Film review: Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), directed by Bryan Forbes
In this black and white … umm … thriller? … we meet the Savages, husband and wife. Myra (Kim Stanley) is working as a medium, Billy (Richard Attenborough) is her loyal and obedient husband. Everything seems fine at first – Myra holds her weekly sittings and seems to be well liked by her little audience. However, we soon realise that everything isn’t quite right.
Not only does Myra seem unstable, we learn that the Savages are plotting something. Something that will work wonders for her PR … and for some reason, her intelligent husband who should know better is agreeing to the plot. The plot, as it turns out, is to kidnap Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner), the ten year old (ish) child of the wealthy Claytons (Mark Eden and Nanette Newman) …
I won’t go into how the film ends or that sort of thing, but if you don’t want to know what their plan is beyond “kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy couple” because you consider that too much of a spoiler, you should probably finish here.
Myra’s master plan is that Billy will kidnap the girl from school and bring her back to the house, in a room especially prepared to look like a hospital. They’ll keep her there and to the girl, pretend to be a nurse and a doctor. To the parents, pretend to be kidnappers wanting a ransom. Meanwhile, Myra will come forward offering her services as a clairvoyant, which will ultimately lead to the girl’s release and subsequent discovery. And they’d find a way to get the money back to the Claytons, because this isn’t about short-term money, this is about building a reputation as a successful medium and get more business and earn money that way.
The chilling part is that the plan is actually really well thought out. They’ve thought about a whole lot of things. And kidnapping the girl gets off without a hitch. What happens next … well, that’s why you should watch this film. Because you should, it’s actually rather splendid!
The state of Myra’s mental health becomes increasingly apparent. We learn things about her past, about their past as a couple, and what might have set her off originally. Some life events can trigger people to … well, to put it bluntly, “lose it”. It’s likely that this is what happened to her. There was a tragedy and her sanity crumbled.
The film doesn’t scorn or ridicule mediums, I need to point out, and in fact, it doesn’t give a particular view of such abilities either way. From what we can tell as an audience, Myra’s gift is actually genuine, or at least it once used to be. It’s never a question of her being a fraud and that’s why she wants the publicity as a talented medium; it’s more that she is actually good at what she’s doing, but for some reason, in her head, she’s decided that committing a crime is the best way to show off her talents to the world.
I did wonder how the film would tackle the subject of seances and mediums, because normally you either get something completely over the top or it’s made clear that if you claim to be psychic, you’re a fraud, even if you might be defrauding unsuspecting people unknowingly. Both of the usual scenarios are insulting. The first one because they clearly haven’t bothered to do any actual research and just do it for the sensationalism (of which there is little when it comes to genuine psychics), and the second one because it claims a lot of very decent people are either frauds or naive idiots (or both), and as an extension of that, ridicule everyone who believes in the spirit world and that we can communicate with it. Of course there are fraudulent mediums out there, who pretend to be psychic for the money, the followers and/or maybe just for teh lulz. But there are also people who don’t want to be on TV or get a wad of cash, they just want to help.
And during this, we can see the reluctance and hesitation in Billy’s face. He doesn’t want to go along with his wife’s plan, but he still obeys her and does her bidding. He voices his hesitations, and then still goes and does exactly what his wife wanted him to. Struggling with guilt? Or feels sorry for her? Maybe both? Either way, the performances of both the leads are fantastic.
The resolution of the film is … interesting. It came to a point where Myra’s madness felt as if a bucket of ice water had been poured over my head, and dreaded what was going to happen. And then, what actually happened I think it was fitting. There were discussions on the IMDb forums as to what actually happened – maybe the spirit she claimed to be talking to was actually evil and had possessed her, making her not actually mentally ill but just “possessed by demons” type thing – but I think it’s meant to say that Myra was genuine – it’s just that in a trance, she had no control over what the spirits wanted to convey.
Any way you look at it, Seance on a Wet Afternoon isn’t quite what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised. It has suspense, it’s fascinating for anyone interested in psychology, and it doesn’t ridicule mediums or their followers. Just … making it unexpectedly realistic. Not that any medium I’ve ever met has actually sat around a table and gone into a trance, but I guess that’s what they needed to do jazz it up a bit.
4.4 out of 5 scout camps.