Back in 1978, the band Styx released the album Pieces of Eight, which contained a number of hits, including “Queen of Spades”…
…Now, in 2021, Director Patrick White is releasing his debut feature, a film that is almost certainly based off of the hit song, entitled, you guessed it, Queen of Spades, though I’m not so sure this one is going to be receiving the same sort of cult status any time soon.
Written by John Ainslie, Queen of Spades follows 13-year-old Anna (Ava Preston) and her 17-year-old friends, who witness a teen take his own life, but not before whispering “Queen of Spades” with his dying breath. Like any curious (stupid) teenager would, they look up the Queen and discover that she is part of an ancient ritual that grants wishes. Unheeded by any sort of horror movie experience, they decide to perform the ritual, and soon find themselves being picked off one by one by the angry spirit.
At one point, Anna’s friend/frequent babysitter Katy (Jamie Bloch) describes the Queen as “one of those ghosts that you call through a mirror or whatever” through a mumbled indifference, and that same disinterest is reflected all throughout. Queen of Spades gives us little reason to care about the predicament of these teens, while providing as much excitement as Katy’s monotone delivery.
Horror can sometimes live and die on the believability of the cast, and in the case of Queen of Spades, these characters are less interesting than watching a sleepy card dealer deal cards in a smoke-filled—and near empty—casino. We first meet Anna, Katy, Matthew (Nabil Rajo) and Sebastian (Eric Osborne) moments before their lives are turned upside down, and while they all seem like okay friends—though I question them hanging out with a 13-year-old—there’s nothing that stands out with them. It also doesn’t help that line deliveries, even in the face of danger, tend to come off as tired and distant, as if the cast has been tranquilized and shoved on set. When a film like Queen of Spades struggles to create suspense, it’s dependent on the cast to sell the fear, and it’s impossible to buy in when these teens are hardly even reacting to horrible wounds/markings showing up on their friends.
The quieter approach makes sense to a degree, as at the heart of the film is a story about Anna and the near-dead relationship she has with her mother, Mary (Kaelen Ohm). We learn that Mary is always working to support them thanks to the abandonment of Anna’s father. Ohm does a good job of portraying a deep sadness in not being able to be there for her daughter, and Anna’s often cold reception to her mother makes it easier to empathize with her. But, and maybe this is just me getting older, it’s difficult to root for their relationship when Anna too regularly comes off as icy and heartless towards not just her mother, but everyone else as well. Anna’s entire relationship with everyone can be summed up as her angrily muttering “I’m not a child” at them, and I’ve got news for you my dear: you are.
The Queen of Spades herself (Krista Marchand) also fails to stand out. As Katy says, she’s just another of those ghosts that “you call through a mirror”, and other than propping up a Queen of Spades card on the mirror and some brief, hand-wavey lore, there just isn’t much to the Queen. Her methods of dispatch come and go far too quickly, and are frankly, kind of silly. For a film competing to stand out amongst a multitude of “ghosts in the mirror” stories, this Queen needed more clear and memorable mythology shuffled into the deck.
The overall presentation of Queen of Spades doesn’t help matters either. White’s film is one that I would call incredibly quiet, which is a nice way of saying, it’s just not that engaging. Outside of a few neat shots depicting the Queen in the mirror, Queen of Spades is a visually dull affair, emphasized by muted colors. This helps play into the grim vibe and subtle thematic of depression amongst teenagers, but sacrifices interesting camerawork in the process. A good horror score can also help to get the heartrate going, but Queen of Spades tremendously underutilizes key notes to create suspense when the script or performances aren’t getting the job done. This is a film that feels as tired as its cast looks.
Various scenes end abruptly or in the middle of dialogue. Our “hero” Anna is quite possibly an emotional sociopath lacking any sort of endearment other than forcing the audience to recall that age when they were a brat child. And there’s a shocking lack of urgency to the pacing.
Queen of Spades is poorly executed haunting fare where the most haunting thing about it is how tragically it misses the mark on so many levels.
“Queen of Spades, show yourself,” right to the door.
Queen of Spades comes to select theaters June 11th and On Demand June 15th, as well as Blu-Ray June 29th from Dread.
By Matt Konopka