Well, it’s confirmed: Winnipeg is inherently terrifying.
It must be so. The city, and indeed the whole province of Manitoba, is filled with locations conducive to the horror genre when it comes to both TV and movie production.
Filmed in November and December of 2019, the upcoming feature film Seance (coming to video-on-demand platforms Friday) emphasizes the city’s most haunting locales, following in a well-trod path paved by projects including two Chucky sequels, the Netflix movie Fractured, the reboot of The Grudge, and four seasons of the SyFy horror series Channel Zero.
It was the latter show that attracted the attention of first-time feature director Simon Barrett, who arrived in the city with his own impressive pedigree in the horror genre. Barrett had written a couple of solid genre offerings for director Adam Wingard, including the 2011 home-invasion thriller You’re Next, a segment of the video portmanteau VHS (2012) and the 2014 psycho thriller The Guest.
Prior to those films, Barrett and Wingard cut their teeth, so to speak, on the serial-killer movie A Horrible Way to Die (2010).
For his feature directorial debut, Barrett — who also wrote the film — chose Winnipeg, he says in a phone interview, largely on the strength of a recommendation from Evan (E.L.) Katz, who shot the fourth season of Channel Zero in the city.
"I just really liked the look of that show, so I knew that I wanted to film in a place where there were older buildings," says Barrett, 42, in a phone interview from his home base in Los Angeles. "I was kind of looking for a certain kind of architecture. That was mostly why I wanted to shoot in Winnipeg." (Seance features locations including Gilchrist House at 1015 Wellington Cres., the University Women’s Club at 54 West Gate, the theatre at the Deaf Centre Manitoba on Pembina Highway and the library at the Manitoba Legislature.)
"I had heard the architecture would work for what I was doing, and the crews were great," Barrett says, acknowledging that the province’s generous tax credits were important as well.
"If you’re making a movie on a budget level not that different from a Hallmark production, there’s a certain number of places that are advantageous to shoot in from a cost perspective," he says. "Winnipeg, Manitoba, is one of those places.
"It is kind of a wonderfully stark place for most of the year and the weather provides you with a lot of production value. You do get those awesome dead trees and snowy landscapes."
Local talent also had a bearing, of course. Seance is about a girls school apparently plagued by the murderous spirit of a former student. Following an apparent suicide, a new enrollee, Camille (English actress Suki Waterhouse), arrives and shakes up a clique of bullying students, including alpha-bitch Alice (Inanna Sarkis), Bethany (Madisen Beaty) and minions including Yvonne and Lenora (played by Winnipeg actors Stephanie Sy and Jade Michael).
Barrett had seen local actor Marina Stephenson Kerr in Channel Zero (she stars in both the first and fourth seasons) and promptly cast her as the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Landry.
"It’s funny, now that I’ve filmed in Winnipeg, I went to see (the Bob Odenkirk action movie) Nobody and Stephanie Sy and Megan Best from Seance are both in Nobody. And I saw Hunter Hunter and Jade Michael from Seance is in that," he says. "You start to recognize all the Winnipeg faces.
"All those people are great actors in those roles and it really is a cool talent pool."
A horror movie set in a girls school/sorority is practically its own subgenre, with precedents including excellent thrillers such as Black Christmas (1974), Phenomena (1985) and Suspiria (both 1977 and 2018), as well as lesser lights such as The House on Sorority Row (1982) and The House That Screamed (1969).
The genre certainly lends itself to the kind of baroque style of Italian giallo master Dario Argento (who helmed both Phenomena and the first iteration of Suspiria). But Barrett determined he would not follow in those footsteps, for reasons both practical and artistic.
"I have a sort of instinctive antipathy to films that do a stylistic homage," he says. "I don’t think it’s that interesting imitating an older style, although I get why people enjoy it."
Budget also played into it: Barrett admits he couldn’t afford to mimic the stylish esthetic of giallo. "One of the worst mistakes you can make, if you’re making a small movie, is to try to do a cheap version of an expensive thing," he says. "You figure out how to get the best possible version of a cheaper idea rather than the cheapest possible version of an expensive idea.
"Anyway, I knew that trying to make it look like Suspiria would be a terrible choice because it would fail and it would look terrible," he says. "We wanted to find an original modern style for it. If anything, I wanted it to look kind of timeless, so it didn’t look too current or too anachronistic."
That also meant mostly eschewing the extravagant gore and violence of the giallo genre.
"It’s a complex thing, because if those killings feel too violent or too cruel to me, the movie can feel less fun, especially for younger viewers," he says. "I’m very much in tune with the cinema-savvy audience that wants to be shocked and wants the envelope to be pushed. But that didn’t really feel appropriate to the kind of film I was trying to make."
Indeed, the film is also a departure from expectation in that it has a romantic undercurrent not found in films like You’re Next and The Guest. Surprisingly, Barrett invokes Regency romance novelist Georgette Heyer as an inspiration, along with pioneering young adult author Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer), although the romance in question is lesbian in nature.
"I actually think my approach to the romance is kind of old-fashioned," he says. "There was a point where some of my financiers were concerned about that and potentially wanted to get rid of it because it would hurt our sales in places like Russia and Vietnam, where there might be censorship laws against such things."
Barrett stuck to his guns.
"To me, the whole point of Seance was that it had this romance and it was about these two characters with similar backgrounds kind of finding each other and making a connection in the midst of all this.
He didn’t want to make a movie that was as cynical in its humour as You’re Next and The Guest.
"Not that I don’t like that," he adds. "I just wanted to do something different before I do something cynical again."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.