Classic Corner: Séance On A Wet Afternoon

Billy (Richard Attenborough) and Myra (Kim Stanley) live in a beautiful home inherited from her family, but between his medical issues and her mental state, money is clearly an issue. Myra’s medium work pays a pittance, but her motivations are driven, she maintains, by the spirit of her late son Arthur. Running on Arthur’s “idea,” Myra concocts a scheme to get the fame she desperately craves—kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy couple and then publicly using her “gift” to locate the girl. Fame is the green light to Myra’s Gatsby, ever elusive and hopeful only to her. Billy prioritizes his wife’s mental stability above all else, even his own integrity. As these elements mingle within a 115-minute runtime, they fuse into a fascinating, messy entry in the pantheon of films concerning one or more leads slowly but surely circling their own drain and reckoning with what they’ve repressed.

Based on the 1961 novel by Mark M. Shane and adapted/directed by Bryan Forbes, Séance On A Wet Afternoon (1964) brings up the rear of the short-lived Allied Film Makers’ (of which Attenborough was also a partner) six-film production run over the early ‘60s. The first image is that of a solitary candle aflame amid a spooky silence. Then joined hands around a table, then a disembodied voice—Myra’s voice. She spends the first two minutes of the movie emoting with her eyes closed, seemingly soothing an upset (and unseen) presence in the séance room while widened sets of eyes watch her every move. But when Kim Stanley opens her eyes and comes out of her trance, her sudden gaze is strange. Is she for real, or a charlatan? Regardless, the true horror in Séance is reserved for Myra’s embattled, asthmatic husband, watching the woman he married become a grotesque version of herself. The plot is solid and the pacing patient, but the real weight of Séance on a Wet Afternoon lies in its almighty lead performances, marching forth in a parade of codependency.

In an early master class scene in blocking, the couple discuss their plans as Myra begins to show signs of instability. In a minefield waltz, Billy and Myra fidget and pace about the room as this friction grows between them— Billy is clearly not down with the cause. There is one constant amid the pleas and vetos: no matter how the pair advances within the depth-of-field, they always come to a rest with Myra looming over Billy, threatening to swallow him whole. When her interpretation of memories clashes with his, it’s quickly clear through Billy’s visible disintegration that this longtime struggle has defeated him. He physically shrinks into himself, and navigates the eggshells as gently as possible, whispering “Yes, of course, dear.” The phrase, in various forms, precedes his kidnapping of Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner) and other sins that whittle away at the prospect of a happy ending.  From thousand-yard stares during Myra’s rants to passive questioning (“You think we really need that bit, do you?” is his vehement objection to a death threat in the ransom note they wrote), the crux of Attenborough’s acting here is in restraint and detachment. If his power is in what he doesn’t do or say, his co-lead provides a counterweight of kinetic transparency. 

As that counterweight, Kim Stanley skates up to the edge of madness and does pirouettes. Each wayward synapse firing off in her brain finds expression in a wrinkling nose or a sudden, monotone calmness that precedes the storm. “What we’re doing is a means to an end,” she explains as though to a dense child, “You want the end, don’t you? Well, then, you must agree with the means.” The manipulation is two-pronged for Billy: his wife is specifically justifying kidnapping and assault for clout, but the logic applies to his efforts to avoid triggering another mental episode, as well. Myra is a messy enough character to need medical intervention but garner empathy, all while descending into predatory behavior. She knows it’s predatory, too, delivering “We’re not wrong! What we’re doing is not wrong!” with Fatal Attraction levels of delusion. The show-stopping performance earned Stanley a nomination for an Oscar that ended up going to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins, a choice so fair that SoaWA fans can only shake their heads in awe at the feast of riches (Bancroft! Loren! Reynolds!) given in the Best Actress category of the 1965 Academy Awards. 

Myra’s next séance circle commences with thirty minutes left on the clock, no longer a routine session because Mrs. Clayton (Nannette Newman) has joined in, unannounced. No matter for Myra, eager to show her “truth” to the mother of the girl she has confined upstairs. As the guests join hands, DP Gerry Turpin’s lens slides in on the action and lowers until nearly level with the table, as though taking a seat. It’s one of Forbes’ many devices to command engagement; when Amanda croaks out a feverish “Mommy?” mere rooms away from rescue, the frame floods with Attenborough’s panicked reaction, eyes ablaze with the dread of a thousand stress ulcers. Whether by negative space compositions or aggressively intimate framing, there is nothing else to behold but these people and their problems.

At the promised Séance shortly thereafter, and with highly suspicious investigators in attendance, the fallout from Billy’s reality-fracturing revelations to his wife come down in a spectacular parade of regression. Myra, confronted hours before with the very traumas that drain her and drive her (“Arthur is dead!” Billy shouts), collapses into her id in a typical ‘60s psychoanalysis showcase. Jumping between her current voice and her inner child’s, Myra enters a legitimate trance and all of her trauma— and the crimes that were borne of them—comes spilling out in a vomitus. Rather than edit frantic cuts to match the rising momentum of frenzy, editor Derek York holds just an extra beat on each face around the table (to include stage and screen giant Patrick Magee, as a treat) in a stark View-Master of suspicion and dread. 

Writhing in her seat, Stanley accesses a euphoric delirium, sharing an elated kinship with young Harvey Scrimshaw’s deathbed revelations in The Witch (2015), Piper Laurie’s post-prom sermon of Carrie (1976) and Shelley Winters in the third act of any movie she’s in. Looking back upon a decades-long streak of male auteurs working through their femme anxieties (looking at you, Hitchcock), Séance and its approach to Myra’s iteration of derangement reads as far more nuanced and humanizing than that of the Sweet Charlottes and Auntie Roos of the era.  In the film’s final moments, when the titular séance is complete, Myra’s waterlogged eyelids open with a more veritable flutter than they did in the opening sequence. The saga is over, the deed confessed, the handcuffs are out. Her husband, unable to look her in the eye for most of the runtime, raises his head and meets her gaze. She asks if she did well and, with heartbreaking relief, Billy can finally say, “Yes, dear,” with true sincerity.

“Séance On A Wet Afternoon” is now streaming on HBOMax and the Criterion Channel.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website www.anyawrites.com and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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