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Tarot (2024)

MAY 5, 2024


With precious little on-screen to engage me, I spent a little time during Tarot almost impressed that something so witless and uninspired could make it to theaters in the year 2024, because it felt like a movie we might have seen in maybe 2006 and said "Why didn't this go direct to DVD?" The movie was so bland that I also considered if the bigger studios decided to combat streamers by making their OWN forgettable pap that is best watched with your hands alternating between your laundry and your iPhone (and Sony would be a prime candidate for that considering they're the only one without a service of their own, which means most of their movies end up on Netflix anyway). I mean, we've all seen bad PG-13 horror movies before, but there's something particularly by-the-numbers with this one, to the extent that I momentarily theorized that they were going to spring some kind of Cabin in the Woods scenario on us and thus the generic feeling was intentional.

But no, it ends exactly as you'd expect it to, with the heroine running around a house dodging the film's villain while trying to enact her first/last/only plan to defeat it (any guesses as to whether or not it works?). Actually I take that back; the film's one (1) surprise moment is that it cuts to the credits after using its one allowed F-bomb, something most PG-13 horror doesn't bother to utilize as it (presumably?) gives them more leeway for the violence. But since pretty much everything happens off-screen, with a splash of blood flying on a phone or wall or whatever telling you the character died, they barely even hit those MPA-sanctioned levels. And it's not that PG-13 horror is inherently bad (Insidious and The Ring are a. great and b. among the obvious inspirations for this one), but from top to bottom everything about what we see on-screen feels like the result of asking a focus group what they'd like to see in a teen-aiming horror movie, without any semblance of genuine inspiration.

What makes that even weirder is the fact that this is credited as being based on a book called Horrorscope (this film's title until it was changed to Tarot, keeping in line with the film's stunning lack of ambition), but they completely changed the story. The 1992 novel by Nicholas Adams was a whodunit slasher where the killer was going after some teens, one for each Zodiac sign and killing them with something related to their sign (i.e. Aries, the ram, is strangled with a wool scarf). This is a full on "The Ring meets Final Destination" supernatural affair; our idiot college kids find a creepy tarot deck (more on this soon) and one of them uses them to read a horoscope, each one corresponding to their later death (so like one guy is said to rush into things and make rash decisions, and something about ascending numbers - when he sees the ghost later, he runs right into an elevator). It doesn't even use the whole zodiac; there's only seven of them so five signs are left out (consider yourself blessed to not have any character to immediately compare yourself to if you're one of the MIA signs; me being a Pisces, I got to say "Oh that's my counterpart" for the character with the stupidest death in the whole thing). So they had a story to go on with more victims, and decided to make up their own really idiotic one with half the numbers? OK, movie.

And where did the deck come from? Oh, you know, the locked basement full of antiques and oddities in the basement of the stately mansion these college kids have rented from Airbnb. Standard stuff. It was such a bizarre setup that I kept thinking (man, I sure spent a lot of this movie thinking about ways it could be better, huh?) that it had to be part of the plot, that either the girl who "rented" the place was actually setting all her friends up to die for some kind of sacrifice, or at the very least the owners would have been evil as well (this is what generated my Cabin in the Woods line of thinking, in fact, thinking that any object in the basement might have spelled their doom), but no. I guess in the universe that this movie takes place, people just rent out 10,000 sq. foot mansions in the middle of nowhere on AirBNB and hope that the randos who stay there don't steal any of their priceless artifacts.

Later when they start realizing that their friends are dying in a manner related to their horoscope readings, they google "Divination" or something basic like that and click on one of the first matches, leading them to someone who can help who thankfully only lives a few hours away. Upon realizing that the expert would be an older woman, I asked myself "Will it be Lin Shaye or Olwen Fouéré?", chuckling when it was indeed the latter (because again: zero inspiration here; in fact Fouéré appeared in one of the trailers beforehand as yet another of her exposition ladies). This whole section of the movie is either the result of some serious re-editing or just a total lack of giving a crap, because not only does the concept of geography cease to exist (they say her character is three hours away, yet when the car obligatingly breaks down on the way home, they are luckily only about a block from their front door, it seems), but Jacob Batalon's character, who on the way to her house repeated his horoscope and began fretting about ways to avoid any situation that resembled the ones in the reading, reacts to Fouéré's confirmation that they are indeed cursed by saying they're all crazy for beieving it. And then the main girl basically repeats his own theory back at him as if it's something that just clicked! I actually laughed at how backwards it was.

It's also one of those movies that seemingly exist in a world where everyone is asleep 24 hours a day, because I don't think there's a single extra on-screen. At one point a guy drops off one of the other friends at her dorm (no one else around) and proceeds to walk to the subway station, down the corridors, etc. without as much as a nighttime janitor sweeping the floors. And this is supposedly Boston (actually Serbia save for a couple of presumably licensed shots of the Boston cityscape), so the idea that you can walk a block in any direction without encountering other pedestrians and/or a Dunkin Donuts to run into for safety is beyond absurd. But it just adds to the phoniness of the whole thing, and again makes it feel like a Netflix production (famously frugal when it comes to hiring background extras; it's really noticeable and weird).

So what's good? Well, the design of the various ghosts is about the only thing on-screen that feels inspired; they're all based on the tarot cards (the Fool, the Devil, the Magician, etc) and if this movie was at least a 3/5 I'd even consider getting the NECA figures down the road if they existed. It's a shame it's so bad, because you can see the franchise potential here: there are 78 cards! Assuming they swapped them out and brought back favorits, there's plenty of sequel possibilities with these inspired designs. But alas, based on the box office there won't be a Tartwo, so we have to settle for this handful of ghouls who only get a scene each. Oh and despite bungling the Boston setting, they did at least get the name of one subway stop correct (Haymarket Station, on the Orange line), so I'll give them points for that. And I got the score on while writing this and it's quite good, but deserved a scarier movie.

"But you don't scare, so how can you say it's not scary?" longtime readers may ask. Because I went at a 5:30 showing on a Sunday, which means it had plenty of the teens the movie was aimed at, and apart from one "And then he pops into frame from around the corner" kind of scare involving Batalon's character, none of them uttered a peep during the entire thing. But it's not their fault; the first death, where a girl is basically beaten to death by one of those sliding attic ladders (the ghost, in the attic, keeps raising and then slamming it back down on the victim below) is as good as it got in the terror department. The film's C- cinemascore suggests it wasn't just a fluke audience, either.

Look, I take no pleasure in trashing the movie. I know it's hard to get a film made and theaters are hurting and all that, and I wish I could tell you something like "It's fine, your teenagers will love it at a sleepover" or something. But the on-rails presentation suggested that the studio just wanted to have a cheap horror movie in the pipeline to counter program whatever blockbuster it'd be opening against (The Fall Guy, in this case) and did absolutely nothing to ensure it would actually be, you know, good. I was not surprised at all to discover that the writer/directors are more often credited as producers (among their previous efforts: Moonfall and Expendables 4), as it certainly explained how the whole thing seemed reverse engineered from "We need a teen horror movie for under $10m" as opposed to any genuine inspiration. Even the whole "based on a book" part seems somewhat mercenary, like they acquired the rights to something that might have attracted the attention of people from my generation that fondly remembered the book from their school library, just to eke a few more bucks out of adults who'd otherwise steer far clear of such fare. Just a bit too much contempt for the audience for me. Even teens deserve better when they occasionally look up at the bigger screen.

What say you?


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