Thursday, October 11, 2012

Creepy as Hell: "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964)

Bryan Forbes wrote the screenplay and directed one of the most suspenseful films of the 1960's. Kim Stanley, who received an Oscar nomination for her work, is a psychic medium living in a big dark house with her ill, out of work husband Richard Attenborough.

The pair, completely out of touch with reality, are not living well on the once weekly readings Stanley gives in her sitting room. They hit upon a horrible plan, but with what they think are good intentions. They decide to kidnap a child and hold it for ransom. Then they will offer her psychic services to the grieving family, magically divine where the child and ransom are, and reap the rewards.

The kidnapping goes off without too many glitches. The couple fools the businessman's daughter into thinking she is in a hospital with German measles. In reality, she is locked in their upstairs spare room, painted white for effect. Attenborough procures the ransom after Stanley drops some tantalizing hints to the child's family that the girl is all right. Attenborough begins to have a change of heart. Stanley has other plans.

When Stanley goes into her seance trance, her contact spirit is the couple's stillborn son. Stanley was never able to hold the child. Now the spirit Arthur wants a playmate, who better than the sick little girl upstairs?

Despite a confusing first twenty minutes, this is incredible stuff. Forbes grabs the viewer by the neck and forces them to feel both sympathy and revulsion at the kidnapping couple. Kim Stanley, a native of New Mexico, pulls off a British accent without a hitch. She is the most disturbed caregiver in movie history until Kathy Bates came along in "Misery." Richard Attenborough is a milquetoast who follows Stanley along like a lap dog, careful not to upset his psychologically fragile wife. Their scenes together, where they manipulate each other, are brilliant pieces of acting.

Forbes turns the suspense up past the Hitchcockian degree. His scenes with the girl's mother at a seance while the child is calling out for her in the next room are priceless. His camera is always doing interesting things without disturbing the actors' work. The sound design is also good, see how long it takes before the constant ticking clock in the living room drives you mad.

John Barry's musical score is great, and wisely used sparingly. The black and white photography does not age the film, but adds to the already gray characters. These are people you feel for, and hate, at the same time.

Despite the title, this is not a horror film. This is a psychological thriller that no one seems to be able to make anymore in this day and age of panic rooms. No special effects here, just quiet madness lurking in the same room as where you watch this film.

I will not be able to get "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" out of my head for awhile, and you should probably try to get it into yours. Definitely fantastic. (* * * * *) out of five stars.