The 2022 Overlook Film Festival had an incredible lineup of films, including many making their world premiere. One such film was The Summoned, written by Yuri Baranovsky (Dan is Dead, Leap Year) and directed by Mark Meir. The Summoned is a twisted supernatural thriller that marks the directorial debut for Meir. The film follows a couple, one a successful musician and the other a mechanic, as they are invited to an exclusive self-help seminar hoping to improve their relationship. There, they meet the other two attendees, a famous actress and tech tycoon, as well as the strange doctor hosting the seminar. What begins as a typical awkward group-therapy scenario soon takes a sinister turn, and not everyone will survive what’s in store.
The Summoned is a film with many layers to the plot. As each layer is pulled back, a new clue or twist is revealed. The filmmakers are quite good at leaving breadcrumbs for the audience to decipher what’s really going on while still leaving some aspects of the plot to be a surprise. Yet the way these breadcrumbs are left feels a bit clumsy. On multiple occasions there are sequences where we’re not sure if the mechanic protagonist is dreaming, seeing the future, or really experiencing certain events. It’s in these sequences that many of the clues are left for the audience, but it is so heavy-handed and obvious with the clues it almost takes away from the enjoyment of deciphering those clues. It also causes some strange pacing issues as we go back and forth between more subdued character studies and bizarre demonic dream sequences. Quite honestly, the strongest aspect of the plot is simply the character dynamics and the morality tale being told within a supernatural thriller. The filmmakers could easily have cut out those dream sequences, and it would not have taken away from the plot. If anything, it might have improved and streamlined the film.
The small cast of The Summoned wonderfully bring their characters to life. J. Quinton Johnson (Everybody Wants Some!!, Last Flag Flying) stars as Elijah; mechanic, small business owner, and the hero of this story. Elijah is the only “normal” person at the seminar. He’s immediately the odd man out as everyone around him is rich and famous, but he still does his best to fit in for the sake of the woman he loves. Johnson plays Elijah in a way that makes him seem pure of heart, but perhaps not so pure that he can’t be corrupted. Emma Fitzpatrick (In Time, Bloodsucking Bastards) plays Elijah’s girlfriend and famous musician, Lyn. Compared to the others at the seminar, Lyn also seems quite down-to-earth, but Fitzpatrick brings an edge to her performance that reminds me of Allison Williams’s performance in Get Out. Angela Gulner (GLOW, Stalker) and Salvador Chacon (Mayans M.C., The Chi) both deliver memorable performances and bring a bit of comedic relief to the more tense moments. Then there is Frederick Stuart (Empty Space, Licensed by Royalty) who plays Dr. Frost, bringing a healthy dose of eccentricity to the role.
While visuals are usually one of my favorite aspects of horror films, the visuals in The Summoned could potentially add some confusion. Specifically, it’s not clear what exactly the “rules” are in this world. After everyone arrives at the seminar, eventually it is revealed that no one can leave. There is just the large, luxurious cabin and the woods surrounding it. In the instances Elijah tries to leave, there is darkness until he ends up right back at the cabin. While being trapped here by a demonic force makes sense, this kind of looping maze even occurs within the cabin itself. Why would it happen inside the cabin as well? Is it just a form of torture before killing your prey? Then there are the dream sequences. With a heavy use of tattered fabrics and mysterious lighting, they end up looking more like something in a Halloween haunted house than an unsettling film.
The Summoned has a great character study at its core, but it unravels the more it tries to turn from thriller to horror. While I love a film with lots of twists and turns, this film almost has too many. It makes the mythos confused, makes the pieces of the plot more and more difficult to put together, and forces the film to include far too much exposition to ensure the audience understands everything. The performances are enjoyable, and overall, this isn’t a bad directorial debut for Meir. While I land right in the middle in terms of what I liked and didn’t like about this film, The Summoned is sure to find its audience as it continues through the film festival circuit.
OVERALL RATING: 5/10