We’ve probably all played the game as kids (or, at least, talked about it.)
Whether its at a slumber party or just hanging out with friends, the topic of unleashing the paranormal seems to be a common part of the teen experience. After all, how many of us sat down and tried to terrify one another with stories designed to make us scared to be alone in the next room? Furthermore, from ouija boards to enacting urban legends, how many of us have ever tried to step our toes into the paranormal ourselves?
Queen of Spades follows Anna (Ava Preston), a young pre-teen who’s been hanging out more with older youth since her mom is always at work. One night, the group discuss the legend of the Queen of Spades, an ominous entity that can be summoned by reciting her name while staring into a mirror. Although the experience begins as a joke, the teens become increasingly terrified when members of their group begin to die. Soon, they discover that they have unleashed a horrifying evil and must work together to stop her before she claims all of their souls for herself.
Directed by Patrick White, Queen of Spades is an absolutely fun (but predictable) ride into the world of paranormal activity. Although the tale is based on the well-known ‘Bloody Mary’ folklore, White tries to breathe new life into the idea by focusing on the story’s Russian equivalent. In doing so, he adds a unique spin on the material which helps it seem more original. However, what White is best at is his use of his set design. By emphasizing the numerous reflective surfaces within each room, he creates an ominous sense of dread that pervades the house. (It says something when one can make even the tea kettle seem like a potential threat.)
In addition, despite some fairly good performances from its youth, the true highlights of the film come from its adults and, more specifically, veterans Kaelen Ohm and Daniel Kash. As Anna’s mother Mary, Ohm is fully believable as the burnt out mother. Despite the nature of the paranormal activity around her, Ohm never really over-indulges her work and even provides the youth with some grounding to their own performances. However, the real story of the film is Kash, who’s clearly having the most fun as the paranoid and broken Smirnov. Though he’s rarely onscreen throughout the first half of the film, Kash steals every scene that he’s in as the fumbling and fearful paranormal expert.
The biggest issue with Spades is simply that this is a story structure that we’ve seen many times before. Even though White does his best to keep things feeling fresh, the film checks off a number of narrative boxes which hold the film back from ever becoming something new. (For example, kids play game that contacts paranormal and start dying one by one as few (if any) adults believe them.) Through no real fault of its own, the premise of the film simply plays itself out as standard horror fare, even if the execution is quite good.
What does set Spades apart though is it emphasis on the relationship between parent and child. While one might expect that the stories of the teens might drive the narrative, it’s the bond between Mary and Anna that becomes the film’s central focus. Though she loves her daughter, single mother Mary is always away at work and her absence has left a hole in their relationship. Without her mother around, Anna is spending more time with kids who are much older than her who push her to act their age. (In fact, its teenage Katy who calls out Mary more than once for leaving her daughter alone and blaming her for the entire situation.)
In many ways, the film uses its monster to symbolize the irresponsibility of parents who neglect or abuse children. For instance, though she was originally tasked with caring for kids, the Queen of Spades abused that power and become a serial killer. Although the Queen’s legend may be extreme, she serves as an example of the damage that can take place when adults misuse the responsibility of caring for children. (What’s more, in a complete coincidence, the Queen’s nightmarish behaviour also echoes the trauma of the bodies of the First Nations children that were discovered only a few weeks ago.) As a result, when it is held up against the relationship of Mary and Anna, the film serves as a call for parents to place greater value on their kids and help preserve their innocence.
Despite it’s predictable structure, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Queen of Spades. Whereas White may lean into the tropes that we’re all familiar with, his use of set design and special effects help give the film enough entertainment value to scare up some of your time.
Just be sure to cover up the mirrors after you do.
To see our interview with director Patrick White, click here.
Queen of Spades is available in theatres and on VOD on Tuesday, June 15th, 2021.