THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Sometimes atmosphere is an underrated element in horror films. Classics like Carnival of Souls and even the original Night of the Living Dead dripped with creepy nuances that do more for many viewers than all the gore in the world. Even recent films like The Others up the tension in an attempt to cause some goose bumps. Viewers who go for this school of scary should check out Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), a film that is almost haunted itself in its simplicity.
The film's story is very simple, although to describe it would be to remove one of the best aspects of it. Most of the major plot points are revealed slowly and without overstating. For the first twenty minutes the audience doesn't even really know what the characters are talking about. The film itself seems to be in a trance. The only thing that's clear from the obtuse dialog and strange characters is that some sort of scheme is afoot.
The scheme undertaken by Myra and Bill Savage (Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough) is only shown as it happens. Given the slow, deliberate pace employed by director Bryan Forbes this technique creates some excellent tension. Numerous scenes play out almost silently as Myra or Bill enact some portion of their plan. The audience has no option but to bite their nails.
Set in then-contemporary London, the film creates the dreary, overcast look with excellent use of silky black-and-white photography and the vaulted gothic manor in which the Savages live. The sets and props all serve to create the mood, from the slow-burning candles to the old record player to the strange all-white room where... Oh, that's right. I'm not going to tell you.
The cast is also excellent. Stanley is perfectly unhinged as Myra, a woman just barely gripping the edge of sanity. What's wrong with her is something the film doesn't just blurt out, but from the beginning it's clear that she doesn't see or hear things the same way most people do. Attenborough (who later directed films like Gandhi and Chaplin and co-starred in Jurassic Park) plays Bill as a downtrodden, repressed sad-sack. He's the victim of Myra's strange whims, a somewhat unwilling participant in her plans.
Overall the film entertains quite nicely. Ultimately it doesn't do much more than follow its plot to its inevitable conclusion. It doesn't attempt to make any grand statements and it doesn't have to. The characters are interesting, the production is handsome and the leads have the ability to really draw an audience in.
The anamorphic widescreen video here looks okay from a transfer stand-point. The image is usually clear and focused, probably for the first time on a home format. Additional sharpness has been applied, sometimes creating edge-enhancement, but far less than some other releases. The shame here is that the print used has a tremendous amount of dirt and distracting damage in the early scenes. This quiets down over time but never completely goes away. Actually, the amount of dirt in the first reel is almost shocking. Doesn't anyone over as Home Vision Entertainment have a lint-free cloth?
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is probably the mix originally used with the film but it sounds worn and thin. Sometimes the voices are tough to understand, other times the music and dialog vary wildly in volumes. It's a shame that more care couldn't have been lavished on this film. No subtitles are included, which is too bad. They would have been useful.
Nothing, not even a trailer.
Email Gil Jawetz at firstname.lastname@example.org
While the disc may be no great shakes in the tech departments there is something beyond razzle-dazzle to Seance. It gets under your skin. The way it barely lets you in on the facts only makes you want to catch up all the more. The characters are driven by motivations outside of the usual caper-flick cliches and that, along with the unforgettable atmosphere, makes the film a must-see for fans of moody British suspense films.