Director/Screenplay – Bryan Forbes, Based on the Novel by Mark McShane, Producer – Richard Attenborough, Photography (b&w) – Gerry Turpin, Music – John Barry, Makeup – Stuart Freeborn, Art Direction – Ray Sim. Production Company – Braver Films
Richard Attenborough (Billy Savage), Kim Stanley (Myra Savage), Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton), Mark Eden (Charles Clayton), Nanette Newman (Mrs Clayton), Patrick Magee (Superintendent Walsh), Gerald Sim (Detective-Sergeant Beedle)
Medium Myra Savage has concocted a plan so that she and her abilities can become better known. She persuades her weak-willed husband Billy into kidnapping Amanda Clayton, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. They put Amanda up in their house and then issue ransom demands. However, this is only a ruse so that Myra can go to the Claytons and pretend to use her mediumistic abilities to lead the police to Amanda. Things start to go wrong when Amanda gets sick and Myra’s spirits tell her that it might be for the better if Billy killed her.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is not a genre film per se. However, it does concern itself with a genre theme – mediums – and makes interesting contrast to those films that are more overtly fantastic in their treatment such as The Sixth Sense (1999), the underrated Black Rainbow (1989) and a whole body of mediumistic thrillers – Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Fear (1990), Sensation (1994), In Dreams (1999) and The Gift (2000). The very nature of fantastic cinema tends to rule out films like Séance on a Wet Afternoon that deal with the other side of the coin – studies of psychics who are deluded as to their abilities. However, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is worthy of inclusion for it makes excellent contrast to the usual portrait – here the medium is shown to be a person of frail sanity whose belief in spirits is a denial of reality. The film never entirely rules out the possibility that its medium’s abilities are real, just that the psychological portrait offered of the medium makes it very unlikely.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a kidnap thriller. It belongs to a particular genre of 1960s British thrillers that were shot in black and white with a kitchen sink realism. Indeed, producer/star Richard Attenborough appeared in several other of these films, most notably the excellent serial killer film 10 Rillington Place (1971). This realist approach makes for a particularly gripping and suspenseful drama – the kidnap being contrasted with moments of banal reality like the couple sitting proofreading the ransom note or the irritated passer-by tapping on the phone box just as Attenborough delivers his ransom demands. Director Bryan Forbes constantly throws in nerve-wrackingly unexpected twists and turns – the appearance of boys throwing a ball as Attenborough struggles to get Judith Donner out of the Rolls; the bobby who comes knocking at the door (represented only by a shadow passing a window) as Attenborough and Kim Stanley hide in the house, they becoming endangered as Judith Donner calls out upstairs; and, in particular, the séance where desperate mother Nanette Newman turns up as Richard Attenborough keeps the daughter hidden in the very next room.
Kim Stanley received Academy Award, National Board of Review and British Academy Award nominations for her performance and is excellent. The moment where she turns to Attenborough and says “She’s seen your face. Do it. Do it for me. Do it and we can be safe,” is chilling. An even better performance comes from Richard Attenborough, who is excellent as the mild-mannered hen-pecked man in over his head in simply trying to please his wife and do the right thing.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon was remade as Seance (2000) by Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa who interestingly chose to play the wife medium’s powers as real and turn it into a horror film.
Director Bryan Forbes has made a number of genre-related films, including Whistle Down the Wind (1961) about children who believe a man hiding in a barn might be Jesus Christ; the android housewife film The Stepford Wives (1975); and the Cinderella adaptation The Slipper and the Rose (1976).