Writer/Director Mark L. Smith must like concise location shoots. After all, Smith is the man behind the screenplay for last years semi-solid fright flick VACANCY and that film was set almost entirely in some parallel dimension version of the Bates Motel. In SÉANCE Smith sets his film in a run-down apartment complex that now serves as dorm room housing for a group of college students.
Three girls and a pair of guys remain in the dorms over a long Thanksgiving holiday. Being young and bored, the girls—Lauren (Kandis Erickson), Melina (Tori White) and Alison (Chauntal Lewis) along with Alison’s boyfriend Diego (A.J. Lamas) decide to jack some alcohol from the night watchman’s desk and have a little fun of their own. When Lauren gets a little too liquored up she inadvertently interrupts Grant’s (Joel Geist) –the guy at the end of the hall—beauty rest. Later to make up for this, she awakens him again to deliver a slice of pizza as a peace offering.
Lauren and Grant both seem to share a common link. Each of them has seen the ghost of a little girl roaming the halls and Lauren is convinced that her room is haunted. Grant has seen the girl as well and researched the phenomenon. Little Cara Furia (Bridget Shergalis) who once lived in the apartment that is now Lauren and Melina’s room fell down an elevator shaft decades ago and now she apparently haunts the halls of the converted apartment complex. After Lauren tries in vain to convince her friends that she’s not crazy, Diego—having recently completed a paper on the subject of séances—decides they should conduct one to try and discover why the girl is here. What Diego doesn’t realize (as his grade on the paper clearly attests) is that séances are used to contact dead spirits that are not already present. So when the gang can’t reach Cara they wind up bringing back the spirit of executed serial killer—and former building maintenance man—James Spence (HIGHLANDER’S Adrian Paul). Now, as her dorm mates are being systematically eliminated, Lauren must discover what the ghost of Cara has been trying to tell her before she and all of her friends are dead.
Like VACANCY, Smith’s plot is a paint-by-numbers genre thriller. Where it fails and VACANCY succeeds is in pacing and characterization. SÉANCE is woefully dull and populated by the worst kind of cardboard cutout casting. The film’s major creep factor comes from a whistled version of the children’s tune “itsy bitsy spider”. It’s the calling card for the character of Spence—played virtually mute by Paul. Perhaps it seems scarier that Spence never talks, after all he is a ghost, and since Cara never speaks, the film hardly defies its internal logic on that part. But still, if you’re going to cast a name actor in your project, you generally give the dude some lines. Technically, Spence gets to talk for a moment in a brief flashback scene, but really, it’s like two sentences.
The film has two shining moments of hope in the screenplay—hardly enough to salvage the barrage of mediocrity that makes up the other 86 minutes of “been there, done that” filmmaking on display. The first is a humorous homage to PORKY’S as the peeping tom night watchman gets an eye-full of something he was definitely not expecting when he thinks he’s spying on Melina in the shower. The second also comes courtesy of Diego’s character. When he’s posed with the question—supposedly because he’s some kind of expert on the occult (remember the paper he wrote)—“why don’t you cast a spell?” Diego, whose terrified, frantically replies, “Do I look like Harry fucking Potter!” I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for self-effacing-pop-culture-references in the face of mortal danger.
If you’re looking for little more than pretty-people being chased around an old building by a spectral madman, you could do worse than checking out SÉANCE. But if you need a real storyline and some semblance of cast commitment then you’re going to be barking up the wrong tree here. The film is just the very definition of “you get in what you put in”. It’s like the Top Ramen of horror cinema, cheap and easy to make but lacking in any real flavor and satisfaction—drunken college cuisine to the max!