Credit: Epic Pictures
Before We Vanish by Morris Yang Film

Queen of Spades | Patrick White

June 23, 2021

The hare-brained Queen of Spades rides a wave of stale familiarity to miserable results.

For viewers whose formative years have nourished the clickbait addiction of YouTube horror, neither the lackadaisical Queen of Spades nor the lore behind it should elicit more than a nonchalant shrug. Certainly not outrage or indignation: this Ottawa-set debut by director Patrick White barely qualifies as a feature apart from its runtime, and lacks even the maddening cognitive dissonance that “objectively” worse films would no doubt inspire. Such films, increasingly taken in contrarian stride, have opened the gateways to a multiplicity of readings, which are revealing and ridiculous in equal measure. For instance, both Birdemic and Fateful Findings exhibit an unavoidably surrealistic textuality, while Johnny’s character in The Room has been extrapolated onto many identities, from toxic masculinity to the demise of human empathy to, supposedly, a vampiric masturbator. With Queen of Spades, however, the contrarian disappears into the shadows, having no dialectical opposition to tango with. Like a copypasta whose words have spun equivalent variations, the film banks on a welcome embrace of stale familiarity.

Still, every copypasta has a point of origin, and Queen of Spades locates it in a Russian urban myth about a noblewoman who murdered orphans before being tortured to death by an angry mob. This myth is soon immortalized as Internet folklore, as a group of four teenagers halfway across the world with nothing better to do decide to invoke the noblewoman’s spirit via ritual summoning. She appears, marks each of them for death, and kills them off one by one until they enlist the help of an occultist. Anna, the youngest of the lot, bears the greatest burden; having been the one to summon the Queen, she helplessly faces the guilt of her actions while contending with her working-class single mother’s frequent absence. If this character elicits anything remotely resembling pathos, then White can be said to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

For one, the hare-brained set-ups throughout the film speak less to its narrative than the actors’ attempts to construct it, and a more engaging work could’ve seen the young cast realize and exploit the metafictional potency of its cliché-ridden premise. While Kaelen Ohm, playing Anna’s mother, earnestly delivers her mounting despair and anger, her role is overshadowed by the film’s hackneyed dimensions (such as they are). The film refuses to either elaborate on the vengeful spirit’s background or negotiate between fantasy and reality, even accidentally. A midpoint dream sequence suggests technical competence and nightmarish potential, but nothing more; the cards are laid bare from the beginning. Queen of Spades isn’t exactly critics’ fare, and since the cast and crew probably had tons of fun (as will the fans: “everybody knows it’s make-believe, but they can’t help but react,” says White), who wants to heed a professional mood-killer’s advice? For cinephiles, the film would theoretically make the perfect date movie, since they would have an excuse to not pay attention and indulge, for a change, in what normal couples usually do in the theaters. Then again, playing the queen of spades effectively invalidates your cinephile card and may well leave your date with second thoughts. Try the ace for a change?

Published as part of Before We Vanish | June 2021.