Seance gives horror fans a dose of nostalgia of stylized 90s horror films like the Scream franchise and The Craft. It leaves room for character revelations and possible kinships that we didn't necessarily see coming.
Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.
I had the great opportunity to speak with Seance writer/director Simon Barrett about his love of the horror genre, how he broke into the business, working on the cult favorite film VHS and his fascinating background as a private investigator.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What about the horror genre piqued your interest as a storyteller?
Simon Barrett: You know, I wish I had a better and more nuanced understanding of why I'm drawn to the horror genre. And you know maybe it's the kind of thing that like I should invest in some serious therapy one of these days, but as a child, I basically was just like obsessed with horror movies in the way that like kids are where that you know that there's like films that are kind of too scary for you to watch. And so you don't want to watch them but of course you like also do, you know? And you know obviously the kind of films I'm referring to are probably like The Ghost of Mr. Chicken and The Ghostbusters and like Gorga or you know the films that like terrified me as a child. I'm not referring to actual scary movies like Candyman or something like that. But then I did see Candyman when I was like 12, and it both traumatized me and I thought it was probably the best movie I've ever seen. One of the reasons I like Zuckerman's music so much, who did the score for Seance, he kind of has that Philip Glass feel to me of minimalist classical music, that was used so beautifully in Candyman in a way that I've never seen before.
I think there is something about that genre that just appeals to my brain and probably the way that I'm just like wired as an organism. Which is that I think I do somewhat have a cynical worldview and so I prefer stories that take place in a world that's recognizable to me which is one in which suffering exists and people are, more or less, are kind of driven by baser impulses. I think those tend to be the stories that I just find more inherently compelling and perhaps relatable.
The first script I ever sold was a low budget horror script that I wrote for myself to direct back in 2003, and I didn't end up directing it. I sold it and it was directed wonderfully by a gentleman named Alex Turner, the film Dead Birds, which came out in 2004. That was my first foot in the door, and it wasn't lost on me that writing something, like all my previous scripts everyone just felt were too weird, but Dead Birds was a completely weird script. It was a contained horror movie, so people bought it and made it, and I was able to like pay off a fraction of my debt. [laughs] in my early 20s which made me by far the most successful of my friends. It made an impression. I love the horror genre, and maybe I'm not bad at coming up with my own stories, even though I kind of always thought I was gonna be more like an action thriller director, if anything, like in terms of the stuff that I was making as a teenager. My favorite movies were always you know Re-Animator, Evil Dead, Brain Dead, it was all stuff like that that I was obsessed with.
I guess the lesson with Dead Birds was horror fans, as long as you deliver on what they expect, which is some scares, they're willing to let you get pretty weird and experimental. And in fact, they appreciate it if you do because they’re so sick of being fed the same thing by studios that have contempt for them. And that was very galvanizing for me, so I was like, ‘Oh I can get really weird,’ in a film like The Guest or You’re Next as long as it delivers on kind of the core promise of its premise. By the way, both those films were box office disasters, so turned out that I was wrong about that, but I’m still trying.
Sadie: You’ve definitely worked on a variety cult favorites from VHS to The Blair Witch Project as well. How did you find your way in with those teams?
Simon: We did the third Blair Witch film, which was kind of brought to us by Lionsgate as a possible project that we were really excited about after they bought You’re Next. And the reason we were involved in that was because we've done VHS Two, with the original filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. It's oddly like a big circle, because in going back to the original VHS that goes back to when I first started trying to work with Adam Wingard, we were trying to make a movie for $100,000 called A Horrible Way to Die, and we could not get anyone to give us $100,000 And ultimately we convinced a producer named Zak Zeman to support our film and Zak was heavily involved. He was a great producer and VHS was his next project with Brad Miska, who runs BloodyDisgusting.com, and Brad had really helped connect Adam and me with that. And so, we were kind of like “Ride or Die” for whatever Brad was doing and he wanted to do some kind of found footage horror anthology, working with producer Roxanne Benjamin, who we're both friends with as well, and still are. We were kind of this is a great team, we wanted to do it, but we think it should be more like a feature than like a web series, and it just kind of came about in this weird way. I mean, Adam and I shot the wrap around for VHS before anything else filmed, which is why one of the interstitial segments is just Kentucker Audley looking depressed and putting a VHS tape in the VCR, because we didn't know how many segments we were going to have. It's kind of like a mess but it was just a bunch of broke indie horror filmmakers running around making these shorts for like no money, and then it got into Sundance and we ended up making a sequel that no one wanted or asked for. And now we're doing it again. I just directed part of the VHS 94 up in Toronto earlier this year. Everyone wants a sequel to The Guest or You’re Next. And I keep giving them VHS sequels, as some sort of like perverse creative endeavor. [laughs]
It just kind of like happened I mean we weren't making any money off that. During that period Adam was mostly living on my couch, and I was still working a day job as a private investigator, and we were both miserable and angry and crazy people and I think you can really sense that in the first VHS, that we were kind of just trying to get people's attention. And I guess that is kind of what makes a cool movie sometimes it's just like young angry confused filmmakers trying to not starve [laughs] and get attention. I did kind of want to come back to the VHS series and direct a segment specifically because I think I've grown as an artist, I think I can maybe do a better job now than I did on VHS Two.
The experience of making these films that maybe aren't that well received when they first come out but, you know, develop a following and develop a fan base is a wonderfully gratifying thing, and I'm extremely grateful to anyone who watches those films and likes them at the same time. I do think it would be nice to experience success on the front end [laughs] one of these days, and I'd like to try that, eventually.
Sadie: Well, you're definitely on the right path. Just to backtrack, you were a private investigator?
Simon: Yeah, I'm still licensed in the state of California.
Sadie: Any stories fall into any of your writing from those experiences?
Simon: I mean, no, it would be contractually problematic I guess for me to like talk too much directly about anything that I've done, but I will say that there's probably a reason that while I was doing, You’re Next, The Guest, Seance original scripts, all have something kind of similar which is characters that are constantly lying to each other. [laughs] And this kind of sense that people just aren't really noble to one another. And I think if anything that was kind of how I process doing PI work in my scripts. I think after Séance, I'm extremely done with the thing where like a mysterious stranger causes a slasher movie and it ends with a final Scooby Doo monologue. I think I'm done with that, but I do think that was kind of result of my PI work. The funny thing is I think one of the reasons I became a private investigator in the weirdest of ways I got I was placed in a temp agency to redo their filing at a PI firm. And after a week of me just wearing my discman and redoing the files, they were just like, “Hey, how'd you like to become an investigator? We like you.” I was like, “What's the pay?” and they were like, “$13.50 an hour,” which I still remember that figure and I was like, “Whoa $13.50 an hour! Hell yeah I’ll be a private investigator.” I was like 20 at the time, I did this work when I was living in Brooklyn like 2001 to 2002. I did it for a while, just as a day job and I mean I loved my coworkers, the company was great, it was great for an aspiring filmmaker because I had a lot of flexibility, but you know the work was occasionally really stressful when it wasn't boring. I do think that probably did have an effect on my brain and that's why I did kind of want to get these original stories kind of out there in the world. And now that I've made Seance I don't think I'm going to do that thing anymore where like everyone's lying to each other in scripts. I think with Seance the kind of goal was to do a version that is a little more optimistic, and that shows that genuine human connections are still possible. And then therefore, we should move on from this now. And that's my goal.
Sadie: Yeah, just get it out of your system.
Simon: Yeah, I really think that way, because I've written a few scripts since then and they're not doing that thing.
Sadie: What was the inspiration behind writing Seance?
Simon: You know, really just the films that I loved. I grew up reading murder mysteries, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyre and I also devoured Baby Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books. I've read literally hundreds of both those, hundreds, not a joke, definitely over 300. [laughs] And, which is a testament how shockingly published those books are. And that just kind of lead directly into my love of the slasher genre and kind of where 80s horror was when I was a little kid. And so, I think that you know that's the genre that made the greatest impression on my brain when my brain was still forming and I was developing an understanding narrative, somewhere between And Then There Were None and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. I think there's a reason I wanted that to become my first feature as a director, because that's the sort of story that I have spent a lot of time enjoying and kind of thinking about.
Sadie: Thank you so much for talking and best of luck with the film and the infinite number of VHS movies.
Simon: [laughs] Exactly, yeah. Thank you so much!
SEANCE is available in theaters, on demand and digital May 21, 2021.
IN THEATERS: May 21, 2021
ON DEMAND AND DIGITAL: May 21, 2021
DIRECTOR: Simon Barrett
WRITER: Simon Barrett
CAST: Suki Waterhouse, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Inanna Sarkis, Seamus Patterson and Marina Stephenson-Kerr
SYNOPSIS: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.
RUN TIME: 93 minutes
RATING: Not Rated
DISTRIBUTOR: RLJE Films / Shudder