While between naps on Ireland, I came across a movie on TV that I had nearly forgotten about. It’s titled “Séance on a Wet Afternoon.” It stars Kim Hunter and Richard Attenborough. The movie is a study of the psychological deterioration of a woman claiming to be a medium who connects with the spiritual world through her stillborn son Arthur. She convinces her unemployed husband to “borrow” a child so that she can use her pretend psychic talents to lead the police to the child’s whereabouts, thereby demonstrating her skills. The movie was made in the early 1960s and was part of the “British Invasion”, a period where America became fascinated with all things British, in part because of the Beatles. Séance is filmed in brutal black and white.
Attenborough plays a weak husband who agrees to his wife’s sad plan, partially because he loves her and partially because he is frightened of her. Hunter is mesmerizing in her role. She has an almost ethereal look on her face as she plots the horror to unfold. She will at times listen to her huge Victrola that had a gigantic morning glory horn. She visits the parents of the kidnapped child and is so earnest that it is difficult for them to be skeptical of her self-proclaimed talent.
Hunter’s character is careful never to let the child see her face- she always wears a mask while pretending to be a nurse. A key turning point in the movie is when Attenborough inadvertently lets the child see his face. This sealed the child’s fate. The movie ends with a séance conducted for the police inspector investigating the child’s disappearance. The medium’s psychological state had deteriorated to the point that she confessed the plot and the child’s death. This scene is a tour de force for Hunter, who vacillates between victim and victimizer.
There are several noteworthy features of this movie. The first is Hunter’s performance. She inhabits her character and is stunningly convincing as she spirals into psychosis. The second is Attenborough who is outstanding in creating a character that is weak, morally torn, fragile, and frightened. The third is the cinematography that highlights the depressing countryside. The final absolutely stunning feature about this movie is that the child is indeed murdered. In general, American films tend to shy away from showing children being hurt, let alone being killed. This act of violence is so chilling that it elevates the movie from being just a psychological study to being a horror film of the first order.
As an interesting aside, I found out that this movie had been made into an opera which was recently premiered in Santa Barbara. The music was written by Stephen Schwartz of Broadway musical fame. The reviews I read said that Séance on stage is either Broadway-heavy or Opera-light. I’ll stick with the movie