2 out of 5 stars

The trailer for Tarot landed, and horror fans were divided into two camps: those eager to give it a go and those who feared it looked like another formulaic piece of dreck. Ever the optimist, I was keen to give it a try. Once the jump scares subsided and the film slowed to its predictable conclusion, I couldn’t help but agree with the pessimists on this one. It’s formulaic Friday night, double-bill horror with few redeeming features. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good, by-the-numbers Friday night horror flick—as long as it’s fun, cheesy, and entertaining. Tarot, while occasionally cheesy, isn’t entertaining or memorable enough.

The film opens with a predictable premise. A group of university students rent a creepy house in the woods for the weekend. While at the house, they discover a room containing astrological charts and New Age artefacts. Here, fans of Cabin in the Woods (2011) might groan, recognising that film’s first plot point being recreated, but lacking any of the fun or self-aware irony. 

While the students each seem drawn to different objects, there’s no close shave with a conch and no chance of encountering a merman. The room’s astrological items merely serve as vehicles for the story’s final girl, Haley (Harriet Slater), to deliver exposition about her interest in and knowledge of astrology and tarot. The only thing in the room with any significance is the wooden deck of old, hand-painted tarot cards. Naturally, the students insist that Haley read their fortunes with the creepy old deck.

After that weekend, each of the kids is picked off by a monster representing their tarot card. These monsters offer no mystery or intrigue. They’re shown immediately and are drawn exactly from the cards at the film’s beginning. The idea of a unique monster for each character is interesting in theory. If the filmmakers had used a little more imagination, they could have moulded these creatures to reflect specific character flaws displayed by each of the young adults. This would have at least given us an odd sense of poetic justice.

Tarot, however, doesn’t offer much in the way of character development for most of its cast. The only person with even a shred of backstory is Haley, and this is given so little relevance throughout most of the film that when they try to tie her past trauma to that of the Big Bad astrologer (Suncica Milanović) in the final act, it falls completely flat and seems laughably forced.

Rather than being tied to the characters, the director, producers, and designers of Tarot seem intent on simply bringing tarot card figures to life. They achieve this through scary make-up, traditional effects, and a plethora of jump scares. While some of these creatures are genuinely frightening (enough to solidify your fear of creepy clowns), the film ultimately falls into the trap of prioritising style over substance.

In the best horror films, we’re not simply frightened by scary-looking monsters or bumps in the night. We scream and jump because we’ve come to know and identify with the characters, truly living the nightmare through them. Many American kids will have been to a summer camp of some sort, and so were genuinely frightened by Friday the 13th (1980). Dozens of teenagers have been alone in a house at night, and that helped create the horror of Halloween (1978). The best horror films take relatable situations and turn them on their head.

When it comes to Tarot, however, I doubt many university students would have the wherewithal or opportunity to rent a mansion for five of their friends for a weekend. And very few would choose to, for a laugh, take out a stranger’s old deck of tarot cards and do readings rather than finishing that game of flip-cup or simply switching on the TV.

It’s the old cabin-in-the-woods scenario that’s become the bedrock of B-horror films, to the point where the situation is regularly parodied. Yet, for some reason, unimaginative horror filmmakers are still following the formula without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness.

Even when Tarot manages to craft a genuinely frightening situation, it ultimately undermines it completely and ludicrously for a cheap laugh. This is evident in a terrifying lift scene where the obligatory “fool,” Paxton (Jacob Batalon), becomes trapped with a truly terrifying clown. The scene builds to a gruesome conclusion, only to be deflated at the last moment. Why? There’s no real reason. Indeed, there seems to be little point to anything that happens in this film.

The titular harbinger (Olwen Fouéré) attempts to lend the film some gravitas with a performance that it doesn’t truly deserve. Even so, the explanation of the astrologer’s tragic backstory is so lacklustre that you’re more likely to feel drowsy than moved.

Even the performances from the young cast are perfunctory and lacklustre. It’s almost as if they know the film is a bore and are just trying their best to get through it.

Overall, if you relish a good jump scare and find amusement in the most superficial and overused plots, you might find something to enjoy in Tarot. Discerning horror fans, however, should steer well clear of this cliché-ridden disaster, unlike the silly children in horror films.


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Cast & Crew

directors: Spenser Cohen & Anna Halberg.
writers: Spenser Cohen & Anna Halberg (based on the novel Horrorscope by Nicholas Adams).
starring: Harriet Slater, Adain Bradley, Avantika Vandanapu, Wolfgang Novogratz, Humberly González, Larsen Thompson & Jacob Batalon.