“Seize your chances, or linger in mediocrity…”
…The older you get, the more haunted by opportunities not taken you become. All of us, each and every person on this planet, has that path they wish they’d taken, that moment in time they’d give anything, even their soul, to go back and change. Whether it’s for success, love, fame, you name it, we all have that thing where we wonder what could’ve been. Having just world premiered at The Overlook Film Festival, director Mark Meir’s debut feature The Summoned explores the hellish cost of such fantasies.
Written by Yuri Baranovsky, The Summoned sees mechanic Elijah (J. Quinton Johnson) and his ridiculously famous rock star girlfriend, Lyn (Emma Fitzpatrick), attending a weekend therapy session at an isolated cabin in the woods. They’re there to work on their relationship, but find all sorts of temptation lurking about between Lyn’s ultra-rich ex, Joe (Salvador Chacon) and vivacious actress, Tara (Angela Gulner). Making the situation more uncomfortable is eccentric therapist, Justice Frost (Frederick Stuart), who reeks of “you can’t trust me” vibes. As the weekend goes on and Elijah finds himself facing sin around every corner, he begins sinking into an inescapable paranoia that something is terribly wrong with this setup.
A theme revolving around that desire for success. Discussions of deal making. The constant mention of the Devil. Anyone who is the least bit familiar with the German legend of Faust will recognize the seeds of that story sprinkled all throughout The Summoned. Even the name Frost—which sure does sound a lot like Faust—is a not so subtle wink and nod and devilish grin to the audience that they’ve stumbled into a Faustian tale that just can’t help relishing in its influences.
At the heart of The Summoned is a protagonist that fits the mold of this type of tale to perfection. Played with an endearing sweetness by Johnson, Elijah is a guy feigning comfort with himself but shriveled by self-doubt within the shadow that his famous girlfriend casts. They’ve come to this retreat because he wants to get married and she isn’t so sure, but their problems run deeper than that. Wealth and fame have a way of making anyone without them feel terribly inadequate. I should know. My wife comes from a family with money, and I, well, don’t. It’s one thing to be proud of your small mechanic business. It’s another to be put face to face with the richest of the rich and realize you’re nothing but an insect under their thumb in their eyes. Meir gets us nice and uncomfortable in Elijah’s shoes as he meets the other guests of Frost’s weekend from Hell, all of whom treat him like a cute little lamb in the midst of wolves.
Meir does an exceptional job of squeezing the audience into Elijah’s shoes and his sense of disconnect from those around him. Instead of meeting them outright, Meir chooses to hide Elijah and Lyn from us as they drive through a snowy wilderness. We hear them arguing, but don’t see their faces until they arrive at Frost’s cabin. It’s a neat trick to give us the sense that the two are miles apart from each other, there but not there, despite sitting right next to one another. They couldn’t be more different, not just in wealth, but in Elijah’s urge to help others, and Lyn’s heartless ability to walk on by them. The decision works as a doubled edged sword though, because the heart of the drama in The Summoned is Elijah’s relationship with Lyn, yet we hardly get a sense of why they’re even together in the first place. Part of that is a result of actors over-playing their roles in such a way that it lessens the believability of the scene—something the entire cast is guilty of—but also from a script that gives only a taste of “love” between the couple. It’s not entirely unintentional, but the lack of chemistry is a massive anchor weighing down the impact of The Summoned’s more emotional beats later on.
The Summoned seems more interested in toying with viewers than exploring its characters beyond surface level interests. Meir takes the sense that something is off and rams it into the audience like a pitchfork. From Elijah’s constant interruption of suspicious conversations to too frequent dream sequences hinting at some sort of “secret” and Brian Satterwhite’s obstructive score that claws at our eardrums, The Summoned relishes in the tapestry of paranoia which it sews together. So much of it rests squarely in on the nose territory that you assume the film must have a clever trick up its sleeve, only to come to the disappointing realization that it, in fact, does not. Beat for beat, Meir’s film follows an all too familiar storyline, coupled with an underwhelming third act filled with more exposition than a talkative Bond villain. That isn’t to say that none of the ideas in The Summoned are interesting, but they require far too many leaps over coincidence to not occasionally stumble and face-plant in a steaming pile of groan-inducing convenience.
The inherent sin of Meir’s film is that it is wholly unremarkable. Neither good nor bad, exciting nor sluggish, it rests somewhere in a purgatory of “just fine”. It isn’t that many of you will be able to see the devil in the details and guess where this story might be going. Stories are, after all, more about the journey than the destination, which is why it never gets old to see a new take on a classic tale. The issue with The Summoned is that it struggles to commit to the path that it sets out on, veering off in head-scratching directions with such 0-60 speed that it loses sight of themes and relationships, leaving them under-cooked just as they begin to sizzle.
A Faustian tale indulgent in quirky humor and a sinful strangeness, watching The Summoned is a perfectly okay way to spend an afternoon, just don’t sell your soul for it.
XYZ Films has acquired The Summoned and is currently planning a release for sometime in July.
By Matt Konopka