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Movie Review: “TAROT” isn’t playing with a full deck

Thursday, May 2, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Harriet Slater, Adain Bradley and Avantika
Written and directed by Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg
Screen Gems/Sony

“The Death card can mean the end of something, or the start of something new. But in this case, it just means death.” That line, twice spoken in TAROT, sums up the movie in a nutshell: A subject that could be adapted in all kinds of intriguing ways is reduced to a hopelessly formulaic youth-in-peril flick.

The conceit of young people messing with occult forces they shouldn’t got a real kick in the pants from TALK TO ME last year, but TAROT sets the idea back a few decades. So it’s no surprise the film is based (very loosely) on the 1992 YA novel HORRORSCOPE by Nicholas Adams (née John Peel), and it also plays fast and loose with the way Tarot cards and castings work. We begin with a group of college friends celebrating one of their birthdays at a rented “vacation house”–an enormous Gothic pile allegedly in the Catskills. Searching the place for alcohol, they come across a box of vintage Tarot cards that a) are discovered in a musty basement full of arcane items behind a door with a “Keep Out” sign, b) cause a mysterious gust of wind when the box is opened and c) are decorated with images of scary-looking creatures. Even Haley (Harriet Slater), who just happens to be a self-taught Tarot expert, remarks that “This whole deck’s kind of strange.”

But characters in movies like this are never noted for being very perceptive, so Haley does readings for all of them, and what she tells her pals about themselves based on the cards is about as far as characterization goes here. Soon they’ve returned to their school–which isn’t named but, on evidence, could be called Deserted University–and start falling victim one by one to bizarre deaths attended by the demons seen on the cards they were dealt. Their demises also tie in to the predictions Haley made for them (the first victim was warned she would “slip up and suffer a crushing blow” and literally does, another was warned about going “down the wrong track” and gets obliterated by a train, etc.), though at first they can’t see their fates coming, even if the audience can.

TAROT, in fact, is resolutely predictable from beginning to end, as all the usual beats are struck: The surviving kids argue in circles about what’s going on and how to deal with it, do some quick on-line research, head out to a remote location to consult with an aged expert on the subject (Olwen Fouéré from MANDY, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2022 and ALL YOU NEED IS DEATH), etc. The exposition she provides occasions a flashback to the deck’s origins in 1789 Hungary, which look like they could have been fleshed out into a more interesting movie than this one. This sequence, and the movie as a whole, is shot with a great deal of atmosphere by DP Elie Smolkin (THE FINAL GIRLS), and another plus is that the assorted bogeymen and -women are done practically, with cool prosthetics work by Daniel Martin of POSSESSOR, INFINITY POOL, STOPMOTION and others.

As freaky as these fiends are, we don’t get a good enough look at some of them, presented as they are either in darkness or via quick shock close-ups accompanied by loud musical blasts. And it’s hard to maintain sympathy for their targets when, for example, one is being pursued by an evil magician and decides the best course of action is to hide in his trunk. The cast, which also includes breakout Indian actress Avantika and the SPIDER-MAN trilogy’s Jacob Batalon, do what they can with dialogue that rarely rises above the level of “Does anyone else think this is a bad idea?” and, in Batalon’s case, a number of tepid wisecracks. The occasional discussions about fate and destiny are equally half-hearted, in the midst of a movie where pretty much everything can be foretold–no Tarot deck required.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).