Myra (Kim Stanley) is a psychic who makes a living holding seances in her front room. Her meek and compliant husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) has learned to stay out of the way even though he’s stuck at home on disability. Seances are Myra’s thing. They had a son together, but he passed away at a young age, leaving a hole in their lives. Myra still talks to him in spirit, however, and he inspires her with a dastardly idea; to prove that she really is psychic by kidnapping a child and then “revealing” clues about the crime that she has ostensibly learned from the spirit world.
The girl they choose to kidnap is Amanda (Judith Donner), young daughter of the wealthy Charles (Mark Eden) and Mrs. Clayton (Nanette Newman). Myra might be the mastermind, but it’s Billy who actually does everything involved with the crime, from actually kidnapping the girl to planting fake evidence to picking up the ransom money later in the film. These elements are quite ingenious too, offering up the impression of a crime well planned, even if things don’t turn out quite as expected. In particular, the ransom money acquisition sequence is one of the most exciting (and ingeniously cut) in the movie.
When Myra shows up at the Clayton residence wanting to share what she’s learned from the spirit world about Amanda’s kidnapping, the husband is skeptical and dismissive, but it’s the wife who is beguiled. She’s drawn to the paranormal possibilities thanks to Myra’s stuttering admission of a “dream” where she had some tangible facts about little Amanda “revealed” to her by the spirit world. The wife (who, interestingly, never has a first name, even in the credits) later shows up at one of Myra’s public seances, unwittingly just a few feet away from her kidnapped daughter, even as Myra offers up histrionics and is “in touch with Amanda” through her psychic gifts.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon is really a character study of Myra herself, a performance by stage actor Kim Stanley that’s so intense she was nominated for an Academy Award that year [but lost out to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, an entirely different tonal experience]. Her fear of being found out as a fraud and burning zeal to really be in touch with the spirit world, particularly her son’s spirit, are a form of madness that pushes her to more and more alarming decisions. Richard Attenborough is just as compelling on screen too as the meek, submissive husband Billy who is so afraid to rock the boat that he can’t just say “no. that’s not a good idea” or even stop being pulled further into her nefarious plotting. His own character journey during the latter part of the film is painful to watch, empowering, but oh, so much too little, too late.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon is a slow, moody and startlingly dark 60’s horror film that takes a simple premise and offers up a surprisingly compelling viewing experience. But be prepared, it’s really quite dark and there were moments I was talking to my TV, uttering “oh no, oh, what a bad decision!” and similar. But it is a slow burn, this is not a film that pulls you in immediately with a grand action sequence, nor are there really any moments that suggest Myra is actually psychic. Instead, Seance on a Wet Afternoon is a good example of the 60’s English horror genre, and one well worth watching if you can find it streaming.
Dad at the Movies Addendum: This is probably going to be too slow for most younger viewers, and the premise of a young girl kidnapped and held against her will will likely cause great upset for tweens or younger. If you have a teen who loves “the classics”, however, this could be a really fun introduction to black & white 60’s Brit horror for them.