and makes a whole deal about how it is the only way to be saved. At no point is there any alternate method considered, at no point is it thought that any other religion could be fine. No, Christianity is the only way to live.
On a similar subject, the writing in this film is just terrible. Characters seem to gain and lose character traits in an instant, and motivations become unclear immediately. We are supposed to sympathise with these characters, some of whom are given backstory, but the delivery and writing is so blunt and poorly delivered that it fails to work. It also doesn’t help that the film favours the ‘tell, don’t show’ approach to things, and fails to present any visuals to half of the dialogue aside from people talking. In the case of Joey and Sara’s tragic pasts, we are simply told them – there is nothing to show that they are being haunted by their pasts. There are no flashbacks, no signs of them having troubled lives, and their stories are told simply through description and nothing more. It’s poor filmmaking.
Speaking of, the direction is below par as well. Whilst it’s competent, there are many shots that drag on for way too long, and a great deal of visual repetition. It’s also very clear where practical props are going to be used as the director makes a point never to position the camera where it will not see the props. The amount of tension that’s lost because things occur off-screen is beyond imagination.
It is also clear that the director (who is also the writer) does not know how to handle his characters. Scenes where violence and tragedy occur are ignored immediately afterwards where the characters have calm conversations and act as if nothing’s happened. There is no immediate sense of shock or loss, as the dialogue tends to ignore these aspects until it fits into the script better. Having a character burst into tears several minutes after an event has occurred and after conversation is not good scripting.
In terms of bad character writing, Sara takes the cake. From the moment of the possession, she becomes solo focus for much of the remaining runtime, and suddenly becomes cool, calm and collected and can handle any situation, including producing medical knowledge on the proper way to reposition bone and splint broken legs. Her new-found knowledge and demeanour comes out of nowhere and doesn’t work with the character presented earlier.
Finally on the character front, apparently demonic possession just turns you into a very hammy actor. There is nothing particularly menacing or dramatic about somebody making exaggerated faces or waving their tongue at you.
The films audio department is just as dodgy. There is no effort in making the audio mix unnerving or creepy, or even in providing unsettling gore sound effects. The sound feels lacking and unfinished, as if they didn’t think of adding in any sound and did so at the last minute upon noticing how empty the film felt. There are a few licensed songs which aren’t too bad (depending upon music taste), but are ultimately forgetful. The film’s original soundtrack is incredibly poor with no consistent theme or even consistent usage – it often plays at the less intense moments, or is absent when needed most. Sound design in horror films can elevate the core body into something truly disturbing, but here it feels as though the creators just weren’t trying.
‘Séance’ is the worst kind of film – one that provides you with hints and ideas how it will bend the genre clichés, but instead dogmatically follows it. Worst of all, it carries a very ham-fisted, right wind Christian propaganda message to it and damns anyone that disagrees with it – a matter made worse by the fact that the character who gets possessed manages to point out far too many actual truths and good arguments against religion, but the writer punishes him for it. This is a movie designed to appeal to the Christian core – also known as the people that don’t watch horror. Séance is an insult, underwhelming film that cannot be recommended unless you wish to torture yourself. The power of Christ compels you to go watch something better.