Certain stories are worth adapting more than once. Such is the case for Mark McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The two notable, not to mention distinct interpretations of this 1961 novel each capture a disquieting tale of an overzealous medium, and her plan to become esteemed and famous. Although one film follows the text more closely, the other takes creative license by underscoring the novel’s ambiguous supernatural element.
While McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon was published years after spiritualism peaked in 19th century England, there was still a niche interest in clairvoyance, mesmerism and the like. As seen in Bryan Forbes’ ‘64 film, plenty of people seek out folks like Myra Savage; specifically those who stand between this world and the next. Or so they claim. Yet for Myra, she craves more than local repute. No, the protagonist of Séance on a Wet Afternoon wants everyone to know her name.
Forbes’ adaptation follows McShane’s story in most but not all respects. In the film, Myra (Kim Stanley) and her husband William (Richard Attenborough) abduct a child as part of their nefarious scheme. The victim in this sorry scenario is Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner), who was originally named Adriana in the novel. Regardless of what she is called, the child’s mistreatment is all the same; she is repeatedly drugged, locked away in a makeshift “hospital” room, and then disposed of when things do not go according to plan.
One area where the film and novel significantly diverge is the validity of Myra’s gift. Early on in the novel, McShane states Myra’s power manifested at a young age. She saw her father’s ghost six months after his death, and she psychically witnessed her mother’s fatal fall. These personal accounts legitimize Myra’s medium status to both herself and the readers, however, events and moments such as these, unusual as they may be, are hardly enough to convince all of society. So enter the séances which do far more to assure belief in Myra’s ability.
Apparently, Myra’s psychic feats in the novel have less to do with channeling the dead and more with reading others’ minds. Telepathy, as the author called it. Whether or not this was authentic mind reading is unclear, though. Many mediums have perfected their art to the point where they can convince anyone of anything simply by making vague or generic observations about their clients. Myra does the same, and when people assumed she could communicate with the dead, she did not bother to correct them. The difference between Myra and charlatans, however, is she genuinely believes in her own extrasensory-perception. Whereas in the film, Forbes is more inclined to show Myra’s act is just that — an act.
Kim Stanley’s depiction of the determined medium is a great deal more layered now that the director and writer added in Arthur, the dead son of Myra and William. While the couple was explicitly childless in the novel, here they are mourning. To help himself cope, William stays busy by being attentive to Myra’s needs and wants, often to the detriment of his own wellbeing. Richard Attenborough also brings his character’s codependency more to the surface. Myra, on the other hand, is less willing to share her feelings about Arthur. Her grief avoidance eventually leads to a massive break in reality.
McShane’s novel subsists mainly on Myra’s hunger for validation and eminence, but Forbes provides an even more persuasive rationale for her orchestrating a kidnapping. Myra, who is incapable of dealing with her maternal pain, channels the dead to keep Arthur alive. As horror fans all know, parental grief has proven itself to be a strong motivator throughout genre storytelling. And Séance on a Wet Afternoon was, regarding films that have bereft and traumatized characters using heinous crimes as coping mechanisms, well ahead of the curve.
Oddly, Forbes did not follow through on the novel’s most shocking moment: William inadvertently killing Adriana in a bid to keep her quiet as her mother sat in on Myra’s séance in the next room. Instead, Myra urges William to murder Amanda once she saw his unmasked face. In the same chilling breath, Myra explains how the girl could become Arthur’s playmate. Attenborough’s William is more reluctantly compliant than his literary basis, going so far as to call out Myra’s delusions, and go against his wife’s homicidal wishes. Indeed, Amanda is left unconscious in public, in a place where she would be noticed, rather than outright killed. Nevertheless, the film’s decision to spare Amanda did not require a total overhaul of the novel’s climactic ending. The haunting outcome is even more devastating now. Kim Stanley earned her Oscar nomination for a performance that is excessive in the best way possible.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon muted its own supernatural aspect when compared to the novel, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s adaptation aims directly for the ghost. In fact, the unearthliness of McShane’s work drew the Japanese filmmaker to the television project, and along with co-writer Tetsuya Onishi, Kurosawa brought out the story’s horror quality. Kourei (Séance) was shot in two weeks, and then screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000 before finally airing on Kansai TV the following year. This telefilm does not come up nearly enough in talks about Kurosawa’s oeuvre, yet those who have seen Kourei tend to agree, it is a real hidden gem.
Forbes’ film is not a direct adaptation of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and Kourei is even less so. Jun Fubuki and Kouji Yakusho, who have each starred in other Kurosawa films, play characters with no initial desire to abduct a child for fortune or prestige. They go about their mundane lives with little to no variation. Junko (Fubuki) is a medium, but she does not originally seek quick fame like Myra. Junko instead goes through more respectable channels to become verified; she participates in an academic study of the paranormal.
Kourei unhesitatingly confirms the existence of the supernatural early on. Junko, who typically deals in psychometry or object readings, receives a rude awakening when she spots an actual spirit at her workplace. Based on her reaction, Junko was not prepared to see this phantom whose eyes and nose are eerily blurred out. The red-dressed ghost, who predated a similar character in Kurosawa’s later film Retribution, was a preview of things to come. This would not be the last time Junko came face to face with a silent and listless ghost. However, reaching the film’s central haunting requires a series of bizarre coincidences.
Junko’s husband Kouji (Yakusho) is a sound engineer who unintentionally crosses paths with the young victim in a recent kidnapping. Without Kouji’s knowledge, the young girl hides out in his equipment case. Unaware of his passenger, Kouji then takes the kid home with him. Kourei starts to resemble, albeit loosely, McShane’s story from here on out. In order to make skeptics believe in her abilities, Junko tells Kouji not to immediately call the police once they discover the girl. The couple ultimately follow the same dark path as Myra and William, although Fubuki and Yakusho’s characters experience a more frightening form of guilt following the child’s death.
Kourei has been and will continue to be lumped in with Ju-On and other obvious J-Horrors, but Kurosawa’s film is considerably more subtle than its contemporaries. This low-budget production demonstrates refreshing restraint in areas that other films would prefer flashiness. The unfortunate child ghost here does not contort her body or unleash guttural sounds to evoke fear; she often appears without warning in the forms of music cues or visual fanfare. And most importantly, there is more sadness to her haunting than outright anger. This is undoubtedly one of the most subdued ghost stories around.
Kourei is not an emotional or exciting film. Fans would describe this as a slow burn. In place of a big payoff and in defiance of the usual genre trappings, Kurosawa offers an artful take on a familiar idea. Like its protagonist, Kourei also seeks control. Junko does not want to be in a situation where she has no authority, such as her random encounter with the ghost in red. She would much prefer a scenario where she has a say in how the dead interact with the living.
While Séance on a Wet Afternoon and Kourei approach their shared source material in markedly different ways, neither film is the inferior adaptation. They both portray compelling stories about mediumship and dangerous ambition. Each film is rewarding on its own, but together they make for a formidable double feature.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.