There is a type of horror movie released in the last decade or so, that feels cheaply made, but not as in it has a low budget. These movies usually have a young cast, of teenagers or twenty-somethings, and have the exact same half-baked stereotypical horror elements in the place of an actual creative plot. Watching them becomes an experience of “check all that apply.” Which could actually be fun! The sheer joy of watching a mediocre movie that doesn´t try to be great, with a couple of friends, and a game of guessing every single plot twist is not lost on this writer…
But there is one problem. These movies? Are usually really boring.
There are exceptions. Some find their strength in exploring the character’s relationship in an interesting, if not that deep, way: Truth or Dare (2018), some don´t care if the story makes any sense or not, and are just there to have fun death sequences: Wish Upon (2017), while others are just absurd enough you end up wanting to know what is going to happen next: Fantasy Island (2020). But a lot of these types of movies don´t have these redeeming qualities. They are content with following a basic teen horror movie recipe, forgetting to add any interesting flavours or spices – see Slender Man (2018).
It all begins with the group hangout that establishes the main characters, followed by the introduction of a dramatic urban myth figure that will become the big villain of the story. After being summoned with an overcomplicated ritual by the kids, as a joke. That could be every horror movie, I´ll give you that. But there is more: we have an old woman with an unknown accent that presages something bad in one scene, then disappears, and an old man with another vague accent that has researched the main villain for years (these are sometimes the same character). The characters get picked off one by one, usually the people of colour die first, there is one fake ending that acts as a red herring for everyone to believe everything is fine again, there is a final girl, mirrors equal danger, the “powers” of the antagonist are: they can kill you … or make you insane.
I could go on.
The Queen of Spades, directed by Patrick White, is that movie. A Canadian remake of the Russian 2015 film Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite, written and directed by Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy (who gets original story credit in the Canadian version). It introduces young teenagers Matt (Nabil Rajo), Katy (Jamie Bloch), Sebastian (Eric Osborne) and 13-year-old Anna (Ava Preston). Check! Who are hanging out outside a community centre. They witness a boy their age commit suicide, jumping off one of the buildings. Before he can give his last breath, the boy mentions something about a certain “Queen of Spades.” Check!
Later, Sebastian tells them all about the old story of the Queen of Spades, a rich woman from the 1800s that killed children. She was murdered by the townsfolk in Russia, and is now a ghost that grants wishes. Check! They decide to summon her, of course. But only the youngest has the power to call upon the Queen. So it is Anna´s burden to stand in front of the mirror, draw a door on it with red lipstick, say the woman´s name three times, and make a wish. Check! As the days go by, the teens get chased and killed one-by-one by the ghost in unimaginative death scenes that won´t make you scared, or gross you out. Check! The movie follows the same tired beats every time, which never escalates to something more frightening. Even the jump scares aren´t at all that scary.
What gives the movie points is that, when most teen horror ignores the parents’ mere existence, this one favours the relationship between Anna and her mom, Mary. It is a complex one, as Mary is too busy working and studying to afford for her daughter to actually spend time with her, and Anna is visibly upset about it. But while their interactions are supposed to be the emotional touchstones of Queen of Spades, and they deliver the only funny scene in the movie – complete slapstick involving a taser, but it works – there is something specific missing between them. The problems they face are generic enough they could be about anybody, and end up being about no one.
When it dares to veer away from the generic structure the movie sets up for itself, Queen of Spades seems promising, but it ultimately disappoints. There are moments where it could be very scary! But then it isn´t. Moments where it could be funny – they have a Russian character named Smirnov! – but then it´s not explored. Scenes that could lean into its own absurdity and win a lot of points for that, but then they don´t. Queen of Spades is not a film that brings anything new to the table, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it refuses to have any fun with the clichéd tropes it clings to so strongly. A movie that didn´t have to be so tedious if it trusted itself to be something more than yet another generic horror movie from the last decade.
Queen of Spades is available in Select Theaters from June 11, on Demand from June 15 and on Blu-Ray from June 29, 2021