The Summoned had its world premiere at the Overlook Film Festival and currently has no broad release date.
Mark Meir’s “The Summoned” is a modern take on old-school horror storytelling about deals with the devil. It’s reminiscent in tone and playfulness of something Brian Yuzna or Stuart Gordon would have produced in the ’80s – you can tell immediately who would be playing Barbara Crampton or Jeffrey Combs. That’s a compliment considering how we still talk about Re-Animator and Society. Not to say The Summoned is as revered as the two cult classics – it won’t – but there’s still plenty of entertainment in Meir’s wild, character-driven tale of unholy pacts, self-help follies and sinners pretending to be saints be .
J. Quinton Johnson plays musician hopeful Elijah, secret boyfriend of megastar actress Lyn (Emma Fitzpatrick). The duo attend a self-help meeting at a mansion in the middle of nowhere, along with real-life Tony Stark guy named Joe (Salvador Chacon) and flirtatious celebrity Tara (Angela Gulner). Throughout the film, host Frost (Frederick Stuart) challenges participants to explore their past regressions and embrace change – where the games begin. Everyone’s charisma is weaponized as screenwriter Yuri Baranovsky satirically uses the self-help retreat story as a cover for selfish evils that target Elijah in a multitude of ways.
The Faustian influences this power. The summoners are not subtle, as Baranovsky infuse religion into Frost’s speeches early on. Frederick Stuart exudes all of the off-center charisma that Jeffrey Combs bestowed on discerning players who mess with characters through psychological torment. Elijah enters the group therapy scenario as a soft-spoken partner and is pushed by Frost to confront Lyn about his feelings of being hidden from the public eye. Any fireside chat or private session away from Lyn drives a wedge between the lovers that drives Elijah insane. Meir’s vision as the director spirals ever further down Elijah’s spiral as the wheels fall off, finding sick pleasure in one man’s paranoia as the healing escape turns into something unexpectedly horrific.
The Summoned relies on performances to increase psychosis levels as we learn more about Tara’s intentions behind seducing Elijah or Jose’s offer to invest millions in Elijah. Angela Gulner seems to be having fun as she plays the livestream seductress who indulges in blood-soaked affections. Once the appearances fade and The Summoned reveals his satanic nature, it’s Gulner who attracts attention by making “F*ck Marry Kill” jokes and wielding an axe. Everyone has their moments, whether it’s Emma Fitzpatrick’s monologue in the attic while twirling a knife or Salvador Chacon’s comic frustration at the amount of work he has to get done, but it’s Gulner who’s a little bigger with her evil ways. Should her character be on a VHS cover for The Summoned, she’d be smiling at you while dripping red – and that would be why you rented The Summoned from Blockbuster that night.
Meir’s approach to horror is difficult because this is a moralistic tale of souls for sale, so he finds ways to insert nightmare hallucinations that terrorize Elijah at night. Violent and deadly, The Summoned isn’t exactly a haunted house tale with traditional horror imagery – these montages of gravediggers and talking corpses help sell harder genre elements. Meir’s tone is funny rather than scary, making The Summoned a pleasant midnight song that seems influenced by Sam Raimi, like cameras zooming in on speeding cars or whipping when women quickly raise scopes to their eyes. These are The Summoned’s more successful moments as Elijah’s forebodings or whatever he sees can be confusing and harrowing spliced between narrative movements. I appreciate the way Meir wants to mess with his audience’s heads, but it’s not always the cleanest storytelling – the wheels sure as hell come off, and that also means it’s a shaky ride at times.