In this new weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week we unearth a startling mix of crime and horror from the Swinging Sixties, fronted by a memorable Oscar-nominated performance.
The quality of the films coming out of the UK during the 1960s was quite strong, and Séance on a Wet Afternoon is another great example to support the argument. It holds a similar kind of eeriness as forerunners like The Haunting and The Innocents because their methodologies are fairly analogous: horror wrought by the female lead’s disintegrating psyche. The main differences are that this film is more of a thriller, the female lead is (incredibly) unsympathetic, and the supernatural elements much more in doubt. It is closer in nature to what Hitchcock would have directed, enamoured as he was with unstable antiheroes and elaborately-choreographed sequences. Here, for instance, good stretches of this film are wordless scenes of Richard Attenborough’s character hatching his wife’s schemes, all set against John Barry’s sinister and propulsive score. Like in any good Hitchcock, we consume these moments with avid focus, wondering when it will all go wrong and the villains will make their fatal error (as villains in these films inevitably do). The process in this case is of delayed gratification, because the villains somehow get away with quite a bit without any noticeable snags. Their worst enemy is their own selves: the gradual descent into madness for one, and the overbearing weight of guilt and shame for the other. More ruthless and mentally-sound individuals probably would’ve walked away victorious.
Like Deborah Kerr and Julie Harris before her, Kim Stanley has a manic energy to her that can fill you with danger and dread. Her calm, almost childlike personality is disconcerting, and you don’t need to wait to be told she’ll be up to no good. She is like the quieter, more sinister cousin of Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her thwarted attempt at motherhood has created such a gaping void that her struggles to fill it have left her permanently scarred and morally corrupt. It’s hard to take our eyes off her as a result. Attenborough has to equip himself as the saner, more stable part of the duo, and it’s to his credit he does not come across as duller. His perpetual misery and rebellious conscience allow him to play it all on his face, and it gives him a similarly compelling edge. One could even say he is the more fascinating figure. He follows his wife’s orders knowing full well they are wrong, yet he also knows more damage could be done if he refused. He does evil to prevent even greater evil, and we’re asked to ponder whether there is something even slightly noble about that.
Rainy day or no, this is a film that can be enjoyed anytime one is inclined towards something dark and unsettling. Close the drapes, light a candle, and go wild.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is currently available on DVD from Home Media Entertainment, and is also streaming on The Criterion Channel.