Sunday, October 12, 2014

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers **

For decades, I've heard of this movie as a (minor) classic.  Perhaps I should have suspected from the intriguing but rather precious title that the film would be very dry and British.  It's suspenseful, but it's just as invested in establishing social and psychological value, in not being seen as trading in the same exploitation as the main characters.  It flatters its audience -- it's the opposite of those films that implicate us for enjoying violence, crime, and cruelty.  Watching it, it struck me as being so careful and bloodless that it threatens to dry up and blow away.
It shares a lot of qualities with the crime and horror films of the early 1960s: beautiful black-and-white, the emphasis on sound (you can hear every rustle), the linking of rural life and abnormal psychology.  As such, it's the mild-mannered British relative to such films as Psycho, In Cold Blood, and The Haunting.  
It's about a middle-aged couple, both of them failures.  Myra's never gotten over the still-birth of her son, Arthur.  She's become a "medium," making money supposedly communicating with the dead.  Of course, this occupation buttresses her self-comforting belief that she's still in contact with her dead son, Arthur.
The film deserves credit for defying one of the strongest temptations to the filmmaker: it centers on a truly homely woman.  As played by actress Kim Stanley, Myra is a strong-willed woman who hasn't had much luck.  She admits that she married asthmatic milquetoast Billy (Richard Attenborough) because "You're weak, and you needed me."  She's had too much pain, and she'll do anything to avoid more.
They need money, so she's hatched a plot to get rich by kidnapping a little girl from a local school.  They will then arrange to offer her services as a medium to the parents of the girl.  It's fascinating that the plan is actually well-planned and well-executed, except for centering on a fantasy, the idea that the parents and police won't immediately suspect them of being the kidnappers.  They do, of course, and it's only a matter of time before the law closes in.  
So, it's a pretty good film, but I found it dated, more of a curio than a classic.  It will probably be liked best by people who avoid violent, disturbing, and horrifying films.  For anyone else, the film's portrayal of a suspenseful kidnapping while also exonerating its audience is quaint.

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