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Tarot (15)

Director: Spenser Cohen, Anna Halberg
Screenplay: Nicholas Adams, Spenser Cohen, Anna Halberg

Starring: Olwen Fouéré, Avantika, Jacob Batalon

Running time: 92 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

If you’re wondering why Tarot suddenly popped up on the release schedules seemingly out of nowhere, it was previously in production and on preview listings as Horrorscope. This makes sense as it is based on the 1992 book of the same name which was written by Nicholas Adams. Only it wasn’t. Delve a little deeper and you’ll discover that “Nicholas Adams” is actually a collective pen name created by a writing association and used by several authors as they churned out YA horror, mostly under the brand of “Nightmares”. See, YA horror was big back then, when bookstores actually had whole shelves devoted to the genre and the “Goosebumps” collections were bestsellers. Anyhow, that’s the tenuous link to literature sorted. So what to make of this PG/15-rated horror? It comes from Sony and is getting a surprisingly large release and promotional work on an international basis, which is pretty ballsy coming out as it does alongside heavy-hitting start-of-summer blockbusters such as Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes and suchlike. It was written and directed by Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg (in their feature film directorial debut), spinning (very loosely) off the aforementioned book. Ignoring several other films, shorts, and classics (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) that are based on this divination technique or share the title, the idea of Tarot cards being the catalyst for prophetic and unavoidable deaths is suitably eerie for a modern audience. But how does it stack up in reality?


It starts with a typical gang of students staying in a humongous mansion-like house in the remote Catskills, far away from bustling New York. They’ve rented this palatial bunk house (super unlikely unless one of them has friends in high places or has won the state lottery… and they easily procure it again later in the film with a couple of phone swipes!) to celebrate the birthday of Elise (Larsen Thompson). The mood sours somewhat when the perfectly paired couple in the group (Harriet Slater as Haley and Adain Bradley as Grant) suddenly reveal to the others that they have just split up. Trying to lighten the evening (after the booze runs out), they break into the locked basement and discover a deck of Tarot cards in a wooden box. Of course, Haley is experienced with the art of Tarot reading and proceeds to foretell the future of each person with the oddly illustrated cards, including herself. However, they are ignorant of the cursed nature and bloody history of this particular deck. Almost immediately, each one of them is stalked by a manifestation of the ghoulish characters depicted on the cards, and their horoscopes become twisted to provide them with grisly fates…


We’ve been through this many times before. PG-13 horror, such as it is (although we Brits nearly always get them as 15-certs) is a two-edged sword. On one hand, the studios love to get as big an audience as possible and the more screening potentials that such a rating provides. On the other hand, most dedicated fans of the film genre will roll their eyes as soon as they hear the rating and deride the squeamishness or lack of (literal) guts from the filmmakers. So, studio horrors with a younger demographic in mind will use familiar tricks to try and scare up some thrills without getting the censors all hot and bothered. And boy, does Tarot really lay this on thick! Tropes abound with offscreen deaths, dark figures in the background (that disappear when the leads turn around), faces at keyholes, bloodless killings, creatures shooting towards the camera at impossible speeds, eyes shining in the dark, etc, etc. To prove a point, there’s a masterclass given on how to show a person being sawn in half… without a drop of blood or a scrap of viscera defiling the scene. You get the picture … or rather you don’t.


So it’s light on the red stuff. But that doesn’t mean to say that it still couldn’t be an effective mood piece or suspenseful experience. And actually, the USP of Tarot is down to the cards themselves. The uniquely grotesque appearance of the card characters, the Hanged Man, the Magician, the High Priestess, et al, is easily the high point of the film. Pale incarnations of the normally colourful images, they are genuinely unsettling as they creep (and my God, they do a LOT of that) around, trying to terrify their victims before engineering their (usually off-camera) deaths. The design work and details put into their vignettes are pretty good. Especially the shrieking, white-eyed Hanged Man and the stalking Death (like a skinny Vecna from Stranger Things). Even the predictably Pennywise-like attributes of the Fool are offset by having him walk on the ceiling and contort his body like a curly wurly. If only the rest of the film’s ingredients matched up to them, then we might be talking about a more positive experience.


Because, in all honesty, the storyline feels like it was spat up by an AI programme after it had been force-fed the details of Final Destination, The Ring, and a ton of PG-rated horrors. It just feels so predictable and despite the many attempts at jump scares, just a little dull and pointless. Some of the dialogue is annoyingly trite (“These readings are coming true in ways that we could never have possibly imagined”), not to mention the umpteen “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” statements. What makes it even more toe-curling is the way that the readings are taken literally by the Tarot baddies. To explain further, the guy who is warned to “stay on track” is trapped in a railway yard, the girl who is told to look for a “ladder to success” falls off an attic ladder, and so on. It’s quite excruciating, especially as it takes an age for the protagonists to recognise the links and the soundtrack repeats an audio of Haley’s reading during the stalking sequences. Alright already, we get it! Compare these drawn-out sequences with the sadistic subtlety of the fatalistic “accidents” in the Final Destination movies and you’ll remember why they worked so well in comparison to stuff like this.


When the film starts with Haley’s reading and the lurking otherworldliness of the Tarot shapeshifters, it feels like the style could transcend the gimmickry of the concept. But it really doesn’t. Instead, we get a crammed-in explanation for the cursed deck, with an uber-villain only ever known as “The Astrologer”, whose backstory feels like it’s been stolen from every slasher movie. And yet, we get a lead character who uses a ludicrously contrived method to fight them and even mouths off to the almighty entity by giving them some impromptu therapy, telling them to “move on from the past”. Really. If that doesn’t annoy you, then the last-minute plot development might finish you off. It feels like a reshot ending that was requested by the studio after bad test screenings and is just … bizarre in tone. They even cram in the one-and-only F-bomb (which all PG-rated US films are entitled to and they’re going to bloody use it) for a laughable exclamation that sticks out like a sore thumb. Add in a post-credit scene that feels like the movie is thumbing its nose at you, and you’re unlikely to leave the cinema in a wholesome mood.


Judging by some of the US Cinemascore feedback and the current RT rating (12%), the feeling of disappointment seems to be mutual. Despite some of the creepier moments (mostly from the appearance of the Tarot ghouls), this ladles on way too many tropes and too few shocks to be classed as a horror. You can only watch freakishly long fingers edge around a door frame or window sill so many times before you become numb to it. One sequence (The Magician) drags on so long that it just becomes dull and irritating before it nudges anything near “scary”. It feels like something effective could have been done with the concept (and the card-derived creatures), but in the end, it’s just another drag-along affair with paper-thin protagonists, who never earn your empathy. Probably the best aspect of “Tarot” is that it might work as an effective gateway movie for newbies or young wannabe horror fans before

There’s a semi-good premise in “Tarot” and the shapeshifting card characters are occasionally creepy. But that’s all the good news. Otherwise, it’s a predictable yarn with paper-thin protagonists, a wealth of tropes, and a lack of scares. And that’s not how horror works.
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