I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of this movie until fairly recently, when it was recommended to me by a friend on Facebook. The phenomenal British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon is an absolute marvel of atmospheric mood and incredible psychological depth. It’s not a horror movie per se, but it is an intensely disturbing, absorbing thriller that garnered gobs and gobs of accolades when it came out back in 1964, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for lead Kim Stanley. She lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, which is a terrible shame, though not all that surprising, frankly. Don’t get me wrong, I love Julie Andrews, but I definitely think Kim Stanley got robbed in this case. Her portrayal of a mentally unstable spirit medium was so nuanced and eerie that I found myself completely enthralled by the way her character came across as so sweet and harmless on the surface, while a manipulative, dark insanity lurked just beneath.
The plot basically details a completely batshit scheme that working-class medium Myra Savage concocts to get attention and notoriety for her supposed psychic abilities. The film remains ambiguous about whether her abilities are real, but she clearly believes that they are, and that her stillborn son Arthur is acting as her spirit guide at the weekly séances she holds in their home. I’ve mentioned before how much I love this type of ambiguity in films, and it’s especially good here; while we become unshakably certain over the course of the film that Myra is quite insane, we’re never entirely sure whether her mediumship is a cause or an effect of her insanity.
Using her cowed, milquetoast husband Billy (played by Richard Attenborough) to do her dirty work, Myra kidnaps (or “borrows,” as she insists on calling it) the daughter of a very wealthy, connected couple and ransoms the child for £25,000. Initially, Myra and Billy don’t plan to hurt the child or even keep the ransom money; their intentions are far more convoluted and insidious than that, and it’s implied that they’ve been refining the details for years. In a nutshell, they plan to keep the child and the ransom money hidden until Myra has made contact with the child’s parents and the police, whereupon she will claim that she has received messages from beyond that tell her where the child and the money can be found. She is sure that this will make a name for her throughout the land, and she hopes the news of her success will lead to fame and riches down the line.
As should be obvious from the type of film this is, the plan ultimately doesn’t go the way it was supposed to, and slowly sprouts ever more disturbing tendrils as Myra’s fragile hold on sanity begins to crumble away. Because the film doesn’t make clear from the beginning what the specifics of Myra’s plan are, and doesn’t explicitly lay out how she begins to subtly change the details as the story progresses, it’s a rather gripping watch; the tension keeps escalating as the viewer wonders what exactly the endgame is, and what exactly will go wrong.
The creepiest thing about this film, I thought, was the interplay between Myra and Billy, and the unspoken dynamic between them that made the presumably decent but weak-willed Billy go along with his wife’s obviously delusional ideas without too much complaint. Myra does not browbeat Billy into doing her will; she does not threaten him. Their relationship is such that she does not need to; she is able to convince him through the sheer force of her seemingly reasonable wheedling, and her slow escalation of requests that ultimately leave Billy in the same position as that fabled frog in boiling water. He obviously loves her dearly, and because he does, he has accepted that she sees him as nothing more than a tool to facilitate her own desires. In this way, Billy is quite a tragic character, subsuming his own identity and moral compass in deference to hers. At one point Myra tells him that the kidnapping of the child is simply a means to an end for them; no one is going to be hurt, she points out, and they won’t even be keeping the parents’ money, so what harm is there? “You agree with the end, don’t you?” she asks him in her soft, sweet voice, and when he assents, she follows with the seemingly logical conclusion, “Well, then you must agree with the means.” The great thing about this is that from their interactions, the viewer can really feel the weight of the years of their marriage behind them, of how her manipulation of Billy and his passive acceptance of it are simply par for the course. It is only at the very end of the film, when Myra has taken things one step too far, that Billy finally nuts up and blows the whistle on her, at which point she has lost her marbles to such a degree that she is no longer able to protest.
The scenes with Myra interacting with the kidnapped child are also pretty unsettling, as it’s clear that Myra views the girl in the exact same way she views Billy: as a thing that will get her the results she wants. She is never cruel to the child at all, but she is chillingly indifferent and detached, both when she speaks to her and when she speaks about her. That’s the great strength of Kim Stanley’s performance; the viewer is drawn in by her seemingly demure, motherly exterior and only slowly starts to realize that Myra is a sociopathic monster. It’s a fantastic study in the banality of evil.
Aside from the stellar characterization and almost unbearable suspense, the film also looks gorgeous, with lovely, atmospheric shots of candlelit faces around a séance table, or spooky houses reflected in puddles of rainwater. As I said before, it’s not strictly a horror film, but its look and subject matter definitely put it in the same league with the great ghost stories and thrillers of the period, and I would recommend it for any fans of either genre; it’s just a shame it’s not better known.