★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A ritzy couples therapy retreat becomes a trap for one of the guests who becomes a pawn in a larger Faustian deal of sin, temptation, and betrayal in The Summoned, which had its world premiere at the Overlook Film Festival. The Scariest Things also got the fantastic opportunity to interview the cast and crew of this twisty morality play.
Directed by Mark Meir
When I sat down with the immensely charming cast and crew of the newly minted feature The Summoned, a metaphor for making a movie and having a baby was discussed. It is a particularly apt metaphor for a movie for a first-time feature director like Mark Meir, who can proudly show off the baby, but then realize… what will people think of my baby? Will people accept this child? Or will they mock this which I love so dear?
My assessment? (Please pardon the extended metaphor) It’s a cute baby, brimming with potential. Ture, she’s got familiar features and looks like some other babies that I admire, and she does drool a little bit and fusses, but in the end, I think she was in good hands, and I can’t wait to see how she develops. And once you consider how hard the labor was? Yeah, this baby is pretty amazing.
The Summoned is a Faustian Deal play of sin and temptation. J. Quinton Johnson plays Elijah, a simple man of untapped talent, who is attending aB forest retreat with his girlfriend Joplyn Rose (2022 Thingy ward nominee Emma Fitzpatrick), a celebrity rock star for some couples counseling. Also joining them is the busty Hollywood diva Tara (Angela Gulner), and her rags-to-riches tech mogul ex-husband Joe (Salvador Chacon).
The four of them weren’t just invited, they have been summoned to meet with therapy guru Frost (Frederick Stewart) who lavishes self-help happy talk and tries to elicit raw emotions and confessions from the group as part of a tough-love approach to counseling. It all feels like a put-on, and Elijah is put in the uncomfortable position of being the “normal” guy amongst a group of hyper-achievers. He has an earnest good-guy complex, which places him in a vulnerable position within this group of alphas.
Elijah is put to the test in a multitude of ways, and he is increasingly becoming a pawn in a larger, very destructive game. The story wisely shifts the game pieces around, so that by the third act, the multitude of twists to the expectations is rewarding. Initially, I thought I had the story pegged, but I found myself off, perhaps by 20 degrees. Close enough that I felt like I was still in on the secrets, but off just enough that I enjoyed the plot surprises. Clever points are awarded to writer Yuri Baranovsky for keeping me on my toes.
At times, however, the dialogue can be stiff. The self-help talk perhaps was intentionally so, but the exposition for that portion of the first act got weighed down by therapy talk. All the characters proved to be a lot of archetypal fun, particularly in the mayhem that encompasses the third act when all the motivations are in play. J. Quinton Johnson was a revelation, and there is a moment where he shows off his musical chops in a campfire singing moment. Johnson is, unbeknownst to me going in, a member of the Hamilton cast. To say he can sing is a huge understatement. Also standing out is the sultry performance by Gulner, who chews up the scenery in every scene she appears in. She’s 100% fun, particularly when the plot gets revealed.
It is remarkable that this movie looks and plays out as well as it does, as not only was The Summoned shot in the middle of the pandemic era (a common thread with movies being released now) but it had the double whammy of being filmed during the great Texas ice storm of 2021 and absolutely crippling weather event that knocked out the entire state’s power grid. It is tough enough being a first-time director, in the pandemic, and then getting saddled with the mother of all shooting limitations. Bravo, Mr. Meir, you pulled it off!
There are times that certain plot elements seem a bit ham-fisted. There is an elevator in this resort, but its use was too on the nose for me. There is also a very obvious crossroads moment, where you expect to see Robert Johnson sitting at the intersection, and that could have used some finessing as well, but these are fairly small issues. Some of the relationship struggle issues also seemed a bit forced, but once the plot reveals the true situation, the story threads hold together better.
The music and cinematography allow the film to look and sound like a film in a heavier weight class. Brian Satterwhite has graced this film with a fine soundtrack, a luxury usually uncommon in small independent horror films. The Happy Little Guillotine team gave the film a sense of scale and grandeur that overcame the difficulties of the shooting environment. As this combination of players continues on, I expect this to be a growth stock if they can stick together.
The bigger takeaway here is that this movie is invested with the spirit and enthusiasm of a maiden voyage. The first baby. Everyone is giving it all and that spark carries through the production. It is light. It is enjoyable. It is willing to get a little bloody too… but it is not an overly gory film. It is not rated yet, but it would earn an R-rating for sex and violence, but it would not be considered an extreme film.
The Summoned has been picked up by XYZ films and will be streaming soon online, as its festival run might have been limited to Overlook. So you’ll be able to check it out yourselves soon!